We’ve reached the end of the glossy era

Australia’s glossy magazines today saw the worst circulation results in history. And while there’s no going back to print's glory years, if media companies choose to focus on digital, it’s not too late for them to win the new battle, argues PR and publishing editor, Miranda Ward.

It is hard to let go of tradition – and for journalists and publishers that means print. The magazine industry often argues the relevance of the printed product, suggesting that the magazine is the “heart” of a brand, with the website, events and other brand extensions spiralling away from that core product.


But if you look at the way the magazines are selling, it suggests publishers and readers are no longer on the same page.

I had been warned that the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation would be a bloodbath. I’d shrugged off the suggestion that it was going to be any worse than usual – the publication of circulation figures has been a pain point for publishers for a long time.

But this time around, it was not an exaggeration.

It is a bloodbath, the worst ever.

Readers are turning away from magazines in droves, and are taking their wallets with them. The question that remains is, why are publishers insisting the magazine is still the heart of the brand, and more dramatically does this signal the end of the glossy era?

Cosmopolitan bled the hardest in this audit – with its circulation plummeting by a dramatic 43.9% in just a year, while national icon The Australian Women’s Weekly dropped below 400,000 issues sold on average a month for the first time ever.

Women's Weekly

For The Weekly it will be pain felt by the entire team – the first audit minus editor-in-chief Helen McCabe and the title sheds 41,081 copies after years of stability. It’s not a positive move considering the change in direction of content following McCabe’s abrupt departure.

As one source within the mag industry has repeatedly told me – the Women’s Weekly baby-boomer audience is aging, and depressingly dying, they suggest at the same rate as the magazine’s print circulation is now declining.

The Australian Women’s Weekly and Pacific Magazines’ Better Homes & Gardens are the only non-weekly ABC-audited titles which have a circulation greater than 100,000 – suggesting just two magazines remain part of the mainstream. The rest of the audit is sitting around the 40-70,000 mark.

Are these magazines really profitable?

Publishers aren’t sitting with their heads in the sand – diversification is happening with digital and other revenue streams such as events and merchandise, but the majority of publishers still insist on the importance of the printed magazine.

They say it is the heart of the masthead brand from which everything else spirals from. But if audiences are clearly not buying the product anymore, why does it deserve to be the priority?

Traditional publishers will find it hard to back away from print; the closure of Cleo taught the industry lessons about a closure gone bad.

But shifting the focus online isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Bauer Media’s Dolly made the shift to bi-monthly and digital first at the start of the year. While it is difficult to assess the level of success of the strategy, it has had a positive impact on the magazine’s circulation.

Dolly image (1)

In the second half of last year, Dolly – then monthly – reported a circulation of 28,030. A result which would have made much of the Dolly staff nervous. For the first half of this year – Dolly relaunched as digital-first and bi-monthly in print in April – the magazine has seen its circulation inch back up to 30,010.

It suggests that Bauer perhaps knew where its audience was heading – and audiences have been willing to buy the bi-monthly Dolly product as a result.

Publishers need to realise that the print product isn’t the ‘hero’ or the ‘heart’ of the masthead anymore – especially for younger audiences – and publishers need to make a decision about what they want that to be, or look to where their audiences are to work out how to best monetise the brand from that perspective.

Famous made the decision in April this year that print was no longer the ‘heart’ – with Pacific Magazines axing the print product entirely to focus on digital.

famous magazine

It was a decision that made sense – the type of content produced by Famous lives better online and indeed is being consumed online.

According to Nielsen, FamousLive had 13,871 average unique daily browsers in July. When the print magazine was axed it had a circulation of 45,096.

While the numbers may seem to speak for themselves, it is hard to tell how successful the transition has been; however, Famous was not going to survive in a print format so a change had to be made.

Pacific Magazines made the right choice in order to give the masthead the best chance of survival, now it’s up to the editorial team to ensure they’re delivering what readers want.

Attempting to justify an expensive legacy product simply because of its history is not only foolish it’s commercially reckless.

If readers aren’t interested, it’s time to drop the wishful thinking and focus on where the audiences are. Not look for them where you want them to be.

Monetising digital is difficult but holding on to print as the ‘heart’ is only going to make the eventual transition more painful.

I’m not arguing that print should be ditched completely, it can still be a valid part of the masthead ‘brand’ but it is clearly no longer the ‘heart’.

With content available at the touch of button, a quick Google search, a glance at your social feeds, buying a magazine isn’t a priority for audiences, and it’s time the magazine industry properly shifted its strategy to focus on digital, with print considered a spoke off the digital wheel of the masthead.

The audience has voted: the glossy is no longer the heart and soul of a magazine brand. It’s time publishers listened and properly focused on how to best monetise digital.


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