In February, The Media Online broke the story that allegedly crooked magazine publisher Anthony Vaughan had fled the country after failing to show up for an insolvency hearing in Cape Town. Vaughan, who was the director of publishing company Media Nova (among others), reportedly still owes millions to contractors, creditors and former employees.
Media Nova published the glossy, prestigious titles The Property Magazine and Sandton. Other publishers say he had a bad reputation, even before the Media Nova scandal, and News24 reported that he is wanted in Namibia for theft, fraud and extortion.
It’s difficult to imagine a similar scandal happening in the world of newspapers. While dodgy deals are found in any business, newspapers, television and radio are more heavily regulated, owned in the main by large corporate media companies and subject to scrutiny by auditors, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), government, the Press Ombudsman, Print and Digital Media SA (PDMSA), the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, among others.
Magazines, especially when it comes to small publishers, have no such stringent regulations, besides ABC accreditation.
Previously, they were represented by the Magazine Publishers Association of SA (Mpasa), but late last year the Mpasa board announced the dissolution of the body. Ironically, Vaughan was deputy chairman of Mpasa before he disappeared. Commentators and the board itself said Mpasa cost too much to run and was not serving the industry. But some magazine publishers were afraid that magazines would be left high and dry. Mpasa members can now be members of the PDMSA, but the fee structure has changed, making it prohibitively expensive for some publications to be members. PDMSA CEO Ingrid Louw would not comment on this, saying it was too early to discuss what has happened since the Mpasa dissolution.
Times are tough for small publishers, but even large magazines face challenges. Magazines’ production and operational costs are high. Paper and fuel prices have soared in the last few years, while circulation and adspend have declined.
As well as these challenges, smaller publishers don’t have access to their own distribution and printing presses, says Sean Press, publisher of Contact Media, which produces niche and custom titles.
“Glossy magazines cost more to produce. Agencies say to us, your CPM (cost per thousand) is so high. But, you know, we’re not printing on toilet paper!” says Press. “Also, the editorial content has to be longstanding because we only come out once a month or quarterly and the photography has to be of high quality.”
Andrew Solomon, GM of sports, business and custom publishing at RamsayMedia, adds that the increasing demand on consumers’ time from a range of media is also a challenge. “We haven’t found that people have pulled away completely from print. It’s simply that they have so much to do. Roll the clock back just 10 years – or any time before Facebook – and you will see that the things that sliced up your time were far fewer,” says Solomon.
“People aren’t going: ‘Well, I’m not reading magazines because I can get this information on the internet.’ They are saying they like being on Facebook, they like being online. Magazines take up a much thinner segment of time and attention. We have to try and spread ourselves across all the wedges that occupy your attention span.”
Yet magazine publishers boast that theirs is unique as a ‘lean forward’ medium, offering reader engagement and immersion. And media agencies know this. Says head strategist at Starcom MediaVest, Tandi Schneider, “Magazines are seen as more tangible, more visually appealing and more trustworthy than digital platforms and create a perception of increased credibility [for advertisers] when associated with a specific title.”
Specifically, custom and niche magazines are the future, say Press and Solomon. Printing and publishing giants Caxton would seem to agree, judging by the company’s purchase of RamsayMedia late last year.
Says Schneider, “Consumers are increasingly turning to digital and mobile for news and general information However, it seems there is a global trend that niche magazines are doing well. These titles are tightly targeted and fuel people’s passion points.”
She adds that locally too, niche titles are faring well, with Elle Decoration, SARIE KOS, NAG and Game & Hunt all increasing circulation.
Titles with smaller print runs but highly targeted audiences can offer more value than mass media like newspapers, says Press. “I wish agencies would stop thinking in terms of CPM and starting thinking in terms of spend per thousand. We are not poor when it comes to our readers… If you put an ad for a BMW in a large weekly newspaper, you get great penetration, but what percentage of those readers can actually afford a luxury car? Now you put that ad in a niche publication for business school graduates which has thousands of readers, but every one of them is educated, professional and upmarket. Yes, the CPM is a bit more, but you’re reaching a targeted audience and cutting down on wastage.”
Solomon says, “We know an incredible amount about our readers. Let me refer to our Toyota Zone. A large part of the audience has recently financed a vehicle. That’s the kind of information that should really excite marketers, there’s a bagload of things a marketer could do with that. We have the advantage of this richness of information that you don’t get in a lot of other spaces. Digital has analytics, of course, but this is knowledge about a group of people that grows with time.”
Small can be beautiful, says Press. “With independent publishers, there is less red tape. I believe we can create customisable options for clients a lot quicker than the giant oil tankers can. There’s no point in me trying to fight with Media24 in terms of distribution, in terms of sheer numbers. But it’s easier for me to distribute 10 000 copies strategically.”
With their unique challenges and opportunities, Press believes that “an independent publishers’ version of a stokvel (a communal savings scheme)” may benefit magazines.
“My thinking is that it’s all very well to have an ABC and an Mpasa with Media24 on the board. But who’s representing the independent publishers? Apart, we have little clout, but together our print spend could be R50 million. We then have bargaining power, get better margins and can better compete. We could vet our members, make sure they are in good standing with the South African Revenue Service (Sars) and are ABC accredited.”
This could work even in a competitive market, says Press. “I’m not saying we share information on suppliers or staff, just that we share our experiences with the challenges we face. It’s a group consciousness without egos involved.”
This could benefit more than just the publishers, he adds. “Our business is going freelance. There are very few permanent jobs for journalists and photographers now. Yet freelancers are abused time and again. They are owed money and the people who owe them know they don’t have the power to sue. Journalists, photographers and editors could be part of this as well.”
Press points to organisations in other industries that work along these lines, such as the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation.
Solomon, however, disagrees that such an organisation could work. “The media has always been a dog-eat-dog world and has only become more so. We are all trying to grab every slice of audience that we can. Now you’re asking to put all these competing media houses together and expecting them to stand up against outdoor and TV?
“We don’t see value in belonging to those things because we can push the values we have ourselves. And I would dare say that if you asked any of the other big media houses they would say the same thing.”
This story was first published in the May 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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