Publishers Are Reinvesting in the ‘Lean-Back’ Experience of Print Magazines
Retailers like REI and Callaway Golf aren’t the only companies debuting print magazines these days. Despite flipping the “digital-only” switch on many titles, major publishers continue to launch new publications – and reinvest in existing ones – with a heightened focus on paper quality, editorial value, and the luxuries of the print experience.
On Jan. 30, Hearst Autos announced a new luxury magazine for auto enthusiasts called R&T, a lifestyle counterpart to Road & Track magazine that will be printed on premium oversized paper stock. A day earlier, Meredith Corporation announced a larger trim size and improved paper quality for its monthly Travel + Leisure, beginning with the March 2020 issue. Meredith’s new Property Brothers title, Reveal, also hit newsstands in January, as did the company’s revamped quarterly Rachael Ray magazine on upgraded stock.
“A luxury magazine experience is a special lean-back moment that’s transportive,” says Doug Olson, president of Meredith Magazines. “It’s about tapping into the passions of people seeking content in a range of areas of interest and giving them something that they can’t get online or through other channels – stunning images, beautiful design, and compelling storytelling that you can hold in your hands.”
As with the industry’s shift toward paid content online, the higher-quality print experience comes at a higher price to consumers – a strategic move by publishers to offset shrinking advertising revenue while still turning profit from print.
Olson says Meredith’s portfolio of more than 40 brands employs a variety of successful business strategies. For higher frequency, mass-appeal brands like People and Better Homes & Gardens, as well as luxury titles with desirable affluent readership like Travel + Leisure, advertising remains a key revenue generator. “At the same time, we are producing high-quality premium print brands at premium pricing — Magnolia Journal, Rachael Ray In Season, Coastal Living, the new Reveal, among others — focused on celebrity personalities or popular consumer lifestyle interests that are striking a chord with passionate readers,” Olson says. “This consumer-driven model that’s not reliant on advertising is also a profitable business for us.”
We talked to leaders at Hearst Autos, Bonnier Media, and Meredith to learn more about why they’re still investing in print products and how they’re redesigning the magazine model and experience for today's readers.
For the Road & Track brand, the R&T magazine launch is part of a broader effort to build a multi-generational community of auto lifestyle enthusiasts who are engaged on many levels, “and that engagement extends beyond print,” says Michelle Panzer, chief marketing officer at Hearst Autos.
In 2019, Road & Track expanded into the experiential business with Road & Track Experiences and launched R&T CREW, a subscription box and magazine for children. “A print product focused on cars coupled with lifestyle content for the super-enthusiast was the next logical step,” Panzer says.
While the flagship Road & Track magazine (published 10 times a year) covers automotive news, the lower-frequency R&T will focus more on storytelling, featuring long-form reporting and lifestyle photography that highlights not only the cars but also “the fascinating people who build and drive them,” Panzer says. Three issues of R&T will come out this summer, fall, and winter; in 2021 the magazine will publish bimonthly and begin subscriptions. The subscription price is still being determined.
“Each issue will be themed and be tied a consumer experience,” Panzer adds. “For example, the first issue will be released around the Indy 500, and Hearst Autos will have a presence at the race itself to enhance the R&T experience.”
This premiere motorsports-themed issue will be available in select stores on May 26, as well as be sent to 50,000 Road & Track subscribers. Hearst will also promote R&T through its other brands, including fellow auto brands Car and Driver and Autoweek.
“For those in any enthusiast space, whether that’s automotive or something else, there is a market hungry for well-produced, engaging content in a beautiful package,” Panzer says.
In 2018, Bonnier switched four of its titles – Popular Science, Cycle World, Outdoor Life, and Saveur – to a quarterly frequency. As part of the switch, the publications were enhanced with bigger folio sizes, improved paper quality, and more editorial pages. Gregory Gatto, executive vice president at Bonnier Media, says the frequency reduction has enabled greater editorial ambition and a better reader experience.
“As media habits have changed, we have reevaluated our content strategies to align with how people are consuming media,” Gatto says. “We haven’t abandoned print as a home for service content, but rather we adjusted the content mix to allow for more-ambitious pieces, while shifting searchable service content to digital and social platforms.”
Bonnier increased subscription prices and lowered rate bases for its quarterly titles to make the transition to more reader revenue. While quarterly magazine ad revenue has declined overall, Gatto says the rate of decline is lower than projected. “More important, both reader and advertiser feedback has been positive,” he says.
When Popular Science went quarterly, its editorial team reimagined their content to produce themed, keepsake issues focused on single topics. For example, the “Make It Last” issue (Summer 2019) centered on environmental issues, and “The Tiny Issue” (Fall 2018) featured reporting on microorganisms, mini golf, and other ‘small’ subjects. The latter earned a National Magazine Award in the “Single-Topic Issue” category last year, and the former is nominated in the same category this year.
Popular Science has seen a 17% increase in total print audience since 2018, along with a 14% increase in the number of reading days spent with the publication, Gatto says, noting that Bonnier’s other quarterlies have had similar increases.
“I certainly think the pivot toward quality — fewer, better, and at a higher price — will continue,” Gatto says. “I also believe that enthusiast media is better positioned than broad-based magazines because the consumer is passionate about the subject matter and will find the time to engage.”
In contrast with the trend toward lower-frequency magazines, Travel + Leisure persists as the only monthly travel magazine in the U.S. The 49-year-old publication, known for its travel photography, is a mainstay on airport newsstands and attracts an audience with sizeable spending power.
“The minute that Meredith acquired the Time Inc brands they saw that Travel + Leisure had a tremendous amount of potential,” says Jacqui Gifford, editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure. “They know that right now, at this moment in the world, people are really prioritizing experiences over things – and travel is one of the ultimate experiences.”
Meredith’s investment in bigger, better paper for the legacy title will make its photography even more immersive, says Gifford. Yet trim size isn’t the only component of a luxury magazine-reading experience. Transportive storytelling and design are also key, which is why Gifford initiated a redesign last year.
“People are bombarded by things all day long. They’re on their phones 24/7, and they’re watching and consuming media from a variety of channels,” she says. “I believe when you’re taking the time to read a magazine you want to pause and reflect, and so from a visual standpoint the book needed to be more uncluttered.”
In the redesign, the Travel + Leisure team added more white space to pages, removed captions from photos to make them more readable, and enlarged photos throughout the magazine. With the enhanced March 2020 issue, the magazine is also unveiling an updated logo.
Giulio Capua, SVP/group publisher of the Luxury Group at Meredith, says having a high-quality editorial product has allowed Travel + Leisure to grow print revenue at a time when advertisers are largely decreasing their print spend. The brand's print ad revenue increased 7% in 2019 from 2018. Its total audience also expanded across print, digital, and social by 17%.
“In the travel space, print is the ‘lean back’ experience that’s meant to engage and inspire,” Capua says. “Because of our success editorially, we are able to offer clients a full suite of solutions and they can leverage the Travel + Leisure brand across platforms where print is always a critical component.”