ABC SPECIAL: Mixed results mark the first tentative steps to recovery

This month's set of magazine ABC results was the most eagerly anticipated circulation document of the past five years.

Natmags reported the smallest overall decline
Natmags reported the smallest overall decline

In a six-month period where magazine ad spend dropped £56m period on period (source: The Nielsen Company), would the circulation figures be a bloodbath, as many feared, or would the market start to show green shoots of recovery?

The reality was somewhere in between: although the recession inevitably claimed its casualties, the stand-out performances of titles such as More! and Bella showed that if publishers focus on their audiences, it is possible to outperform the market.

For this reason, Douglas McCabe, press analyst at Enders Analysis, heralds this month's ABC report as a cautious sign that the market is starting to plateau - but he qualifies his pronouncement with "major caveats".

He says: "The rate of decline has eased slightly, but it is an easier comparison because magazine circulations have already come down a long way. If unemployment continues to rise and the economy is flat, magazine circulations will continue to fall, and the industry must plan for that scenario."

One worrying trend is the implosion of the "safe haven" in women's magazines - the double-digit decline of titles such as She, Pick Me Up and Marie Claire - suggesting a categorical shift away from multiple magazine purchases.

If the market can no longer support the range of magazines on offer, the niche titles in all sectors will start to drop away. The danger is that if the industry loses its scale, the supermarkets, which sell about 50% of the UK's magazines, could review their relationship with the industry and give magazines less shelf space.

The good news is that advertising revenues are predicted to be flat in 2010 before rising again over 2011. However, the bad news is that audiences are migrating more quickly as they become accustomed to a wider range of media, and magazines will have to reinvent themselves more frequently to keep pace.

And as if the challenges weren't ferocious enough, in October, ShortList Media's free weekly Stylist will join the fray in the already crowded women's market. Look and Grazia may both be in the black for now - but for how long?

Harriet Dennys, features editor, Media Week

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