Are Printed Magazines Dying?
Nothing beats words on the printed page. Apart from maybe ones on a screen. Or YouTube?
When was the last time you bought a physical car magazine? As in, went to the shops, the newsagent, the post office and spied a copy, took it from the shelf and bought it. Equally, when was the last time a magazine fell through your letterbox as the latest instalment of your subscription? I have a sneaking suspicion that not many of us, still read paper and print magazines. This begs the question, will they soon become redundant?
Gabriel Ionica wrote recently about there being nothing like a physical magazine and they are right. There is nothing quite like it. For a bit of background, I've long been a reader of motoring magazines. I can't have been long out of short trousers when I started reading Top Gear magazine. I was enamoured with the glossy photography, the artistic writing and the detail that was poured into each edition. It pulled a young me deeper and deeper into the world of cars. It fostered and fuelled my passion for the automobile and through a rather convoluted pathway got me to this point in my life. Writing drivel on the internet in my pyjamas.
There's a copy of my first Top Gear mag on eBay and I'm sorely tempted... Although its currently for sale at £7.65, meaning the its nearly doubled in price!
But there is a bigger picture to this. When I first started reading Top Gear, in about 2009 with an edition with the Bugatti Veyron and the McLaren F1 on the cover. In a way, sadly, I can recall that, but equally, it speaks volumes as to how much magazines meant to young me. YouTube was four years old and largely still full of funny cat videos and pandas sneezing. It was nowhere near the media goliath that it is today. YouTube was a place you went to watch tranquilised bears fall out of trees onto trampolines, not to watch the news, rent films, indulge in deep and thoughtful analysis of television and film, find recipes, watch the news, and find out what car you should buy next.
In 2009 YouTube had a total audience of around 100 million people watching 6.3 billion videos on the site. In October 2012, for the first time, YouTube offered a live stream of the U.S. presidential debate and partnered with ABC News to do so. A year later, by 2013 YouTube was seeing 1 billion users each month, let alone each year. The rapid and to an extent surprising growth of YouTube took conventional media by a bit of a surprise. Although this could be down to the blindness of conventional media that was then surprised by the growth of online streaming services too. It's this steadfast attitude that their place in the industry was unshakable that could well come back to bite it in the backside.
Top Gear, Classic and Sports Car, What Car, AutoCar and MCN. Wraps me up quite nicely doesn't it.
As YouTube grew it became a spawning ground for new entrants into the world of "journalism" and broadcasting. The internet fast became a rival for writing. And as it changed, it changed the world it was broadcasting as well. A world that now moved faster than ever before. As our habits changed in accordance it was no surprise that soon our attention moved to what people on the internet had to say as much as what they had to say in a written piece. We as consumers and readers became too busy or rushed to spend time pouring over a string of paragraphs when we could just as easily watch the same general opinion on the internet while we defecate or have a coffee. I am a sterling example of this as next to my bed sits several issues of Top Gear magazines that I haven't read. All in date order, waiting. I rarely have the time juggling two jobs and writing this guff to read them. Two books sit atop my bedside table that have suffered much the same fate. So dire is the situation that there are Hyundai's going around that I had no clue existed. I was surprised by a Vauxhall the other day thinking I'd spotted a prototype that had escaped from Millbrook just down the road, only for it to be a production car and just on the road normally. So I'm as much the problem in this regard as I am the moron writing about it. So what's to be done? Where are magazines headed?
If we look away from printed magazines for a beat and turn our eye to televised motoring magazines. There's been a marked decline in actual magazine based car telly. Think about early Top Gear, like properly early Top Gear when they would review a basic Mondeo or 3-Series because people would still tune in for valued opinions and facts as much as they would to see the new Chrysler 300C Hemi, Vauxhall Monaro and S-Type R duke it out on the beach in a weird battle of the colonies. But even then the silliness was reserved for seeing how many bouncy castles an ice cream van could jump over. The show in series five and series six was still a true motoring magazine blending reviews for many sectors of the market with a sense of fun and chaos. But then as the viewership changed the show pivoted towards more of the fun and chaos. Big adventures and challenges. Fifth Gear in a weird way became the bastion for sensible reviews on the small screen. Top Gear would go on to evolve and become what we knew it as, an entertainment show with a strong basis in the automotive.
Which begs the question, where do you go if you want some impartial facts about a car you're looking at? You can't go to the dealership because the man in the shiny suit will tell you that the car you're looking at is the best thing since sliced bread. Top Gear these days does offer some good advice in the magazine and online. Auto Car and What Car? are stalwarts of consumer advice from everyman accessible reviews to details about when to buy and how to buy or purchase. But even then, are they sat like King Canute, fighting a changing tide of how we buy cars?
I'm going to use the very recent example of my neighbour. He never bothered to test drive his new car from a dealership. He borrowed a friend's, liked it, and then shopped around online until he got an email from a dealership with the most competitive price. And now he has a new Seat Tarraco. No hassle, no fuss, no pushy salespeople with terrible ties. So much was his faith in the product and the suggestion from his friend that he bucked the trend. Or did he? Is this "the new normal"?
Has the manner in which we buy cars changed the way we read about them? If we read about them at all? Why tramp all the way up to Tesco to pick up a bound pile of papers when you can flick on YouTube and watch countless reviews of new cars. You can access most magazines online, including CarWow with its myriad of reviews, financing advice and top tips. What Car? is much the same, you could go and pick up a copy of the magazine from a shelf in Tesco, but would you when you can get the same information while sipping coffee in your underpants at home?
So what is going to become of car magazines? If they are no longer the pinnacle of car buying advice, what will they become if anything? Probably more specialist. More enthusiast based.
Enthusiast magazines are a unique end of the car magazine spectrum, typically they focus on one specific part of the automotive world, telling the stories of the people in it and their adventures. Relatability is key. You read the magazines to see a little of yourself in them, to get advice and gain inspiration for your own adventures. A great example of this is the world of off-roading.
The dirty side of the car industry in the literal sense, I receive copies of Green Lanes, the magazine of the Green Lane Association (GLASS) as part of my membership to the association. It's a reader made magazine packed with stories from other members about their adventures, opinion pieces, educational pieces and reviews. There is a bevvy of similar magazines out there, Mud Life is another one I regularly read, while only a small circulation it's fairly stable and respected in the field.
As you can see by the stack, Producer Ian is as slow at getting through magazines as I am.
But that's not to say that being niche is a recipe for stability, because an overcrowded market can see the demise of some publications. While I'm not an avid or regular motorcyclist, I do have an interest in that area, likely spawned from years as a kid reading my Dad's copies of Performance Bike. Family holidays to the beach where I'd quickly blast through all my copies of Top Gear magazine and however many paperbacks I could squeeze into my RyanAir sized suitcase would inevitably mean that I'd soon be out of reading material (please bear in mind I'm older than the Kindle, so I had to take physical books with me for a long while). So with all my reading materials exhausted I'd turn to Dad's Performance Bike magazine, pinched from him as he slept in the sun. PB was my gateway into motorcycling. And then the magazine died. Admittedly it died fairly recently and it was assimilated by Practical SportsBike, but it's a case in point that there are only so many titles one can have in one sector, especially by the same publishing house. I think I'm correct in saying that Bauer Media was in charge of both titles, plus MCN, Bike, Bikes Unlimited, Classic Bike, Ride and What Bike?. And that is just one publishing group!
Overpopulation of one sector like this is could prove to be a recipe for disaster as much as it is for success. Each magazine has its own feel and style built from its writers, contributors, editors, photographers, regardless, the whole system runs the risk of being overcrowded. Perhaps the deaths of some magazines are inevitable when you combine a market that is turning its back on print magazines to move online with the seemingly bewildering array of titles in one market.
I'll loop this back to what I personally hold as the zenith of motoring magazines, Top Gear. Potentially my view here is clouded by rose-tinted spectacles, but there's something to be said for the brilliant way that they balance their big poetic pieces where they take the new Aston Martin Vantage across Morocco or tow an Aston Martin Cygnet to Monaco with an Aston Martin Rapide. Their willingness and drive to push the boundaries of what the written word and still image can convey is captivating. But if you put down the paper copy and open up an interweb you'll find masterfully filmed, edited and presented videos on the new Defender as it thumps across stereotypical off-road Africa or a conversation with Gordon Murray about the T.50. Even through the distance of the internet, the content the team produces online conveys such a strong energy of passion and care you cannot ignore it. The care that goes into the work is present and foremost.
1.4 million views. Filmed expertly in 4K, masterfully edited, and classily presented. TG's YT content is majorly underrated.
Is this a stupid move for me, to be taking a pot shot at print magazines? Especially as I'm desperately trying to track down a job in the industry? Well, I'm the same idiot that fired off about The Grand Tour on the website it spawned, so when it comes to looking at the consequences of my writing, I'm not a shining example.
So is the magazine dying or is it just evolving and taking a natural and steady step? Evolution is the survival of the fittest and potentially that's what we've seen with names such as Performance Bike. To go back to my roots and get all zoology-y for a beat, PB was outcompeted for a natural resource, an audience, by a stronger individual. As a result, its lineage didn't carry on. It isn't the end of the line for printed magazines, it is just the next step.
The magazine shelf of my bedside table. It overfloweth with unread motoring magazines.