Girls don’t want to bake cakes – the future of women’s magazines

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The plethora of new women’s magazines that have come on the market recently bodes well for the future of magazine publishing, but can this trend continue?

With over 200 titles in the UK, women’s publications are the largest single group of magazines. Still, the general trend of defecting readers continues; unsurprisingly, when the only thing that distinguishes magazines is an overall blandness and overabundance of advertising.

In order to keep magazines profitable, publishers will need to acknowledge that it’s not solely about keeping the advertisers happy: women do not want to be patronised or portrayed as the personification of consumerism.

Advertising’s blandness
“Don’t be afraid… to bake a cake” the launch issue of Easy Living swanked, before teaching its readers how to colour-code their bookshelves – if we look at how magazines represent the female, intelligent women seem to be non-existent.

Undoubtedly, there are magazines worth reading (MsLexia for instance, or American magazines such as Jane), but finding them in a market that is dictated by four large publishing houses, is marginally more difficult than picking up the latest copy of Heat.

The overall insipidness that rules the women’s titles is caused by the publisher’s need for advertising in order to make profit. With advertising as the core of publishing, magazines constantly need to balance on a fine line between attracting readers and, additionally, ‘selling’ them to advertisers.

The blandness enables magazines to reach readers more easily, thus ensuring “more defined ‘lifestyle’ readership profiles that can be used to sell advertising space to advertisers,” says Anna Gough-Yates in her book Understanding Women’s Magazines. Consequently, magazines increasingly neglect to resonate with women’s lives.

Looking abroad
If we look beyond the British borders, however, we can see that blandness needn’t be the trend. In Germany and The Netherlands various publications offer a current affairs digest alongside meatier pieces on culture and society and dip-in dip-out fashion articles.

German weeklies such as Der Stern, offer politics, economy, science, health and sports alongside culture and entertainment, computers and IT and a lifestyle and travel section; the Dutch weekly Nieuwe Revu, though less chunky, offers similar sections.

One of the few magazines that comes close to this in Britain is Time, where the occasional entertainment article is thrown in the back of the magazine; however, in Der Stern and Nieuwe Revu it is not seen as lack of cultural ‘worth’ that fashion and entertainment are presented alongside current affairs and politics – lighter subjects co-exist with the more serious and the magazines sell on that basis.

The glossy of the future will need to go down this route even further. In order to keep attracting readers, the big magazine publishers have to offer wider perspectives and a broader representation of their readers in the magazines.

Unisex niche
Of course, from a British point of view, this is a crazy idea. After all, how can a magazine not just be about celebrities and fashion? How are you going to target a broad demographic and win advertisers’ trust at the same time?

Marketing yourself as a unisex magazine could be one solution. Both Der Stern and Nieuwe Revu explicitly target men and women. One unisex weekly is also produced in Britain. Peter Howarth, ex-editor of Esquire, started publishing the Quarterly – a slickly produced lifestyle magazine to be given away with the weekly newsmagazine The Week.

James Robinson writes about the Quarterly in The Observer: “The editorial synergies between the Week, with its succinct summations of world events, and the Quarterly, which will tell readers where to buy the perfect little black dress or the best wine, aren’t immediately apparent,” (2004).

Not apparent, perhaps, but the way forward nonetheless, as these magazines naturally present a broader perspective and offer a larger demographic to advertisers at the same time.

Another solution would be subscriptions. In Britain, where distribution goes beyond just dropping the magazine off at the news-stand, publishers are charged high rates just to get their product sold, let alone get them shelved in places where consumers can easily see them

This “affects the smaller circulation, specialist publications,” according to journalism lecturer Jenny McKay, as magazines outside the current mainstream just don’t have the money to keep up. However, it is exactly where countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have had the money and space to make more interesting publications.

Roughly half of Der Stern’s and Nieuwe Revu’s circulations are directly distributed to the consumer through subscriptions and so called ‘reader circles’ (companies that supply a range of magazines in a big folder to households that have subscribed to this weekly service), without the intervention of a wholesaler or separate distribution divisions.

This does not only save the publisher many costs, but gives magazines more safety and makes it possible for editorial to outweigh advertising, therefore denying advertisers the ability to set the tone of the magazine.

McKay argues in her book The Magazines Handbook that subscription sales could provide a solution, but they are kept down because of the high cost of postage. Nonetheless, with about 50 per cent of all magazine sales being subscription-based in the Germany and the Netherlands, it seems that these countries have found a solution for this.

Weekly and the web
Recently launched titles have proven that a weekly format is hugely popular and, if the price is right, a weekly opens up more possibilities for a publisher. Look for instance at Grazia, which costs £1.50. Loyal buyers or subscribers logically would spend more for a weekly than for a monthly (do the math: £1.50 per week, is £6,- per month).

Another thing to consider is publishing a full online edition which is updated each day alongside the weekly edition in print.

With most magazine covers now tested on the Internet, the Web offers magazines new productive and cost-effective ways to extend their brands and content. Also it enables magazines to communicate with readers more easily, to sample products, conduct research and to sell and renew subscriptions.

Versatility and intelligence
Through different distribution methods, targeting a broader audience with a weekly format and through the Internet, the magazine of the future will offer more versatility, less blandness and more intelligent debate. By going beyond monotone political reportages and news roundups on one hand, or a few celebrities and some fashion on the other, it will give broader perspective and accommodate more readers.

At the same time there this give the magazine scope and flexibility in attracting advertisers, by offering a larger target demographics. In any case, however, the way forward for magazines is to resonate more with readers’ lives by evading the predominant tone of advertisers.