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Is the Netflix-NME partnership the future of ‘special issues’?

NME’s surprise return to print, helped by a cheque from Netflix, is a demonstration of just how well it has managed to sustain its online presence. But is this a future that other ex-print magazines can really look forward to?

For us Londoners, it’s been almost a year since the cries of “Free NME…free NME…” have been heard in the capital. The music magazine printed its last issue in March 2018 after 66 years of publishing, the move coming shortly after its parent company Time Inc. UK was sold to private equity group Epiris LLP.

But in a surprise announcement, NME has now put out a special edition of the print magazine, in partnership with Netflix.

The ‘collector’s edition’ promotes the release of Netflix’s new series The Umbrella Academy, with 50,000 copies of the 36-page edition available from independent music stores and comic outlets. The graphic novel adaptation tells the story of a dysfunctional family of superheroes who come together to solve the mystery of their father’s death, and more.

On the one hand, the news that Netflix, the world’s seventh-largest internet company by revenue, has chosen to resurrect a print magazine that was shuttered last year is heartening to many of us who have watched the print magazine industry struggle with declining ad revenues over the past decade.

The fact that they see merit in the format, and can see that NME is still a strong brand even without a magazine is brilliant, and should send a strong message to advertisers and agencies.

On the other hand, it could be argued that if Netflix were set on a print takeover, there are plenty of great entertainment magazines with regular print runs that are in need of a cash injection from brands.

So why resurrect NME?

NME itself has had a patchy history as a magazine. It stopped charging for the title after its circulation dropped to just 15,000, relaunching as a free, ad-funded title in 2015 with a distribution of 300,000.

But it had tough competition in the cities, with Shortlist, Stylist and Time Out fighting for commuter’s attention, as well as the free daily papers.

One of the criticisms levelled at the time of its closure is that by making itself a free product, it had to work hard to appeal to enough people. Eventually, it became ‘all things to all people’, rather than nurturing a core readership.

But after the closure of the print edition, the brand found a new lease of life online under the editorship of Charlotte Gunn. In an interview just a few months ago, she told The Drum that they sat down and had a real rethink of the brand.

“We’ve focused a lot more on opinion pieces and long reads. We’ve gone back to doing more reviews, which NME was known for and trusted for throughout its history. I think digital often gets thought of as the poor relation of print, but we’ve gone back to traditional journalistic practices. The NME always had a strong opinion – [so we said] let’s make sure that’s prevalent again. Let’s get people talking. That’s what we were always best at.”

Closing the print magazine meant that the brand was almost instantly profitable again, and it has since gone from strength to strength online. It now has the highest readership since the website first started, and is ahead of targets financially. “It’s healthier and stronger than it’s ever been,” Gunn told The Drum.

That’s all great – the brand has proved that it’s still got the loyal readers online for Netflix to know that it will reach the right people with a revival of the print edition.

Is this the future many magazines have to look forward to? Closure after decades of printing, reinventing themselves as a digital brand, and only being able to print when a big spender decides to splash out on content marketing?

This isn’t to belittle the role of online publishers in any way. Many (as NME has demonstrated above) are able to cultivate strong, passionate and loyal audiences without needing the paper and ink some in this industry still see as being ‘real’ publishing.

NME aren’t the only ones starting up the printing presses again for one-off issues. Condé Nast’s Teen Vogue, which ended its print edition in 2017, has also hinted at publishing special editions of the title, saying they will ‘explore reimagined special issues timed to specific moments’.

So if the right sponsors came along, could we see publications like Glamour churning out special issues for a price they wouldn’t have been able to command for their regular issues?

Netflix has certainly made a splash with this strategy. I can imagine few of NME’s online readers would turn down a copy of the magazine, for the collectible element alone.

Indeed, those ‘lean back’ moments magazine media aficionados love to talk about would be all the more valuable for their rarity.

But if we start to see more magazines being resurrected as special editions primarily to advertise another brand’s ‘next big thing’, is this taking advantage of a golden opportunity, or are we in problematic territory? And what do the magazines who continue to print frequently and fight every week for those precious ad revenues make of ‘zombie’ print magazines who come back from the dead with a cover splash like this?

Answers on a postcard (or podcast, these days…)

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