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Newspaper magazines still matter; they deliver women readers

As the Observer magazine reaches 45, there’s life – and money – in supplements in the digital age

The actual birthday – 45 years of the Observer Magazine – falls on Tuesday (though a “Not to be Sold Separately” exhibition celebrated it weeks ago). And prepare for another birthday bash next year as the Sunday Times Magazine, the daddy of them all, turns 50. But hang on … this is the era of colour on every newsprint page, plus luxuriant apps for your iPad. What on earth, apart from pending extinction, is there to celebrate?

It’s a good question. The supplement Mark Boxer produced for Roy Thomson long, long ago had equally long pieces of reportage and wonderful photography: it was unique, until the Observer followed suit.

Now double-page pictures quite as fine as the old supplement ones grace the ordinary run of your morning paper. Now articles in the Sunday Times news review can run to 5,000 or more words. Where’s the USP of the newspaper mags? Surely they’re on their way out?

Except it isn’t quite that clear. Audit Bureau of Circulation figures report copies sold, editions counted out and counted back in again: simple, if unrevealing, stuff. But National Readership statistics, based on a rolling programme of 36,000 interviews every year, add a lot more bells and whistles, including breakdowns between male and female readers. And if there’s one area of readership that has come to define resilience and, in some cases, even growth, then it’s the challenge of recruiting women.

Look at the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine in the latest July 2010 to June 2011 release: 2,202,000 women against 1,561,000 men. These are vital counterweights to all that Premiership football, the preserve of young men, or family money pull-outs which men dominate 3:2. Look at the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella, with 534,000 women to 323,000 men in a paper where men dominate by more than 50,000, or the Guardian Weekend, 623,000 women to 529,000 men. Look, for that matter, at Observer readership – 605,000 men and 535,000 women overall, but a far narrower 466,000 men against 460,000 women in magazine terms – and 544,000 women to 424,000 men on Food Monthly days.

All good numbers in any advertising pantheon. The Mail on Sunday’s You would be second only to Take a Break! if sold separately (as briefly it was). The Observer Magazine has comfortably more women readers than Grazia (402,000) and More (372,000).Magazines aren’t just a vital tool for balancing audiences; they have real revenue-raising potential.

But every upside, of course, has a downside: and you can see it studying these NRS returns or, frankly, just flicking through a pile of supplements and counting the ads. What isn’t working so well? Try the Independent on Sunday’s New Review – 179,000 men to 134,000 women, down 26% in a year overall – or the Saturday Independent’s magazine, with 191,000 men to 152,000 women (and down 22% in a year). They don’t seem to be hitting the spot on any test, especially when you note total IoS readership down 25% year-on-year. (Is the big thrust to get a slimline “i”up and running fast leaving bulkier weekend offeirngs bereft?)

But as the Sunday Times drops below a million sales on the ABCs, you might wonder where 327,000 readers of its magazine have gone since June 2010 or whatever happened to 266,000 addicts of Culture (also a bit of a black hole where ads are concerned). Meanwhile, the Mail’s Weekend, a triumphant battleship of a Saturday contender, seems to have developed a 7% hole below the waterline in need of repair.

And here’s the rub. It’s a desperately competitive, very expensive field: heavy on staffing and production costs, somehow apart from the surge into digital but vital to fortunes in print. Because magazines need changing and updating year by year, there’s never a settled formula to milk.

But this particular magazine age isn’t over yet on any reckoning. It brings the women readers editors and proprietors need. It adds a whole range of additional advertising possibilities. It is, crucially, something extra in an age of rising prices.

What would Mark Boxer have thought of the field he helped to sow? He’d be fascinated by the rate of change, perhaps. Intrigued by how newspapers mags have had to refocus and adapt. But also proud of how great pictures and at least some great writing still see the light of day and lies around all week long. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds