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How Newspaper Supplements Took On Fashion Magazines

While commercial success among fashion magazines is uneven, supplements are a steady oasis of profitability. How are they doing it?
(Clockwise from top left) The Sunday Times' Style, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Wall Street Journal's WSJ., The Financial Times' How To Spend It, Le Figaro's Madame Figaro, La Repubblica's D | Photo: BoF
By
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United Kingdom — It's an uncertain era for fashion magazines. In the last year, Condé Nast shuttered men's style magazine Details, cut staff at Glamour, GQ and Self, and relocated Teen Vogue's entire team to Vogue.com's floor in One World Trade Center, sparking speculation that the teen title's days are numbered.

In the UK, consumer magazines haven't posted an industry-wide annual increase in print advertising since 2005, according to The Advertising Association and Warc report, which tracks ad-spend data. Last year, the US Association of Magazine Media (MPA) stopped releasing its annual ad page counts, making it harder to gauge the industry’s performance, and sending signals that all is not well. And according to media intelligence firm Kantar Media, print ad revenues at consumer magazines in the US fell 6.2 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2015.

Meanwhile, fashion and luxury supplements — the glossy, advertisement-heavy magazines that are distributed free as part of a newspaper — are thriving. Over the last decade, supplements such as T: The New York Times Style Magazine, WSJ. at The Wall Street Journal, and How To Spend It at The Financial Times, have bucked the depressing trends in print media, by consistently growing their advertisers, upping their page-counts, rolling out more editions and making a profit.

Since it launched in 1995, How To Spend It, The Financial Times' bible on all things luxury — from handbags, to speedboats, to cigars — has gone from four issues a year to 32, and added US, Asian and Italian-language editions. WSJ. launched in 2008 as a quarterly with 51 advertisers; today, it has 12 editions per year and 250 advertisers including Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. "Last year we took the magazine up 18 percent in advertising, which is unheard of in the American marketplace," says Anthony Cenname, publisher of WSJ.. "It has never been as profitable as it is right now."

Supplements are “hugely” profitable, agrees Tiffanie Darke, creative content director at newspaper publisher News UK, who was editor of Style, The Sunday Times newspaper’s weekly fashion supplement from 2002 to 2014. (The Sunday Times is published by News UK, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.) “Newspapers being in the state that they’re in, they need to do more than wash their faces,” says Darke. According to The Financial Times, How To Spend It has been profitable since its first issue. (Representatives of the publications featured in this article declined to provide specific revenue figures.)

So what’s behind this oasis of profitability in the print media landscape?

Supplements took off in the 2000s, at a time when many newspapers were expanding their culture coverage and weekend content. In 2003, The New York Times launched T after seeing the success of the fashion and culture content in the paper's weekly Sunday Magazine supplement, as a bet on the revenue opportunity presented by luxury advertising. "I think it was just a financial thing. They were doing so well [in terms of advertising revenues] that they decided to add it as a standalone," says Deborah Needleman, editor of T.

For advertisers, supplements were a revelation. While luxury brands wanted to reach newspapers' huge readerships, the newspaper environment — where ads might sit alongside news stories on, say, crime, or ads for everyday products such as washing up liquid — was a challenge. "It's everything from the paper quality, to the context in which you're seeing the message and the company you keep," says Tanwa Edu, business director for brands including Estée Lauder and Coach at London-based advertising agency M2M. With their high-brow editorial content and higher-quality paper, supplements created a place were luxury brands could feel "comfortable," she says.

In some ways, supplements are similar to standalone fashion magazines. Like a magazine, supplements have their own editors and a dedicated team, separate to the newspaper staff. And while most cover a range of topics like art, design, or food and wine, fashion is essential to their content — in the last year, Madame Figaro, a weekly women's supplement at French newspaper Le Figaro, has featured Olivier Rousteing, Karl Lagerfeld and Victoria Beckham on its cover. "Fashion is probably the thing we do the most," adds Deborah Needleman of T.

Fashion is also crucial to advertising revenues. Fashion brands lead T’s advertisers, and WSJ.’s fashion issues in March and September are its most profitable. In 2013, The Sunday Times relaunched Style — which, up to that point, had also covered topics like food — to be fashion and beauty focussed, having suffered sliding ad revenues after the financial crash. “We knew that advertisers wanted a full front-to-back fashion and beauty magazine,” says Tiffanie Darke. “That restored a lot of the [advertising] share that we had lost.”

But supplements also have key advantages over fashion magazines. First, there's the audience. Newspapers have a bigger readership than monthly glossies: American Vogue's total average circulation for each monthly issue is 1,237,939, while American Elle's is 1,125,536 — The Wall Street Journal's daily circulation is 1,392,470.

Newspaper readers are also older. The average reader age of American Vogue is 38, compared to 45 at The Wall Street Journal. And while many readers graduate from fashion glossies to other publications as they get older, newspaper readers are often loyal for life. But more importantly, the readership of premium newspapers are luxury customers. The income of The Sunday Times Style’s readers is 19 percent higher than the UK average. And when WSJ. launched in 2008, company executives claimed its readers had spent more than $3.5 billion on women’s apparel in the past year — more than the readers of any women’s magazine, including Vogue.

In the UK, according to Tanwa Edu, supplements generally charge advertisers higher rates than glossy monthlies. “When it comes to the quality press, brands are very attuned to the fact that it can lead on to a direct purchase,” she says.

Readers of luxury supplements are also rich in education and life experience, as well as wealth. “Part of what appealed to me, coming to The New York Times, was that it has perhaps the smartest, most sophisticated audience in the world,” says Deborah Needleman. “They’re not aspirational readers, they’re not people gawking at a lifestyle. They are more engaged with it — that makes a difference to the advertisers.”

They're not aspirational readers, they're not people gawking at a lifestyle. They are more engaged with it — that makes a difference to the advertisers.

“You see a tremendous fusion of topics that are relevant and interesting to someone who is of means,” adds Anthony Cenname. “We deliver to people of means that the fashion magazines simply fall short of.” In part, this is down to the fact that newspapers have a more democratic audience who are not necessarily fashion devotees — but it’s also to do with the journalistic culture of supplements, compared to glossies, which have been accused of handing out editorial “favours” to their advertisers. “The Sunday Times Style magazine comes with the rigour and the authority that Sunday Times newsprint journalism carries,” says Tiffanie Darke, but admits that, after Style’s relaunch in 2013 due to shrinking ad revenues, “We decided not to be rude about our advertisers.”

Distribution also makes a difference. Monthly titles like Vogue are much bigger than supplements in terms of pages (the March issue of British Vogue has over 400 pages, compared to How To Spend It, which has 90 on average). But unlike magazines, supplements — which are distributed free inside a newspaper — don’t have to convince the reader to fork out £4 at the newsstand. According to Deborah Needleman, this gives supplement editors the “luxury” of doing covers or stories that don’t “have to appeal to someone at a split second on the newsstand.”

Supplements are not immune to the pressures facing standalone magazines, however. Publishing houses of newspapers and magazines alike are hunting for new revenue streams. The Times newspaper runs Times Plus, a membership business, where readers pay for access to exclusive events and offers, while WSJ. hosts its annual Innovators Awards, a star-studded ceremony that honours talent in fields such as fashion, technology and design. Meanwhile, Condé Nast has rolled out brand extensions including educational colleges and restaurants; while Hearst’s revenue streams include licensed products, such as vitamins under the Men’s Health magazine brand.

Another pressure is the need to move online and create more content to fuel digital feeds. But while most supplements have launched digital products, according to these editors, print remains the best format for luxury. "I think that magazines, Vogue and Condé Nast, all they do is talk about online content and online projects. And I think they slightly forget their own DNA," says Godfrey Deeny, fashion editor-at-large of Le Figaro. "The DNA of magazines is the same as the DNA of luxury products: to make beautiful objects and reflect a certain amount of intelligence."

“Eighty percent of the fashion and luxury [advertising] revenue is still print,” adds Needleman of T. “The value of the print magazine if it’s a luxury object is not going away.”

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