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When the September Issue Is the Only Issue

The Covid-19 crisis may reconfigure the publishing rhythms of glossy print magazines until there’s little left, writes Amy Odell.
(L-R) Cosmopolitan, June 2020; American Vogue, June/July 2020; Elle, June/July 2020; Vanity Fair, June 2020; Marie Claire, Summer 2020; Harper's Bazaar, May 2020 | Source: Courtesy; Collage by BoF
  • Amy Odell

NEW YORK, United States — First comes a special combined "June/July" issue. Then, issues every other month. Then, one issue a quarter. Then, two issues a year. Finally, the September issue is the only issue. This is the likely trajectory for once mighty fashion magazines, as the Covid-19 crisis accelerates market shifts initiated by the internet and throws in a few devastating curveballs.

The pandemic's worst effects on magazines won't be realised for months, and the impact on consumer spending and brand marketing budgets is fully realised. But we're already seeing reductions in the number of issues that print titles publish per year. Vogue's latest print issue covers both June and July, a first in Anna Wintour's more than three decades as editor.

Vanity Fair and Cosmopolitan will both publish July/August issues. Elle, Harper's Bazaar and Marie Claire will each publish just a single summer issue. Smaller print fashion titles are also recalibrating their operations, with Paper canceling its print edition, Dazed Media merging AnOther magazine with Another Man, W's operations on pause and L'Officiel scaling back its print issues to a quarterly rhythm for women's and twice yearly for men's.

To be sure, print magazines were in decline before the pandemic. Youth-focused titles like Dazed and i-D scaled back their print runs years ago. And from 2019 to 2020, Marie Claire reduced its print output from 11 to nine issues a year, while Harper's Bazaar cut down from 10 to nine.

Now, Covid-19 has led to sharp cuts in the advertising budgets that support print titles, which make the bulk of their revenue through high-margin ads, not subscriptions or newsstand sales. In fact, newsstand distribution has long been subsidised by advertising, and without adequate ad sales, selling magazines on newsstands becomes moot.

The trouble with print is nothing new. While advertisers agree that print offers a more elevated and controlled marketing experience than many digital options, audiences have decisively migrated online. What’s more, the effectiveness of print is very hard to measure and therefore justify in an increasingly metrics-driven world. But now, the impact of lost ad sales is severe enough to put pressure on publishers’ ability to even produce physical issues in the first place.

And bad news for print spells bad news for publishers. Despite the rise of the internet, publishing houses still lean heavily on print, which has better margins than digital even as its audience declines (36 percent of Condé Nast’s 2019 revenue came from print; 24 percent from web ads).

Covid-19 has led to sharp cuts in the advertising budgets that support print titles.

Longtime ad market forecaster Jack Myers does not expect advertising spending to fully recover until 2025, and even then, it could stabilise at 5 percent below what it was in 2019.

Then, there's the matter of rates. Print advertising rates depend on circulation figures. The Alliance for Audited Media, which provides data on a magazine's circulation numbers to advertisers, reports that Vogue, Elle and Allure all had circulation numbers of greater than a million for the second half of last year, but these figures are inflated.

Publishers buy print audience the same way they buy web traffic, only with print they use agents to sell cheap subscriptions to the likes of medical clinics and hair salons, along with individual consumers. Some of these subscriptions could be hit hard by the pandemic, as magazines are seen as vehicles for spreading germs and may even be banned from public spaces. And without budget to boost audience, the number of readers guaranteed to any remaining advertisers will surely come down, creating a spiral that drives down the cost of ads and already anaemic margins.

Looking at recent data AAM provided to BoF on March issues, Hearst is already seeing declines. Cosmopolitan's rate base, defined as the number of people the magazine promises advertisers the issue will reach, remains higher than its competitors, but has dipped to 2.4 million for March from 2.7 million in 2019. (Condé Nast hadn't provided its March figures yet, but recent news that the publisher is laying off 100 employees and furloughing 100 more doesn't bode well.)

To some degree, publishers may be able to conceal from advertisers how bad things really are, because the AAM — which magazines pay to audit their circulation figures — is their friend. The company is currently adjusting its reporting methods to help publishers maintain the appearance of positive numbers. For instance, publishers will soon be able to explain declines in detailed footnotes in the reports that go to media buyers. They’re also now allowed to replace the delivery of a physical magazine with a digital issue without impacting circulation. And, if issues are held but delivered at a later date, AAM reports won’t lower circulation, even if no one will read a May issue in October.

What’s more, reducing the total number of issues printed each year may not harm circulation figures reported by the AAM in the near term, as the body allows magazines to maintain circulation while reducing issues, reasoning that, if you send out nine issues instead of 12, the average number of people receiving each magazine doesn’t change.

But masking reality won’t really help fashion publishers in the long run.

Also troubling for fashion titles is their current inability to stage elaborate editorial photo shoots which often service advertisers and help justify the cost of buying ad pages. When will these photo shoots return and what will they look like when they do? What will justify the expense, carbon footprint and health risks of producing a beautiful print product?

The answer is probably a big enough check. Future print issues will probably need to pivot to advertorial more than ever before. Imagine a whole magazine brought to you by Revlon. The entire issue would be packed with the sponsor’s products, light on or devoid of news features, and buoyed by an event or branded Zoom conference or companion podcast series. The brands that will be able to afford these sponsorships will be the few that the pandemic hasn’t ravaged.

But perhaps more than anything, magazines are going to have to fight hard to better preserve at least some of their remaining cultural relevance on which the prospect of such sponsorship deals ultimately depends. Ideally they do this before their ability to manipulate audience data ends, and before the September issue becomes the only issue.

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