The Listener and The Discerning Reader

The-Listener-magazines-discerning

A selection of the hundreds of magazine titles on offer in Australia (image courtesy of TSG Lotto Express, Warwick)

One of my research assistants asked this week if I wanted his back issues of The Listener. I’m now regretting my luke-warm response, given that it is barely two months since the owner, Bauer Media, closed down New Zealand’s 81-year-old current affairs magazine.

German-owned Bauer Media had been trying to sell its magazines in Australasia for a while. Things came to a head with COVID-19, as magazines were not considered “essential” under NZ’s strict level four restrictions. Print publication ceased abruptly and although all of Bauer’s magazines still have an online presence, editorials have not been updated since April 1. A sale of Bauer’s Australian and New Zealand magazines, has, meanwhile, been moved to the front-burner.

The German media group pulled the pin on its New Zealand titles on April 2. The first inkling staff had was an early morning Zoom conference call which put everyone out of work.

Titles axed by Bauer Media included New Zealand Listener, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, Metro, North & South, Next, Fashion Quarterly and many others. This week, news broke that the German publisher has agreed to offload its Australian and New Zealand magazines, including The Australian Woman’s Weekly and New Idea, to buyout fund Mercury Capital.

The Hamburg based family-owned publisher had owned these magazines since 2012, when it paid Nine Entertainment Co $525 million for its magazine division. In the eight years since, Bauer Media has closed many titles including Dolly, Cleo, Cosmopolitan and tabloid mags People and Picture.

The New Zealand Herald this week speculated that Mercury Capital might run into some obstacles in getting its New Zealand magazines up and running, as many former staffers have moved on to other projects.

The most recent editor of The Listener, Paul Little, believed the lost magazines “contributed to New Zealand’s cultural landscape”.

In a Hawkes Bay Today editorial, Little rightly noted that Australia has no equivalent of The Listener, Metro or North & South.  Little said the titles reflected New Zealand concerns in a way other media don’t. “They allow voices to be heard that will now be silenced.”

I grew up in a newspaper-reading household, one in which the weekly copy of The Listener, New Zealand’s only national current affairs magazine, was eagerly shared (once Dad was finished with it).

The core of The Listener was a national TV and radio guide, tucked at the end of the magazine with the crosswords and Sudoku.

According to an official history, The New Zealand Listener, launched in 1939, soon expanded beyond its original brief to publicise radio programmes. It became the country’s only national weekly current affairs and entertainment magazine.

The Listener’s paid circulation peaked at 375,885 in 1982; but even after losing its TV guide monopoly, it was still one of the country’s top-selling and best-loved magazines.

Paul Little defended his former stable of quality, independent magazines as “essential to diversity”.

“They provide a home for ideas that’s not duplicated anywhere else. They have also been, in my experience, editorially independent.”

Little described the government’s decision to treat magazines as “non-essential” as “precipitate”.

“Magazines have survived this long because they do something unique. They have a singular, almost intimate relationship with their readers.”

Whatever the fundamental problem with magazines in 2019-2020, readership is not the issue.  Roy Morgan data for the year to December 2019 found that six out of New Zealand’s top 10 magazines increased readership. The top three were AA Directions, NZ Woman’s Day and New Zealand Listener.

Likewise in Australia, Roy Morgan readership figures published for the year to June 30, 2019, revealed that 15,227 million Australians aged 14+ (73.7%) read magazines in print or online, either via the web or an app. This number is up 1.2%, or 187,000, from a year ago.

The best-read (paid) magazines in Australia are Better Homes and Gardens and The Woman’s Weekly (Coles Magazine is the leading free publication with five million readers).

Some magazines continue to thrive as a result of what researchers call “cross-platform audience” – e.g. someone who lives in Kingaroy reading the online editions of quality magazines like The Atlantic, Time or The New Yorker.

Given recent media sales and buyouts in the magazine world you’d have to say the industry is in a state of flux.

Time magazine has a global print edition readership of 23 million and while it has, in recent years, cut its print circulation to two million, it is still the magazine considered as a world leader, even though it ranks only 10th in circulation in the US.

Two recent changes of ownership magnify the trend towards digital magazines and a heavier focus on lifestyle and entertainment. In November 2017, Meredith Corporation announced its acquisition of Time, Inc., backed by Koch Equity Development. In March 2018, only seven weeks after the closure of the sale, Meredith announced that it would explore the sale of Time and sister magazines Fortune, Money and Sports Illustrated as they “did not align with the company’s lifestyle brands”.

Newspaper and magazine owners are notorious for giving little or no notice before closing down publications. Cases in point include The Listener et al (2020), Brisbane’s tabloid The Daily Sun (1991) and Australia’s oldest print magazine, The Bulletin (2008). The latter was closed by press release a day after the last edition hit the news-stands. Although winning journalism awards under its last editor (John Lehmann, now editor of The Australian), it was considered not financially viable with a circulation of only 58,000.

This is a global problem, spelt out in numbers in a Guardian report last year. The top 10 chart of consumer titles that readers buy or subscribe in the UK recorded a total circulation of 4.7m in the first half of 2019, compared with 9.4m in the first six months of 2001.

Marie Claire (the thinking woman’s magazine), shut down its UK edition last year after 31 years of expanding female horizons (although it is still published here). Other British magazines to succumb to the digital revolution included the venerable music mag NME and so-called ‘Lad’s Mags’ FHM, Loaded, Maxim, Nuts and Zoo. Female-focused titles such as More!, Look, Instyle, She magazine and Reveal also closed.

One might be able to predict the inevitable populist trend in magazines and the drift to digital-only by watching what happens to Time after two ownership changes in three years.

In September 2018, Meredith announced that it would re-sell Time Inc. and its stable of titles to internet billionaire Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne for $190 million. The deal was completed on October 31, 2018.

In whatever form it survives, Time will be remembered for its enduring ‘Man of The Year’ cover tradition (changed to ‘Person of the Year’ in 1999).

FOMM readers who delight in well expressed prose will enjoy this comment about Time:

Time’s early writing style apparently made regular use of inverted sentences, much less so after being parodied in 1936 by Wolcott Gibbs in The New Yorker:

“Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind […] Where it all will end, knows God!” Gibbs quoth.

Last week: Yes, of course Ed’s comments were not meant to be there at the end. You may note the suggestions were studiously ignored.

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