Men’s mags stand on the brink of extinction, but what they do matters

With Men’s Style finally succumbing to Bauer's axe, Maxim and GQ are left to mount an unusual last-wicket partnership. Mumbrella’s Adam Thorn, who has worked at more than ten men’s mags in London and Sydney, analyses what’s gone wrong, and why the sector’s contribution to the industry shouldn’t be underestimated

Shortly before I resigned from the British version of men’s fashion magazine Esquire in 2015, the entire editorial team was dragged into a meeting room with our new publisher.

Good news, he said! Despite London’s publishing industry being on the brink of collapse, we’d never been more on-trend. Issues were flying off the shelves like suede sneakers! Website hits were having a moment! And advertisers were practically throwing their unstructured tweed blazers off and grappling each other for vintage double-page spreads! We were, he beamed, an example for others to follow.

Bauer have confirmed Men’s Style Australia is closing

Except, that didn’t exactly tally with what I had seen in the previous few months. We’d suffered numerous rounds of redundancies, almost halving the size of the team, had our budgets slashed and our pioneering weekly iPad edition was shut down. A generation of talented young journos and designers were now scraping around for freelance work to pay for their new chinos. All the while, myself and those who survived the culls were working excruciating hours to keep the quality up.

So, in the months that followed, I did some digging, and uncovered the full circulation report (which for mischief’s sake, I’m attaching here). It was true that numbers were holding up remarkably well, but the ways in which its owners made that happen were eye-popping. Of its 64,712 circulation, just 2,231 were sold at full-price on UK and Irish newsstands. That made it, almost certainly, the least successful major publication in the country – something that would have surely come as a surprise to the big-name writers who supported its existence.

How then, did that 2,000 figure inflate so high?

Free and cut-price copies are the main answer. “Monitored free distribution” stood at 18,328 in the UK; “non-controlled free circulation” was 6,774; while, deep breath, “single copy subscription sales at less than 50% basic annual rate but not less than 20%” (gobbledygook that means dirt-cheap subs) stood at 9,503 worldwide.

So-called “bulking” is nothing unusual, but the scale of what was happening here really was. In a nutshell, Esquire was mostly acquired by people who either didn’t buy it, or paid next-to-nothing for it. That is, of course, if they even flicked through the pages at all.

That’s important because it’s the secret model for how men’s magazines are (or were) just about surviving worldwide. Why, then, were marketers swallowing this?

The reason is the very strange way the fashion business works. The big labels, who hire world-class photographers to shoot stunning men and women, don’t generally want their lovely pictures shoved into website banners, instead preferring old-fashioned advertising in print products or out-of-home slots. They care more about who reads them, not how many. Free circulation can guarantee that those of the right stock (aka the beautiful people!) are given the mags – and whether or not the plebs on the street buy them is largely irrelevant.

The problem is that this mirage can only last so long, as the closure of so many big beasts of the men’s mag world shows. Ultimately, there comes a point when nobody actually reading your publication catches up with you, as was surely the case with Men’s Style (a shame for its doubtlessly talented editorial team). And as we head into 2018, those big fashion labels are modernising their marketing plans to boot. Turns out, well-dressed men go online, too.

This is a tragedy because men’s magazines have, and still do, produce some of the best journalism in the world. They provide a rare mix of hard reporting, writing, design, photography and interviewing – often all in the same feature. The rise of new journalism, pioneered by Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese in the pages of US Esquire in the Sixties, revolutionised feature writing, while British lads’ mag Loaded won a glut of awards and reintroduced gonzo with its mad take on Nineties culture. To its detractors, it was silliness aimed at pissed-up twentysomethings, but it still regularly ran long-form articles that didn’t shy away from asking tough questions, or showing a complete disregard for PR teams, all delivered with a dry humour now absent from the industry.

And it’s not just a phenomenon restricted to the US and the UK – a few months ago I found myself on a night out with the old editorial team of now-defunct Aussie lads’ mag Ralph, and you won’t find a bunch more passionate about good journalism. It was an age where team members who came up with a good ideas were told to get on a plane and come back with a story.

Where then, does this leave Australia’s last stand in newsagents – now largely restricted to an unusual double wicket partnership of Maxim and GQ Australia (where, full disclosure, I worked previously)?

They face the unenviable task of moving their readership online, while keeping their advertising paymasters happy in print and attempting to deliver good journalism in an age where men have moved off into their different niches. And with budgets tightening, funding those great pieces is becoming harder and harder.

The answer, I believe, is to attempt to emulate the American version of GQ which, in my view, is still the pound-the-pound best publication in the world – and anyone in need of convincing need only read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s interview with Tom Hiddleston, already talked of in hushed tones as one of the best profiles ever written. Only top-notch journalism, and not a desperate dash to rehash second-hand news stories online, can save the industry.

But Taffy’s article also shows why men’s magazines matter in 2017. They deliver smart articles in plain English, without pretensions, to ordinary men.

And in a world of fourth-wave feminism, mansplaining and #metoo, blokes need a guiding hand in life more than ever before.

Adam Thorn


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