Monday, August 13, 2007

Free magazines follow in footsteps of successful free newspapers

Free magazines follow in footsteps of successful free newspapers
By Eric Pfanner
LONDON: Mike Soutar refuses to say who or what will be featured on the cover of Short List, a new men's magazine he is introducing next month in Britain, but one thing seems certain: If it is a female model, she will wear at least a bit of clothing.

"No nudity, no profanity," said Soutar, a former top executive at IPC, a British magazine unit of Time Warner, who now heads a group of investors behind Short List. "We don't want to embarrass our readers."

That pledge reflects a minor revolution in the men's magazine business in Britain, proving ground for the "lads' mag" phenomenon of the 1990s. The formula - a low-brow blend of bare-breasted B-listers and bawdy jokes - lately has run out of gas.

Perhaps even more radical, however, is Short List's distribution strategy: The magazine will be given away free of charge. Soutar said 500,000 copies will be handed out weekly near train stations, in gyms and in other places frequented by high-earning, young men in London and five other cities in Britain.

While free dailies have attracted millions of readers around the world - they make up more than 50 percent of the newspaper market in Spain, for instance - magazines have generally been reluctant to drop their cover charges, aside from advertiser-driven handouts aimed at, say, tourists or shoppers.

The backers of Short List want to take free publishing into the domain of glossier magazines like Esquire and GQ - and their advertisers. They say they are encouraged by the apparent success of a free magazine called Sport, which was started three years ago in Paris and which began publishing in Britain late last year.

More than 700,000 copies of Sport are distributed weekly in Paris and other cities in France; with 320,000 handed out in London. The French edition is already profitable, while the British version is on track to break even within three years, said Greg Miall, publishing director for the British edition.

"We're 10 ½ months old, and we've got BMW and Mercedes as advertisers," he said. "If you had asked me a year ago, I would have given my right arm for that. Now I've got them, and still have my arm."

One reason that Miall has been able to keep his limbs intact is that advertisers have had fewer ways to reach sports fans with print ads in France and Britain, compared with America. Because there are no British or French weeklies comparable to the American magazine Sports Illustrated, many readers have gotten their sporting fixes via daily publications - either general interest papers in Britain or L'Equipe, a dedicated sports paper, in France - or from television or the Internet.

"It's not about being paid or free," said Francis Jaluzot, chief executive of Sport Media & Strategies, the privately held company that publishes Sport. "You have to have a concept."

Short List, by contrast, is entering a market with no shortage of existing concepts in Britain.

In addition to British editions of American men's publications like GQ, Esquire and Men's Health, there are homegrown publications like Arena, FHM and Loaded. As competition among these magazines, all monthlies, increased in the 1990s, many of them went down the lads' mag route.

In 2004 two weeklies, Nuts and Zoo, joined the fray. The distinction between mainstream men's magazines and what the British refer to as "top shelf" publications, for the place on newsstands where pornographic material is displayed, was further blurred, bringing complaints from parents' groups and some retailers.

"The move downmarket by some of these titles will go down in the history of publishing as one of the crassest moves," said Jamie Bill, publishing director for the British edition of GQ, which is owned by Condé Nast.

It was also disastrous from a business standpoint. With "top shelf" and similar content widely available for free on the Internet, many men stopped buying these magazines.

The circulation slump has contributed to the difficulties faced by some British magazine publishers, including Emap, the owner of FHM, Arena and Zoo. Emap said in July that it was considering a sale of "some or all of its constituent businesses." The company has already sold some nonmagazine units.

Meanwhile Dennis Publishing, which owns Maxim, recently agreed to sell that magazine and several others to Quadrangle Partners, a private equity firm.

Other publishers are staying in the market but adjusting their strategies. Esquire, which has a circulation of 52,000 in Britain, recently hired a new editor, Jeremy Langmead, from Wallpaper magazine. Under Langmead, Esquire's British edition has shrunk slightly, moving to a size that is the same as the U.S. version but smaller than many British magazines. The September issue, the first under the new editor, features a cover photo of Michelle Pfeiffer - in a little black dress but discreetly tucked into a big red chair.

Magazines aimed at relatively well-to-do readers, like GQ and Esquire, which is published in Britain by Hearst's National Magazine division, will soon face new competition from Short List. Soutar said the magazine would be edited for career-oriented men in their 20s and 30s.

For advertisers, a major question will be whether the magazine can produce quality editorial content within the budget constraints imposed by eliminating a cover charge, which typically accounts for about 30 percent to 40 percent of glossy magazines' revenue.

"It's probably not something we would look at," said an executive in charge of buying advertising space for a major French-owned luxury brand, who declined to be identified in order to protect industry relationships. "Anyway, they haven't called me."

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