The closure of NME magazine after almost seven decades is the latest warning sign that the shift to digital consumption of media is threatening to kill the British love affair with print magazines.
NME.com continues but stopping the presses on the print edition after 66 years was the first decision made by the magazine’s new owners, the private equity firm Epiris, after its £130m deal to buy NME’s parent company Time Inc at the end of last month.
The closure of the weekly title is symbolic of the issues facing the wider consumer magazine market.
NME is just the latest once mighty magazine brand to cease regular publication in print, or to have embarked on a digital-only path in recent years, joining titles including Loaded, Maxim, FHM, Face, i-D, Sugar, Bliss, Nuts and Arena.
While a number of these were shut when their print fans had already largely abandoned them, many were stunned at the news that that the magazine malaise had also spread to Glamour. The title, the 10th most popular paid-for magazine in the UK, halted its monthly print run last year.
The outlook for the UK magazine market is not good with the decline in sales and advertising figures making for grim reading.
Sales of the top 100 actively purchased print titles in the UK – those that readers buy or subscribe to – fell by 42% from 23.8m to 13.9m between 2010 and 2017. Since the start of the internet era in 2000, the decline is 55% from 30.8m, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Similarly, advertising in consumer titles will have more than halved from £512m in 2010 to £250m by the end of this year, according to Group M, a media buying agency.
“Are magazines dead? No,” says James Wildman, the UK chief executive of Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping owner Hearst. “We sell nearly 5m a month, that’s hardly dead, and we have 20 million unique UK users online a month, and more than double that on social media.
“But it is true to say that some of the 1 million millennial women every week that look at Cosmopolitan on Snapchat don’t know we also have a magazine of the same name.”
The reinvention of magazine brands online is all well and good, but the problem is that the £268m fall in print advertising is nowhere near being replaced by the growth of digital ad revenue, a key factor as magazine sales income also falls.
By the end of the year, digital ad spend on consumer magazine brands is projected to be well under half that shortfall, at £111m. “The ad market is a fairly brutal place right now,” says Wildman.
Google and Facebook account for 65% of the $6.5bn (£4.7bn) UK digital display ad market. They are also strangling attempts by magazine and newspaper publishers to build their digital ad revenues by taking about 90% of all new spend.
This is without the added competition for readers traditional publishers face online from digital media startups such as BuzzFeed.
“Magazines do still play an important part in client schedules – if circulation is holding up,” says Phil Hall, the chief commercial strategy officer at the media buying agency MediaCom.
“But the issue at the moment is there is a glut of titles that are too similar, too generic. Reaching audience at scale is key to many advertisers and if readers are falling away then that’s a major issue.”
Not all sectors of the magazine market are under such pressure. Luxury titles such as Vogue and Tatler, where the advertising is often a big reason readers buy them, are proving resilient.
Specialist magazines, catering for more niche audiences with interests ranging from shooting to model railways and ponies, are likely to always have a print fanbase.
Wildman says for magazines to survive they must build a brand beyond the core print publication.
“It is overly simplistic to say it is just digital versus print,” he says. “Magazine businesses are much more diverse. We ran 100 events related to our magazines last year – [a] Harper’s Bazaar [event] sold out in hours at £600 a head.
“Endorsement, accreditation and licensing are increasingly lucrative. DFS sell House Beautiful and Country Living range sofas. And the bestselling premium home gym at Argos is branded after our Men’s Health magazine.”
Nevertheless, mounting pressure on the traditional print magazine business, which still drives most revenues, is forcing consolidation as publishers seek scale to survive.
Time Inc in the US, which publishes People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, has just been sold to rival Meredith for $1.8bn; the UK arm was picked up by Epiris.
Last year, Immediate Media, which publishes 60 titles including Radio Times and Top Gear, was sold to the German publisher Hubert Burda, owner of Your Home and HomeStyle, for £270m.
Despite the gloom, magazine publishers, like their newspaper counterparts, sense an opportunity as brand safety and measurement issues have prompted advertisers to closely scrutinise the once unquestionable value of investing in digital media such as YouTube and Facebook.
“With issues such as fake news, we are seeing the pendulum swing back because of two things: trust and context,” says Wildman.
“They are two things that went out of fashion in recent years as media agencies pivoted to buying audiences but weren’t worried about where ads were running. Now we are seeing readers and advertisers leaning back towards trusted brands.”