Digital Publishing Top Stories
5 mins read

Lessons in sustainability from historic titles

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

VogueThe Lady and Private Eye have each survived serious economic challenges. Mary Hogarth looks at key lessons to be learned.

I am a great believer that history has much to teach us, which is why I started my latest book, Business Strategies for Magazine Publishing, with a chapter on Lessons from the past. Choosing to focus on these magazines was perhaps the hardest part because, from a publishing perspective, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the numerous titles that have not only endured but thrived through the generations – and of course, those that haven’t.

To simplify the process, I opted for the titles that seemed to have survived the biggest challenges – from Vogue and The Lady to Private Eye.

So, what can today’s publishers and editors learn from these titles? My research led me to conclude that the following three lessons can be drawn on to help publishers build sustainable titles for the long term.

Lesson 1: Be adaptable

Having survived two World Wars, followed by the economic challenges this brought, then more recently the digital disruption era, Vogue hasn’t just survived, it has thrived on a global scale. Branded as the world’s fashion Bible, Vogue is successful because not only does it understand the power of its brand, it also actively uses it. Moreover, Condé Nast has chosen its editors well – all of whom have shared an understanding of the fundamentals in publishing:

  • Know your audience
  • Understand their wants and needs
  • Ensure editorial pillars continue to evolve

Alexander Shulman edited the title for 25 years before stepping down last year. In that time, she faced many challenges – all of which were deftly navigated, including the digital disruption era.

When interviewing Alexander, I learned that she doesn’t believe print is dead and – unlike some editors – she has a strong grasp on the boundaries between print and digital editions, acknowledging that both have a place. In the latter part of her editorship, she focused on developing strategic partnerships, plus some canny brand extensions.

For this pioneering Editor-in-Chief, the great joy of Vogue was its wide remit. “Although fashion is very much its kind of spine, you are able to hang other things off it. Whether that’s business, film or social observation, you can deal with a lot of different subject matter which I like,” explained Alexander, who also focused on solid journalist values, while embracing new concepts.

While her successor, Edward Enniful, who took over the reins from her last year, may not have the same vision going forward, he clearly shares those fundamental publishing values. As Vogue continues to evolve, Enniful is already making his mark and increasing circulation while developing the brand’s digital content strategy.

Lesson 2: Develop resilience

Established in 1885, The Lady – Britain’s longest running weekly title for women – has seen numerous challenges. During its lifetime, the magazine has endured many struggles, but the most serious threat posed to this historic title was the digital disruption era.

When Ben Budworth, the great-grandson of the magazine’s founder Thomas Gibson Bowles took over the reins in 2008, The Lady was incurring losses of around £20,000 a week.  Ben, now CEO of The Lady, attributes the losses to several factors, including stagnation and poor copy sales, as well as a seismic shift in advertising revenue.

He admits his first task was to undertake a comprehensive analysis of staff and resources. “The first point was the management that my uncle had allowed to flourish beneath him who were ill-equipped to manage, had no training and had only looked inwards,” reveals Ben.  “In some instances that had been 30-35 years and it had suited my uncle to not encourage any contact with the outside world.”

During his extensive evaluation, he found that a core problem was an inability to embrace change which had come from the top down – a systemic failure of leadership which had contributed, if not caused, The Lady’s financial losses.

Yet its key strength was that The Lady had become an advertising vehicle relied upon by the higher end of society as a means of recruiting domestic staff via its classified advertising section, resulting in an opportunity. Seeing the opportunity for a canny brand extension, Ben recently bought Bylaugh Hall in Norfolk and is now in the process of developing a school for bodyguards, butlers, chauffeurs and other domestic staff to serve the upper echelons of society.

Since 2008 there have been three editors and two relaunches. According to The Lady’s media kit, the magazine currently has a circulation of over 28,000 per week. Not great, but certainly sustainable for now.

Lesson 3: Keep it simple

Private Eye is one of the few magazines which can boast that more than half of its copy sales come from subscriptions and not the newsstand.

Launched on a budget of just £300, the magazine will celebrate its platinum anniversary in 2021. Yet despite the digital disruption era, Private Eye is one of the few sustainable print-only titles, which doesn’t produce a digital edition and uses its website as a signpost for the magazine.

Moreover, the Eye is still printed on basic quality paper making it more akin to a newspaper than a fortnightly magazine and has a wide audience demographic with ages ranging from 13 to 90. While the audience is predominantly ABC1, its readership is relatively evenly distributed among the core age groups – the lowest being in the 15-24 range according to BRAD, 2018.

So how has the Eye overcome the challenges faced by many publishers and developed a sustainable business model that is as effective today as it was back in the seventies? The emphasis, says Private Eye’s managing director Sheila Molnar, is on simplicity.

“It is and always has been very much on keeping the business model simple with a focus on three factors, newstrade, subscriptions and advertising,” explains Sheila.

However, the Eye’s focus on investigative journalism is also a key factor in terms of circulation and reader loyalty. Readers know they can trust its content, which is delivered in an original, engaging format.

“It has and always will seek to question the official version of events. It is the unique content and loyalty of our readers that has made Private Eye successful. Word of mouth is also a factor – it is as crucial today as it was in the 1970s.”

I suspect that stability in terms of leadership is another factor at play here. To date, Private Eye has only had two editors, Richard Ingrams followed by Ian Hislop, who shows no sign of stepping down. When the inevitable changes occur, Private Eye will either be rejuvenated or flounder. . .

My verdict

Quality editorial combined with adaptability and a simplistic approach can pay dividends in publishing. Vogue, The Lady and Private Eye all have an army of loyal readers – albeit some larger than others, demonstrating how well the editors – and in The Lady’s case, the publisher – understand their readers.

All three titles have proved their resilience, but more importantly their editors are bold and not afraid to follow their instincts as opposed to focusing on what is popular on the newsstands.

This article is based on the first chapter of Business Strategies for Magazine Publishing published by Routledge, which is available from Amazon.