This is the third and final part in TheMediaBriefing’s examination of niche print products, in which we ask whether they’re the future of print journalism.
In the first part, we examined whether the ability of the internet to enable niche communities has afforded small publishers the opportunity to launch niche print products targeted at those communities. In the second, we looked at what it takes to actually get those niche print products off the ground. And in this final piece we examine what it takes for a niche print product to become a successful, long-running product.
It should go without saying, but in order for niche products to be the future of the print industry, first they need to prove they themselves have a future. The catalogue of niche print products is littered with magazines that never got beyond a third issue, for reasons of financial troubles, lack of audience or even sudden creator apathy.
Jeremy Leslie is the founder of magCulture and proprietor of a brick-and-mortar shop specialising in niche print magazines. He says that the third issue is a flashpoint for all the problems that are likely to beset a new print title:
“The really hard bump for anybody making a magazine is around issue three. Issue one, and I usually resist these types of comparisons, but it’s like a band making a first album. They’ve had three, four years of being together and they’ve put everything into that first issue.
“Then a couple of weeks later you’ve got to pull yourselves together and start thinking ‘OK, issue two,’ and it’s much more hurried. If you can get through that then issue three, the whole financial situation with cash flow is make-or-break, whether you have enough money to fund issue three. If you can get through that then there’s light.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Rob Orchard, the editorial director of Delayed Gratification:
“It is a really great time for the independent sector, though saying that a fair few of those new indie titles will go as it is fundamentally such a hard balancing act. Part of the trick is to keep turning up and power through, a lot of new titles get to maybe issue 3 and disappear.”
Part of the problem is that by time of production of the third issue, whatever startup capital an indie magazine is likely to have raised will have run out. At that point, the high production costs incurred by a print product need to be matched by the revenue it generates.
And attracting advertisers to a niche print product is far from easy – only a handful of niche print magazines are likely to do so in their first few issues, and fewer still will be able to dedicate a full-time staff member to seeking out advertising opportunities. Instead, much of that revenue is likely to have to come from circulation or subscription revenue.
Take a third option
As a result, even seasoned magazine creatives have to find workarounds. Brandie Gilliam is founder of Thoughtful magazine. She notes:
“Some of the big differences obviously, coming from a corporate background; you’re used to a big, big budget. And Thoughtfully, of course, doesn’t have that luxury. When you’re starting new, you don’t always have it, especially when you’re doing it and it’s not backed by some type of corporation. So doing more with less has been a big lesson that I’ve learned.”
But a print product doesn’t necessarily have to last indefinitely to be counted as a success. As Leslie notes, magazines are a product of their time. They’re time capsules, luxury items that act as snapshots of a community at a given moment. And sometimes their mission is completed, and the natural lifespin of a product is reached.
Philip Diprose co-founded and was editor of The Ride journal, a high-quality periodical dedicated to cycling. He explains why, though the print sales continued to rise, it was the correct decision to end the magazine after its tenth issue, which is currently still available:
“So much has changed since we printed issue 1. The world of cycling has become far bigger, there are lots more cycling magazines out there (independent and more mainstream) some of which may have been inspired by what we have done. Issue 10 seemed a good time to take a break and take stock.
“We’ve long known that we would never have huge sales it has always remained a passion that we do out of love rather than need, but our situations have changed as well. We would never want to drop the quality of the journal so it seemed better to go out on a high with what I think is the best, most diverse issue we have made.”
Despite that, The Ride had to contend with the headwinds outlined by Leslie and Orchard – the initial rush of enthusiasm and then the hard work of thinking about the follow-up issues. He explains:
“The original plan was only ever to print one issue, to see if it could be done. We even doubled our original page count so we could include everything good that we had in one issue. At the launch we proudly looked at what we had achieved and then a friend asked when issue two was coming out.”
Niche print magazines, then, could well be the future of the print magazine – with a few caveats.
The larger, more mainstream consumer magazines are seeing their print circulations shrink rapidly, and in the case of a few sectors are seeing entire swathes of publications close shop entirely. That’s usually attributed to an increase in people choosing to consume digitally, and the narrative is often that the internet is killing the print magazine.
Meanwhile, there’s a groundswell of independent magazines that have launched over the past few years, whose viability is based in part on the online communities that cluster around them both pre- and post-launch. So the narrative isn’t as clear cut as you’d imagine.
And although many of the independent print magazines will never be huge money-spinners, often financial gain isn’t the point for those magazines’ founders. Instead, they’re passion projects, celebrations of a hobby or idea or community. In that sense, they might never be anything more than a luxury product. But they’ll have succeeded in their aims all the same.