Magazines are vanishing from the Australian cultural landscape. Once they sat at the centre of Australian society. They could be found everywhere: from barbershops to cafes to doctors’ waiting rooms. Their circulation — and cultural heft — dwarfed newspapers.
Now, they feel almost self-consciously anachronistic.
Magazines have always given journalism space to try new things. That’s meant they’ve always faced attrition as titles come and go — some too soon and some not soon enough. But now almost all the announcements are closures or mergers. Where job losses in the big mastheads or television networks make their own news, the closures and mergers of magazines are usually mourned only with a few lines in the trade newsletters.
Yet it should be a hard shift to digest. Australia’s magazines — far more than the more stodgy daily papers – have repeatedly ridden the crest of reporting social and cultural change: think Jules Archibald’s federation-era The Bulletin; Ken Slessor’s Smith’s Weekly between the wars; the post-war Women’s Weekly; Tracks, Go-Set, Nation Review and Ita Buttrose’s Cleo in the swinging seventies; Robert Gottliebsen’s BRW in business’ roaring eighties, Jackie Frank’s Marie Claire in the 1990s or Kirstie Clements at Vogue Australia in the first decade of this century.
They provided opportunities and careers for Australia’s writers, cartoonists, poets, and photographers. They employed women as journalists and editors while newspapers and television were still rigorously male.
It’s hard to track the decline in the economics of magazines as the three major companies (The German-owned Bauer Media, Seven West Media’s Pacific Magazines and News Corp’s spaceless NewsLifeMedia) no longer audit (or release) their circulation figures. Sorry, two major companies: Seven sold Pacific to Bauer for $40 million this morning. And with News Corp having recently sold a trio of titles to Bauer as well, two may soon merge into one.
One thing we can track is slumping revenues. Bauer reported a 13.7% fall last financial year. Expect that to continue.
For individual mastheads, we’re left to rely on readership estimates based on consumer surveys of about 100 of the titles still published. It’s a measure designed to lure advertisers rather than inform. Or you can walk into just about any newsagent, where the racks of magazines on show are diminishing month by month — just like the number of newsagencies themselves.
The format has been largely co-opted by content marketers. According to Roy Morgan’s readership survey, about a third of all “magazine” readerships are from the publications given away by the big two supermarkets, the airlines and the various state-based motorists associations.
These are big players: each of the Woolworths and Coles publications are seen by over 20% of Australians. But the cost of printing and distribution means that even in this space only the biggest companies are sustaining these promotions in magazine form.
Only three subscription-based titles are seen by more than 5% of the Australian population, all monthlies: Better Homes and Gardens, Women’s Weekly and National Geographic .
What’s changed? Well, like newspapers, advertisers have picked up and moved to the big tech platforms who can reach targeted audiences more effectively than even the most niche of magazines.
Global access means that Australian publications have lost off-shore syndication content and have to compete directly with US magazines for both sales and attention of readers.
And readers have changed. Our attention is finite. The jobs that magazine used to do for us have been fragmented, taken up by other formats which have little to do with journalism: Instagram for celebrity gossip and fashion; e-commerce surfing on Amazon for browsing products in print; web-based information for trade niches; podcasts, YouTube videos and blog posts for long news magazine reads. Even newsletters like Crikey have snaffled away time that was once owned by magazines.
Of course, the inherent flexibility and power of the format means that magazines are unlikely to vanish entirely. Since 2005, The Monthly has filled a valuable news niche and provided openings for new writers. Australia’s literary magazines like Meanjin or Griffith Review provide diverse reporting opportunities.
But these are all exceptions that prove the rule. The reality is, the central role that magazines enjoyed through the 20th century has been shattered by an information-rich, attention-poor world.
Does the legacy of Australian magazines still live on? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.