Same magazine styles mean similar declines

POOR OLD monthly magazine editors. The last round of ABCs has left them staring at the weeklies much as dinosaurs gazed upon the early mammals. You can use big fat fractions, not mimsy decimals, to measure readers lost in a single year: Maxim a third, FHM a quarter, Loaded a fifth, Marie Claire and New Woman more than an eighth.

The expression "terminal decline" recurs when publishers discuss the monthly titles. Because if you also take into account bulk sales, cheap subscription deals in the Daily Mail, endless covermounting and price cutting, the true picture is even worse.

The weeklies just seem better evolved to modern life: topical, fast, brash and disposable. The monthlies set off in hot pursuit: the men's titles replicate the jugs and jokes of Nuts and Zoo, the women's glossies churn out the fast-fashion and celeb gossip of Grazia and Heat. But they always lumber heavily behind.

The terror at the heart of monthly publishing has resulted in what David Hepworth called "saming": the tendency of titles within a given market to look and feel ever more alike.

When this happens, the boggled reader will favour the strongest title, the one she or he has heard of, leaving the weakest to die.

This presages a future when magazines are ever more dependent on ad revenue. Already there are signs that monthlies are moving towards the American model of mitigating against the volatility of the newsstand with subscriptions sales, which deliver a reliable audience to advertisers.

Striving to please advertisers — allowing them ever-greater editorial influence — will lead to even safer, samier magazines.

Yet maybe there is hope. What the recent ABC figures reveal is that magazines with a distinct identity or defined niche will fare better in a harsh climate than those which try to steer a safe middle course.

In the men's market, the only real success was Men's Health (up 3.4 per cent), which has never wavered from its view that some men care more about pecs and glutes than tits and ass.

Likewise, Hachette's Psychologies has stuck to its mission to sell self-help to troubled souls. With its silly, foreign name, stubbornly wordy content, and not a single page of fashion, it has dared to be different, and exceeded its 100,000 initial goal, rising 8.4 per cent this period.

The fashion titles too — Elle, Vogue and InStyle — have a defined enough purpose to hold readers. Grazia and Heat may tell you what's hot in the high street this very second. But if you're planning to spend £600 on a winter coat, you seek out true fashion authority.

Meanwhile, in the women's lifestyle sector Cosmo (4 per cent down) has stayed relatively steady, withstanding years of market turmoil, because its brand values are carved through like Scarborough rock.

And Red (up 1.3 per cent), has not tried to emulate the weeklies with fast, flicky spreads: its lustrous pages and beautiful photography remind us that monthly magazines are meant to be a special treat.

Those who have crashed hardest — New Woman, Company and Marie Claire — have lost their souls. It is hard to define a clear reason to purchase any of them rather than five alternative titles.

The coverlines are interchangeable, the covergirl is a movie-plugging American star, the accompanying piece is as blandly PR-pleasing as the photo is airbrushed.

Marie Claire was for years the most distinctive glossy of all.

Its brains-with-beauty image appealed to the top flight of young women buyers. But Marie O'Riordan has squandered her title's legacy, chasing first Glamour then Grazia, until confused, indifferent readers have deserted her.

After a price cut and a new format failed to change its fortunes, Marie Claire is currently formulating a redesign, when what it needs — duh! — are some great features.

And a sharp, newspaper-trained team who know what they look like.

Compare with US Marie Claire, now edited by the British Joanna Coles, previously of The Guardian and The Times, whose latest issue features political and fashion coverage of Washington players likely to dominate the next presidential election.

So grand and stately does Coles now look, that you expect the caption of her shaking hands with Mrs Clinton to read "It was a tremendous honour for Hillary to meet me".

And while this move to Vanity Fair values may play badly in the Idaho malls, at least it demonstrates bold, big thinking so absent in the British edition.

Meanwhile, the new term starts with a game of musical editors' chairs. When Lindsay Nicholson was elevated from Good Housekeeping to NatMags' editorial director, she was replaced by Louise Chunn, editor of InStyle, who in turn was replaced by Trish Halpin at Red, whose job will shortly be filled by Sam Baker at Cosmo, successor to be announced.

One publisher remarked dryly: "It shows how samey these magazines have become, when their own editors are interchangeable."

Certainly it demonstrates a playing safe by publishers, a desire not to scare the advertisers by bringing in some unknown maverick. But all these editors are clever, highly regarded women who have delivered great results at their last posts.

Chunn's appointment is the most interesting: no domestic diva or middle England matron, she has abandoned Paris and Milan for the world of elasticated waistbands.

But her slightly funky good taste is probably just what GH (7.3 per cent down) needs to win back readers lured lately to Easy Living (17 per cent up) by cheap subscriptions and its use — finally! — of Condé Nast cachet to lure interesting cover models such as Elizabeth Hurley and Jemima Khan.

And if there wasn't enough gloom at the glossies, the newspapers' current obsession with The Devil Wears Prada is bugging our lady editors: "Now I can't even insist upon a decent cup of coffee," complains one, "without being labelled a bloody diva."

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