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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The truth about magazines

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar  |  New Delhi 

Are magazines a medium in decline? It would seem so going by the readership surveys and circulation figures that media agencies and advertisers traditionally rely on. Over the last couple of years, magazine readership has gone down from about 75 million to 68 million Indians. Newsstand sales, the bulwark of magazine retailing in India, have been lacklustre and everything from newspapers to the internet is eating into magazine-reading time.

Yet, titles continue to be launched and every major magazine publisher from across the world is either already in India or is on his way in. From over 3,800 in 2004, the number of magazine titles (or non-dailies) has gone up to 6,300 in 2007, going by World Press Trends (2008) data. Using the same data, total magazine revenues (ad plus circulation) were Rs 2,134 crore in 2008. (If, like me, you think the figure seems too high, just add up the topline of the top fifteen magazine publishers in India. The figure then makes sense.) That means  compounded annual growth of 22 per cent, more than twice of the overall print industry.

So what is the truth?
The truth is that magazines are growing — not just as a distribution format in print but as one that helps various communities of readers/audiences with common interests to bond with each other. A look at the UK or US markets shows that even as magazine publishers decline in the print format, the ones that quickly move on to other formats such as online, merchandising or clubs, to retain and grow their audiences such as Meredith, Haymarket or BBC Magazines, are thriving. If an advertiser wants to reach women in the US he has to be in a Meredith brand.

While print is hardly a dying medium in India, one major factor limits magazine publishers. They have allowed themselves to be lumped with newspapers when it comes to defining the metrics of the business and distribution.

If you segregate the magazine market into its three logical clusters — general interest, specialty consumer and business-to-business (BtoB) — then each will have a different set of metrics. Specialty consumer magazines such as Vogue or DataQuest have high cover prices, an audience defined by interest or demographics, with a premium on advertising. A BtoB title is very tightly targeted to people within say the chemical trade or to CFOs, is usually a free database-driven product and sells at a premium on advertising. A general interest magazine will be lower on cover price but charges for reach and volumes.

There is no way a Vogue at 50,000 copies could ever show up as a force to reckon on a reader survey meant for newspapers or general interest magazines. Ditto for DataQuest or other brands. So most don’t participate in these, nor do they opt for a circulation audit by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC).

And yet the growth of magazines in India has been led by these two segments. It is in specialty and BtoB segments that liberalised norms (100 per cent foreign equity) and pressured home markets have made foreign companies such as Hearst, Conde-Nast or Time-Warner among dozens of others who flock to India. This even as Indian publishers launch local titles. But this growth is not reflected in the overall numbers.

Now add another complication. For too long magazine distribution has been overwhelmed by newspapers. Most ride on the same broadsheet or tabloid channels. The reader however has moved on. You are more likely to buy The Economist at an airport or a book store and not at the neighbourhood paperwallah. So even as media buyers are sceptical about who would buy a magazine, the fact is if you put a magazine at the right place, consumers are price-agnostic. This insight led to the formation of Frontline, a specialised magazine distribution company in UK — owned by  Bauer, Haymarket, BBC Magazines and H Bauer — that sells 180 titles.

In India, both Living Media and The Outlook Group, have set up distribution companies that sell any title for a fee — across the traditional channel as well as across what are called non-conventional outlets or the retail chains, coffee shops et al that a new India is throwing up. It will be some time before their efforts make a difference to either the metrics or the perception of magazines.

Till then magazine publishers will simply have to find alternate ways of communicating their numbers and the quality of their readership.

The writer is a media consultant and author of The Indian Media Business. 

First Published: Tue, January 27 2009. 00:00 IST