Audience Engagement
7 mins read

How to rethink print: inspiring stories from three publishers

Fresh from Making Publishing Pay in London, Esther Kezia Thorpe reports on three publishers refreshing their approach to their print publications, and how successful they’ve been.

Although the narratives of ad decline and circulation struggles signalling the end times for print are well known, the reality is that for many publishers, print is still a significant proportion, if not the most important profit stream for the business. It also continues to be a valuable way of building relationships with readers.

That’s not to say publishers should keep plugging away with the same format. At the recent Making Publishing Pay conference in London, delegates heard three case studies from publishers who rethought the way they did print, and are now reaping the rewards.

Chair Alistair Lewis of Quested Consulting, Positive News’ Sean Dagan Wood, TTG Media’s Sophie Griffiths and Future plc’s Paul Newman at Making Publishing Pay

Here are some learnings from Positive News, TTG Media and Future plc for publishers looking to rethink the way they do their own print magazines.

Print is the key to an engaged community of support for Positive News

Sean Dagan Wood of Positive News was the first up to tell the story of the publication’s evolution from a freely-distributed newspaper to a quarterly print magazine, with the publisher itself being co-owned by 1,500 people after a unique crowdfunding campaign.

For Positive News, the print magazine is the flagship product. “It’s beautifully designed, it’s printed on high quality paper, and it’s a certified carbon neutral publication,” explained Wood. The stories are written through the lens of ‘constructive journalism’; rigorous reporting but focused on progress and the solutions to problems, for example zero-waste shops across the UK, or people trying to have a positive impact through work and activities.

Positive News’ print reinvention came in 2016, after a 30 day #ownthemedia crowdfunding campaign. “At the same time as raising the capital we needed to grow, we were creating a more democratic ownership structure,” said Wood about the campaign. “It meant that we’re duty bound to serve our readers, and because everyone has an equal vote, we can’t be skewed by the agenda of any one person.”

With the £260,000 they raised from 1,500 readers, the team got to work refreshing the branding and relaunching the print newspaper as a magazine. 

“In terms of moving from a free newspaper to a quarterly magazine that retails, our strategy for that was to make the news beautiful,” said Wood, talking about the thinking around the redesign. “We knew that we had strong values that our readers connected with…so in print we wanted something that would bring that out in terms of the reading experience, something that our subscribers could connect with.”

The print magazine currently has a circulation of 15,000 with help from stores like WH Smiths and Sainsbury’s, as well as a large number of independent stores. They also have 6,500 individual subscribers to the magazine; a number that may be small, but which is growing fast. 

“At the moment, print subscriptions contribute 60% of our turnover, and they’re growing at a rate of 20% year on year,” Wood said. “They’ve been growing consistently over the past five years since the share offer, and the size of the business has tripled in that time. We’re now just becoming financially sustainable.”

In fact, it’s Positive News’ small size that makes the print even more important. “I think we punch above our weight and attract attention because of the print magazine,” Wood said. “It’s our best marketing tool, and people spread it around…it gives the brand gravitas and helps create trust in our audience.”

Now, Positive News are looking to scale, with the print magazine at the heart. “Our business model is all about building a community of support behind our journalism and its purpose. That includes our print magazine; even though it’s a retail product, we try to look at everything we do as more than transactional,” Wood explained.

“What we have found so far in terms of the relaunch and over the past five years is that for us, print has really helped build those relationships which drive our reach and our revenue. And I feel that it’s going to continue to do so as we try and scale in the years to come,” he concluded. 

Leading the travel news agenda with print at TTG

Positive News are not the only ones to have given their print magazine a branding overhaul. Sophie Griffiths, the Editor at TTG Media explained how they invested £50,000 last year in redesigning weekly print title Travel Trade Gazette – the oldest travel trade title in the world – to keep it relevant to their audience.

The weekly TTG magazine goes out to 15,6000 members of the travel industry in the UK and Ireland. The title was owned by UBM until 2013, when then-editor Daniel Pearce completed a management buyout, and made TTG Media an independent business.

Like many publishers with print titles, TTG were facing challenges with the rising costs of print and distribution. But they were also struggling with a competitor who published a very similar magazine. “For the last seven years, there’s not really been a lot of differentiation between the two of us,” explained Griffiths. “We’re coming out on the same day, usually with the same stories, and often with the same cover wrap from the same advertisers.”

“It meant that all of the hard work of the editorial team was just not getting noticed, and the magazines were frequently getting mixed up by agents.” 

In order to shake up the print magazine, they commissioned an external research piece “to find out what our audience wanted from a 21st century weekly travel trade magazine.” The research highlighted differentiation between TTG and its competitor as an issue, meaning that this had to be a key focus of the redesign. But the research also found that there was still an appetite for print; something that was “particularly exciting and really crucial” for the team.

“Some of the quotes from those surveys included comments about wanting to turn the screen off…and saying the print magazine was something they want to take home, and have a cup of tea with,” said Griffiths. “The upshot was an entire rethinking of our print proposition.”   

The result has entirely transformed the magazine. Not only has the print day completely shifted from a Thursday to a Monday, to “lead the news agenda for the week,” but the magazine is now a smaller size to differentiate it, and has glossy, National Geographic-style covers featuring inspirational images, rather than other events and agents. 

“This is, after all, a travel magazine,” Griffiths commented. “We may be in a B2B space, but we still need to inspire. Now, you can quickly tell which magazine is TTG.”

The content also got an overhaul. The layout of core parts like the news is much more accessible, with room for bite-sized information. The features too are now much longer reads with more in-depth interviews, and gorgeous photography to “inspire agents as much as their customers.”

As well as being a hit with the audience, the redesign had the benefit of bringing the whole TTG team together behind a shared purpose. “TTG Media exists to promote a smarter, better, fairer travel industry,” said Griffiths. “We have that message on the front cover of the magazine and our website, but now we’re known in the industry as the go-to magazine for smarter, better and fairer travel…and for companies that want to champion responsible tourism.”

The website and social media have recently been relaunched as well, so all products complement each other, but the magazine was the priority for TTG. “For us, at our core remains our weekly magazine, because we think we’ve proven that for us at least, print is far from dead.”

‘Premiumising’ print at Future

Finally, Paul Newman, the Brand Director of Future’s Home Interest portfolio outlined how the publisher has combatted circulation decline on their print titles. Circulation charts are a familiar, and often depressing sight for professionals in print, with ongoing decline between around 10-15% a year. “You’ve got to be pretty innovative to do something about this,” said Newman. 

“Our start point was to stop making excuses, and actually get on with creating a proper business model that is fit for 2020, and future proof.”

Newman’s approach to the three print titles under the Home Interest umbrella was to apply ‘premiumisation’. “We believe if you want to extend the shelf life of print, you have to invest in it in some way,” he explained. “If you don’t invest in print when it’s the core of the brand, you will fail faster, and you will fall further.”

He gave the example of print title Period Living as a brand where they had applied this ‘premiumisation’ around a retail event; generating demand for the print. They gave away a bumblebee shopper bag with a special issue in Waitrose last year, and upped the cover price from £4.45 to £7.99 to cover the cost of the gift.

“This was a huge success for us,” said Newman. “We sold 80% of the magazines – normally, sales efficiency will be 50-60% – but this one was just off the charts in terms of demand. It paid for itself in terms of the investment.”

Newman admits that generating this sort of demand is not easy to do. “You need to be able to have the capital up front to be able to make that kind of investment in packaging, retail and marketing,” he said. “But it’s something that anybody can do – you can start simply with a normal issue, and start by adding something extra – like a supplement; a straightforward paper-based product. Then you look at how much that costs, and how much you need to increase your prices as a result.” 

“What we’ve learned is that if you create a great package, and you create a lot of value, and you understand what your readers really want, then they’ll buy it.”

As a result of this type of thinking, Period Living has seen 5.6% growth in the 2019 ABCs. “At Future, we’ve got a golden rule that’s underpinned 35 years of the business,” Newman concluded. “You need to understand the needs of your audience, and then satisfy that. More importantly, you need to do that better than anybody else.”

“As long as we don’t lose sight of that value, and we always create our products with that in mind, we trust we will make money as a result.”