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Print publishing remains relevant but continues its search for a long-term rationale

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Amidst closures and frequency reductions, print publishing is hanging on tenaciously, trying hard to develop sustainable business models around trusted coverage, special editions and brand collaborations, says Peter Houston in this chapter of our Media Moments 2019 report.

No, print still isn’t dead. Yes, there have been closures in 2019 and print revenues are definitely still on the slide.

Last year, just 481 million consumer magazines were sold – 60% less than in 2005 – and advertising sales have suffered as a result. But, many print magazines are holding on with some sectors even saw launches.

Newspapers in print? Well, they’ve taken the biggest beating and there are genuine worries that many communities in the US and the UK could end up without any local press coverage if something doesn’t change. 

The UK lost 245 local news titles between 2005 and the end of last year. An estimated 58% of the country is now served by no regional newspaper. In the US, the picture is probably worse: one of five local papers have closed since 2004; and weekday print circulation fell 12% in 2018; Sunday print circulation dropped 13%.

The local newspaper crisis has even drawn the attention of global newspaper The New York Times, which is reporting the collapse in its ongoing ‘Last Edition’ feature.

Where are we now


In the magazine world, some publishers came to the conclusion this year that they will no longer require the services of a printer, or at least not as often as they used to. Titles throwing in the inky towel in 2019 include:

  • ASOS magazine
  • Marie Claire (UK)
  • ESPN The Magazine
  • Now
  • Money magazine
  • Brides magazine (UK) 
  • Family Circle
  • Beer Advocate

That list is a small sample of the magazines that left print behind, but illustrates the range of titles going digital-only, or closing completely. From branded title ASOS magazine with a peak circulation of 700,000 to Family Circle an almost 90-year old title owned by Meredith and the Beer Advocate a niche, enthusiast title published by two brothers –  print is tough for everyone.

One of the highest-profile print closures in the UK this year was Marie Claire, with its demise coming to be seen as a harbinger of doom for the entire Women’s magazine sector. With a print circulation drop of more than half between 2008 and 2018 and the brand’s new owners, private equity firm Epiris, were looking to its “ecommerce aggregation platform” The Edit as the future, not print journalism.

“Why pay for journalism – and journalists – to bring clothing sellers and their customers together when you can connect them directly?” wrote the New Statesman’s Jasper Jackson of the closure.

The decline of Marie Claire is echoed elsewhere in the fashion magazine market where this year’s ‘Bumper Fall Fashion’ issues were decidedly average. US industry magazine Folio’s annual September-issue weigh-in shows ‘flat and falling’ numbers for Fashion titles.

Unable to track ad buys in print, Folio has been monitoring top fashion magazines by weighing and measuring them since 2015. This year’s story is not too good – the headliner is that the thud factor at fashion bible Vogue is down 30%.

Folio’s content director Casey Welton says they will do the same report next year, but expecting further declines, he wonders for how much longer it will be before ‘the once-dominant September looks like every other issue a magazine publishes’.

And in that context, former Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman’s suggestion that the future of print magazines could lie in switching to less frequent, special editions, carries some weight. She says it would allow media companies to take costs out of the business while maintaining a print format.

The problem with that approach might be what a title loses by giving up on its print presence. A study in Journalism Practice suggests that publications that close their print editions are giving up on their readers’ time. Analysing PAMCO audience data, the study’s authors estimate total time spent with the NME brand fell by 72% after its print closure. They say this mirrors the fall by The Independent newspaper when it went online-only two years earlier.

So where should print publishers be looking for some respite? 

Niches. Monocle continues to thrive in the luxury space, with no real digital footprint other than its audio output. The world traveller’s bible is even opening its own airport retail outlet to improve the magazine buying experience. And although generalist women’s titles are on the ropes, DC Thomson has launched a monthly targeting a clearly defined, older female demographic that they have identified as poorly served in other media.  

Brand collaborations might also be a way to go. Hearst’s Solutions group, publishing magazines for Asda, Liz Earle, O2 and Princess Cruises is a strong example of a magazine company leveraging its full publishing skillset to do print for other people. And Bauer brought Smash Hits back to promote a West End musical.

There is an argument that publishers should only work with brands that align with their audiences and it has to be acknowledged that, like ASOS, a brand can pull the plug whenever it wants. But with brands from Paddy Power to dating app Bumble looking at print, there is a clear opportunity.


Special edition tactics can be deployed by newspaper publishers to support their regular print operations, but the news in print is not doing well.

Traditionally, papers have lived or died by being first to the story in a world where digital is always faster, and people know it, they are struggling to find a raison d’etre. Local papers, in particular, are hard pushed to find the money needed to support publishing for local audiences that simply can’t sustain the kind of reader revenue plays that global brands like the Guardian have come to rely on.

The closure of JPI Media’s Buteman is all too familiar in the UK’s regional press. The 165-year old paper closed in June selling just 750 copies on an island with a population of 6,000. The former editor of the shuttered Scottish newspaper blames the withdrawal of the publication’s entire editorial presence from Bute for its demise. Eventually written by two journalists in Edinburgh, he says, “The coverage devoted to local news and events diminished each week until it was being swamped by a homogeneous service that left many of its pages indistinguishable from those on other titles.”

Figuring out how to pay for a strong local editorial presence to create the type of local content people will pay for has proved too difficult for many publishers and the gap in local news coverage is worrying.

Even the politicians are paying attention. The Cairncross Review, instituted by the government to report on the future of British media, warned that local news coverage could disappear unless the government provides direct financial support. Research for the report found that the number of frontline journalists in the UK has fallen from an estimated 23,000 in 2007 to 17,000.

But although Cairncross contains innovative ideas to support local news coverage, including the use of public funds, it doesn’t focus on print as the format of choice. The conclusion has to be that, without the shelf life of magazines, print news will disappear sooner rather than later.

What can we expect in the future

The days of mass-market print are going fast, if they’re not already gone. Publishing at scale is a digital undertaking these days. Print’s future – at least in the magazine world – is most likely to be less frequent, more niche, lower volume, highly produced, increasingly collectible, regularly branded, and often independent.

To read the rest of the final part of the chapter on what to expect in 2020, plus case studies, download the full Media Moments 2019 report.