New niches trump old brands: Magazine publishing 2018

Time Inc. UK, the publisher of some of the most well-known magazine brands in the world, is changing its name (again). The company is incorporating its current name and its former name – IPC Media – to create TI Media, a decision that was made to honour its past as it looks to the future, according to its executive chairman Sir Bernard Gray:

“As a company, TI Media is proud of its past and confident of the future. Our new name opens the next chapter of our story with familiarity and new energy.”

So far, so similar to the rhetoric around other brand name changes. What makes TI Media’s new name notable is that it strips away the historic association with magazines that both the Time Inc. and IPC brands had in spades.

Newsstands as they used to be.

That might be because the company is changing focus – that’s healthy for any company in an industry as buffeted by the waves of changing consumer trends as media. It might also be because the company’s new owner, venture capital firm Epiris, wants to distance the company from its previous parent Time Inc, which has been absorbed into Meredith as part of the industry’s rapid condensation.

But it’s more likely to be the company aligning itself much more closely with its other media endeavours in television, live events, retail and awards, rather than with a magazine sector that is largely struggling. Only last week, Time Inc UK closed the long-running weekly magazine Look, in part to protect another of its titles, Marie Claire, and partly because a print title was no longer viable given Look’s audience.

It’s part of a long-running saga that has seen the circulations of most mass-market consumer magazine titles fall precipitously, in the US as well as the UK: Nowhere is that more apparent than at the newsstand, which used to be the gateway for magazine discovery. Writing for Forbes, Tony Silber explains:

“Total sales for all audited consumer magazines—which make up about 65 percent of total newsstand sales—fell to 169 million in the second half of 2017, a decline of nearly 12 million units from the same period in 2016, when 181 million units were sold. A decade ago, more than 20 percent of circulation for audited magazines came from single-copy sales. Now that number is around 6 percent, according to the nation’s preeminent newsstand analyst, the consultant Baird Davis.”

While subscriptions have become the mainstay, total readership is still shrinking. As it does, competition within the niches intensifies, and there are inevitable casualties as publishers play games of chicken to own the last brand left alive in that vertical.

And worse – the value of even the most venerable magazine brands has been called into question. Some of Time Inc’s most iconic magazine titles like Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Money no longer have the chachet they once did, and building digital products around the brands have proven to be extremely difficult. It’s a reminder that, like newspapers, no brand is unassailable, and nor can they take their audiences for granted in an age of free digital content.

At the same time, there are green shoots in the magazine world. B2B and trade titles are more secure, simply because knowledge in specialised areas is rarefied and people are still willing to pay – no matter how niche.

On the consumer side, Empire magazine has launched a television-focused spinoff, entitled Pilot TV. On the face of it that seems like a bad bet, given that there is no shortage of television analysis and articles online. But Bauer evidently believe that the audiences who are happy to pay for subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime will also pay for a magazine around that kind of ‘cinematic TV’ – effectively betting that Netflix has created a new premium audience. Similarly, Dennis launched Minecraft titles after it became clear that the game’s huge player base would support titles in that vertical, and The Week Junior remains a sterling example of a counterintuitive bet that has paid off.

Elsewhere, though, the world of consumer magazines is looking less secure. Brand agnostic audiences are turning from the print products that have long sustained companies like Time Inc. UK to the digital pureplays like Refinery29, who have well-established ecommerce propositions. As consolidation among the big brands continues, magazine publishers should be looking less towards their established brands in shrinking markets and more towards niche, subscription-focussed bets like Pilot TV.

[email protected]

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog. 

Header image via Bas de Reuver on Flickr