Sunrise or sunset for magazines?
It's too early to write the obituary for the magazine industry, says former PPA chief executive Ian Locks, drawing on three decades leading the business.
Is it sunrise or sunset for magazines?
In 1989 one of the first editions of Magazine News, a publication produced by magazine trade body PPA for almost 20 years, starkly posed the question: 'were magazines a sunrise or a sunset medium?'
And that question is as much one for today, as the good and the great of magazine publishing prepare to assemble at the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge, on Wednesday for their annual conference.
The late eighties were pivotal for magazines. The ending of the TV monopoly, which ensured 3m-plus circulations for Radio Times and TV Times, would see dramatic drops in those gigantic circulations.
Shock horror, the editorial staff of Woman's Own was set to fall below 100 - now in 2011 and like all UK magazines, just a very small fraction of that number.
Over at Vogue in 1989 the clatter of typewriters was still resolutely heard....and would be for several years yet.
Elsewhere computers were appearing on editorial desks as the impact of Wapping and the breaking of the all-powerful print unions rippled out to the slower-to-change world of magazines but transforming for ever the heaviest graft of production.
Magazines were being widely talked about then, as now, as a sunset medium. Their glory days were surely past? But how wrong was that.
What we saw, with dramatically reduced production costs and a freer market for TV programme data, was an explosion of new magazines.
TV magazines became a strong category with a flourishing portfolio of new titles. So, thanks to Hello!, did celebrity. Computers and IT spawned several fortune-making titles. And suddenly men were gripped by lifestyle magazines which became a must-have for every publishing house.
Helped by a new interest in subscriptions, copy sales rose, advertising reached new record heights and the interest in magazines as a media category caught imaginations of commentators across the spectrum.
This was a more glorious sunrise than we could ever have dreamed.
Even the dot.com bust recession of 2000 drove on magazines in a most unexpected way. Allegedly people were staying at home and living the dream through their magazines rather than spending on clothes, holidays, luxury goods, fine food and wine and the rest.
For whatever reason magazines powered on during the nineties and well into the naughties. As if defying gravity they appeared to brush aside the threat of the Internet, just as they had the emergence of radio then television before it, responding with a raft of new titles driven by the Internet.
A trend, of course, is a trend and, like all trends, it finally bent around the end of the naughties' decade. Alarm, despondency and despair. The last two or three years indisputably have been tough ones for most magazine publishers.
But just when they thought it was all over, magazines are bouncing back. According to the latest PPA Publishing Futures survey, published just a few days ago, over 96% of 101 publishers surveyed expect profitability to increase over the next 12 months.
The optimistic outlook is supported by two positive industry trends: rising demand for consumer magazines and a year-on-year increase in advertising revenues.
Total Average Issue Net Circulation for ABC-audited titles for the six months between July and December 2010 rose by 4.1% year-on-year and this follows a rise of 3.3% reported for the first half of 2010.
Despite forecasts predicting a further decline for consumer magazine advertising last year, the medium enjoyed revenue growth in three of the four quarters in 2010, according to AA/WARC advertising figures.
The overall year-on-year increase of 2.1% was significantly outstripped by the 4.3 and 3% rises in Q2 and Q4 respectively. The third quarter recorded a 1.9% rise.
At an average of 64%, print is still the most important revenue generator for most magazine publishers but this time around it is online revenues, events, sponsorship and other activities that are showing strongest growth as magazine publishing continues its evolution into magazine media.
This is a new sunrise indeed. Just like all sunshine which follows a long, grey, miserable time, it is especially welcome and should make for a jolly day of celebration on Wednesday. But a trend is a trend - enjoy the sunshine while you may.
Ian Locks was chief executive of PPA from 1989 to 2008. He is now senior partner at Events Partnership, a media consultancy.
This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk