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This is how magazines work
Three legs good
Did I ever tell you about my favourite analogy for how magazines work? I stole it from this wonderful man.
Imagine your magazine is a stool, perfectly balanced on three legs. One of those legs represents your content. One is your readers. The third is cold hard cash.
Match the right content with the right audience and the money will be there to keep your magazine on a solid footing. But, if your content falls short or your audience doesn’t measure up, you’re going to struggle to balance the books and it won’t be long before your precious magazine topples over.
When I first got into this business, that simple analogy worked perfectly — Stories… Readers… Advertisers… Nice.
It still works, but I’m not sure three legs is enough. Or maybe three is the magic number, but it’s not a stool anymore but a three-legged race*. So many magazine managers appear to be rushing headlong towards some mythical digital finish line and creating all sorts of chaos in their wake.
My advice? Get back to the stool analogy, but instead of just one stool, you now have a whole furniture store - print, apps, websites, podcasts - and you need to make sure each piece is balanced.
* FUN FACT: The first three-legged race took place at the Willunga Almond festival in 1584, the winning pair won a goat.
The Guardian claims over a million unique subscribers across its portfolio of 50 newsletters. The paper’s newsletter team’s main focus right now is to develop more in-depth newsletters that feature original reporting and analysis. They are abandoning click throughs to the Guardian website as their main measure of success, looking instead at newsletters as a distinct format.
The idea worth stealing in this is the shift of focus away from content curation that summarises recent news to personality driven newsletters that can be read and enjoyed in their own right. “It will feel like an email from a well-informed friend,” said the editor on the paper’s daily current affairs newsletter, First Edition. “Each email should have some information in it you’d want to pass on as your own when talking with your mates in the pub.”
We spoke about this story in the last Media Voices podcast and I applauded the honesty in it — acknowledging print as a niche rather than a mass market product. Of course Dotdash closed numerous print titles after its acquisition of Meredith and lots of people lost their jobs. But the attitude to print expressed in this story makes a lot of sense to me.
CEO Neil Vogel said: “We are no longer willing to print magazines that people are no longer willing to pay for," but also, “We're actually going to add small pieces of print — not economically relevant — to some of our other brands.”
A pragmatic approach to print is the only way the medium survive with any scale and as mass-market manufacturing costs increase (print, paper and distribution), targeting ‘hyper-partisan enthusiasts’ that will pay for the pleasure of owning the product is a very smart way to go.
I can’t say that the Financial Times ‘How to spend it’ supplement has ever featured in my magazine stack. But that’s OK, I am 100% not the target demographic, having never felt the unbearable weight of massive affluence. But in these straitened times, even a publication aimed at people who buy superyachts needs to be a little bit sensitive.
In a her editor’s letter, Jo Ellison has cited the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine as reasons why the 28-year old magazine is evolving. Don’t worry, the content won’t change much, you can still get your fancy jewellery fix, but now under the more sensitive ‘HTSI’ masthead. With ‘How to S it’ - the S can stand for anything you want, well anything except maybe Socialism.
Anyway the clever part of this is actually being aware enough of broader issues, and being brave enough to lead the audience, to not do what you’ve always done. My chippy smart-arsery aside, Ellison’s sign off is wonderfully honest.
We have no plans to change our essential being; we just want HTSI to reflect the deeper sensitivities and priorities of a changing world.
Know your audience and, if you can, help them be the very best version of themselves.