Hearst buys big into the post-magazine world

So Hearst Corp, of the US, has become unarguably the world’s largest women’s magazine publisher with the c$1bn acquisition of the French-owned international group Hachette. This looks like a cheap enough deal for the Elle etc stable but it is complex, sprawling and will involve plenty of reorganisation ( job losses) and (eventually) magazine closures in countries big and small, rich and poor. That process alone will test the nerve of the privately owned patrician Hearst Corp as it seeks to break out of its traditional US dependence on earnings from newspapers, magazines and pay TV.

The real test, however, is of the overall viability and future scale of magazine-centric media as they battle the erosion of hard copy audiences and advertising throughout the world. Many of these publishers see the ipad and other touch-screen tablets as a big part of that future – even the salvation of the magazine as a medium. But magazine groups like the emboldened Hearst will have to do better than most have done so far with thousands of pedestrian, to say the least, web sites. They will have to produce wholly new products and services not just imitations of the paper magazines themselves. That’s a challenge on several fronts.

Old brands, new products

How do publishers maximise the value of their long-establshed brands by attaching them to something that might need to be so, so different? And then there’s the challenge (in a world where digital media will be populated increasingly by broadcasters) of access to video content. Most magazines own relatively little video or even photographic content. That will have to change. In this new world, ownership of multi-platform content (ie moving pictures) is supremely important.

In these still relatively early stages of digitalisation, the old-fashioned power of some magazine editors and publishers may remain an obstacle to creating something markedly different online. Soon enough (and right now, for many magazines) the power will shift as declining hard copy revenues start to weigh heavily on the expectations of their digital sisters whose own competition will increasingly be new style “publishers” – and movie/TV operators. These new competitors (including the next wave of aggregators like Zite and Flipboard) have already mastered the digital world and are unconstrained by the baggage of a hard copy history.

Disintegration of women’s audience

The partial disintegration of the traditional women’s audience is already a major challenge for the magazine multinational. Cosmopilitan is publshed in 60 editions round the world, perhaps the most successful magazine in all the 46 years since the one-time family magazine was magically reinvented by Helen Gurley Brown.

Mia Freedman (www.mamamia.com.au) a high flying former Cosmo editor in Australia, noted recently that the web had stolen magazine readers, their edge and their purpose: ”to be a way women form tribes and communicate. Now, there’s youporn and any other number of sites for titillation, Google for questions about sex, and any number of websites or free newspaper magazines if you’re looking for other types of content or a magazine-style experience,” Freedman wrote. ”Women don’t want to be spoken to any more. They want to be part of the conversation, something which the internet allows, in fact depends on.”

All of which feeds the question about where magazines go from here. Most women’s magazines depend on advertising for their profits: cover prices (even before their softening of recent years) have seldom even covered the production costs. So, the almost inevitable continuing decline in audiences will further eat into the revenue from advertisers with a host of media alternatives. Nobody should be foolish enough to predict the total eclipse of the magazine medium (they got it wrong for movies, radio et al). The sector will just be smaller, with fewer readers and less advertising. A smaller industry, with less scope for growth, perhaps. But still a major media sector.

Mature or not?

That is the main reason why magazine ownership is consolidating into fewer and fewer (mostly private) hands, hence the Hearst acquisition of Hachette from Lagardere. Whether this becomes just another case of a reducing number of owners making perfectly good longterm profits from a no-growth, mature industry depends on how magazine publishers manage to apply their skills, experience and brands to this fast changing world.

My guess is that some will – and that Hearst, in particular, will find ways to create a new future for the magazine-centric company, the kind of business that has been particularly good at building audiences and a sense of belonging among savvy readers. But that “new” success will not be before much blood letting and gnashing of teeth among professionals who today work first and foremost for magazines printed on paper which have a web site because, well, you have to. Hearst and other magazine publishers increasingly need to regard those tried and tested brands, together with the skills and resources to build and retain audiences, as their core assets instead of the piles of magazines that still dominate their activities.

The task will be to ‘leverage’ those brands that have become staples during the past 50 years of unprecedented magazine boom. That means applying brands like Elle, Cosmo, Good Housekeeping to new digital products in a highly-creative way that inevitably will sometimes involve dumping some part of the magazine legacy – in much the same way as the now 89 year old Helen Gurley Brown did with Cosmopolitan back in 1965. The future, as always, belongs to the bravest of the brave.

What do you think?