This week, we hear from Chris Duncan, CEO of UK Publishing at Bauer Media Group. He joined the company just a few weeks after last year’s lockdown, so he talks about what it’s been like leading Bauer through such a turbulent year, their wins and losses throughout the pandemic, and which trends he’s seen accelerated in the business. He also discusses how Bauer’s business priorities have changed post-Covid, and what it’s like heading a magazine company after over a decade working at a news publisher.
In the news roundup we discuss the data behind the end of the Trump Bump (and where we can gin up some controversy next), then ask if the BBC needs to be objective about climate change and ask if Microsoft is the unlikely saviour of micropayments.
Here are some highlights:
The focus for his first year
First of all, as you might expect, it was just, can we keep the lights on? Can we keep the business running? I think my first week, revenue was down something like 80%, from where it was expected to be. So in that first April piece, it was a lot of just, what does this look like?
It took quite a while, if you remember, three or four months really to work out how it was going to affect the business. We thought we might lose a lot of distribution, and we didn’t really. We thought we would see the advertising market get very volatile, and it certainly did. So I guess a lot of the start with was just me getting up to speed with the business we’re trying to make sure it understood what was about to happen.
We spent a lot of time focusing on just the cultural aspects of running a business under that condition. We spent a lot of time talking about how it is for the teams, and whether our process would hold together, and a lot of pieces about mental health and support for that, how we could support teams through it.
So it’s things that you would probably not normally be expected to spend a bunch of time on [as CEO].
Covid as a trend accelerator
The interesting thing is, I’m not sure there are many things that COVID created. I think it accelerated a number of trends that were already there. And so there were some titles, the titles that unfortunately we had to close were those that would have got to that position in the next two years.
I think some of the changes in the advertising revenue mix and the type of work that advertisers are doing, it’s changed, but it was coming anyway. And I think subscriptions is similar, that we’d already seen strong growth in subscriptions, and a kind of balancing, in a lot of cases with our specialist titles, they are now predominantly subscription and direct titles compared to being predominantly newsstand titles.
So all of those really were trends that we jumped from 2020 to 2023 in a weekend. I wouldn’t say that what we saw was like a complete fork in the road and things happened that we could never have predicted. They just happened at a speed that we probably hadn’t predicted.
Transitioning to working in magazine publishing from news publishing
I think from 1,000 feet high, they’re the same. We create content, we curate it, we package it, we distribute it, the business model challenges are quite similar, the transformation agendas are quite similar. There is obviously a huge difference in just the frequency. I think the focus of a daily news businesses is quite different, and the fact that by lunchtime, your whole plan for the day for that edition could have changed. And that happens fairly regularly in news.
I think, also news has, in some ways, two sets of audience that it talks to. It talks to the establishment and it talks to its audience.
So I guess one of the things I’ve noticed coming over to the magazine world is that there’s a really kind of, firstly, Bauer has incredible breadth. So I run around 120, magazines, when you add up all the different titles and sub-titles, all of which have a very clear idea of the audience that they’re talking to, and the reason that they’re there, and the services and information that they can provide. So you’ve got this incredible breadth. At the same time, because of that, each of them is at a really high level of detail and precision to talk to that audience.
On no more than 10 global news brands being able to support a paying audience
I think the quote’s often used as if I said there would only be 10 newspapers left in a few years time, it really wasn’t what I meant. So the point I was trying to make was there will be 10 that will get very big, probably global. There will be a lot of newsrooms that could focus on a local beat, or a small national beat, or a really specialist area that could make subscriptions work.
But it would be really difficult for those people in the middle, the sort of mid range companies; they weren’t big enough to go global, but they weren’t small enough to have a low cost base. I thought that would be really difficult to sustain.
I think that probably has been borne out. That comes back to where I am now where, absolutely, I think there is a future for sustaining specialist magazines because they have a really committed community, they have content that’s hard to find elsewhere, they’re brilliantly written, they’re carefully edited with a real empathy for the audience. And that’s, that’s really the secret sauce I think, for building good subscription businesses.
So I think still at that, that end, if you’re focused on being the absolute Bible for a group of people or a community of interest, I think subscription can work. I would still bet in five years time, if there’s more than 10 real global newsrooms, you can quote me as being wrong!