During the late 1990s, Ed Needham led FHM through what is now seen as the high-water mark of men’s magazine sales in the UK.
When he left for New York in 1999 it was the biggest-selling monthly magazine in Europe, regularly averaging circulation of more than 750,000.
But from the mid-2000s onward it became emblematic of an alarming print decline that hit every major publisher in the sector – its circulation was down to 123,844 in the first half of 2012, the most recent figures show.
For someone who’s enjoyed such a stellar rise through the trade, Needham entered journalism relatively late. He spent seven years teaching in Spain after leaving university and only began freelancing when he returned to the UK in 1994.
Remarkably, two years later he was deputy editor of FHM, and just over a year after that he landed the editorship. Needham moved to America in 1999 to launch the US version of FHM, followed by stints as managing editor of esteemed music magazine Rolling Stone and editor-in-chief of Maxim USA.
In 2006 he left the consumer magazine business and set up the publishing and creative agency Grand Parade with Andy Clerkson, the former senior executive of Maxim publisher Dennis Publishing in the US.
Perhaps sensitive to the difficulties that some of his former magazines now find themselves in, Needham is reluctant to discuss any individual titles, telling Press Gazette: “Idon’t really have an opinion to be honest.”
But moments later he adds: “It’s clear that the entire publishing industry has got its work cut out trying to plot a confident road ahead.”
Needham’s latest project at Grand Parade is the football betting magazine Citibet, a free print-only title launched in London earlier this year.
The magazine, which runs weekly during the football season, is targeted at affluent City workers in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, appealing to advertisers like Coral, Betfair, Sporting Index and William Hill.
It is funded, published and distributed by the privately-owned delivery company Citipost and averages a print run of around 75,000 copies an edition. Needham, a former PPA editor of the year, says the reaction has been “totally overwhelming”, though readily admits that “the economics of publishing are particularly tricky at the moment”.
“At the same time there are enormous benefits with the ink-on-paper experience,” he says. “People like to have something in their hands and it’s easy to read.
“One of the reasons I think magazines are struggling online or in tablet format is because the ink-on-paper magazine is already more portable and more accessible than electronic versions are anyway,” he adds.
“We know also that readers of magazines are going to respond to a printed advertisement much more than they are to an electronic advert. There are still many advantages of producing a magazine compared to doing an electronic version.”
During Euro 2012, circulation was increased to 100,000 copies and distribution extended into Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, though in the short-term at least, there are no plans to make this a permanent move.
Neither are there plans to develop a tablet app or take the magazine online. The original aim of the company was to produce online publishing content but, says Needham, it “very quickly became clear that the ad revenue was rapidly draining out of that sector”, which could explain the company’s reticence to push the brand online.
And while Needham is confident in the future of Citibet as a print title, he says this optimism should not be taken as a diagnosis for the magazine industry at large.
“It’s going to take a while to grow it into a robust product that people look forward to reading every week,” he says.
“But our calculations, which are based on what we’ve seen for that one product targeted at those people, and with 'x' advertisers, is not a judgment on the magazine business.”
To publishers pinning their hopes of tablet devices being the saviour of the industry, Needham urges caution.
“It may be but it’s yet to demonstrate that that’s the case. I can understand why people are putting their faith in it, but I think it’s a long way from being demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction that that’s how it’s going to work.”
Expanding on his earlier point about the “ink-on-paper experience”, he adds: “The way in which tablets can produce quality of reproduction is extraordinary, that’s undeniable, but whether people really want to read magazines or on tablets is yet to be demonstrated.
“I think one of magazines’ great disadvantages in the digital age is that a magazine is already in some way a superior product to the tablet.
“It’s designed to be portable and flickable, and you can pick it up and put it down and start at any page,” he says.
“You can already do that with a printed magazine; it’s very difficult for the tablet to improve on that.”
Needham is also unsure about the interactive ‘bells and whistles’ that now come with many magazine apps for the tablet.
“I don’t know that people necessarily want to watch video and all the other digital opportunities that tablets bring. I don’t think that’s going to be the lifeboat, and I think one of the main problems is people have just lost the habit, or are in the process or losing the habit, of buying magazines.
“They don’t go to newsagents as much… that habit is gradually being eroded and I don’t see the tablet as necessarily replacing the habit.
“Who knows what’s going to happen, but I don’t necessarily see it as this lifeboat coming to the rescue of the magazine industry.”