I still remember the first time I picked up Womankind magazine. Years earlier I’d cut magazine purchases out of my life. Having outgrown Frankie, finding no solace in gossip magazines, and rejecting mass consumption and a ‘typical’ consumer lifestyle, I found my inspiration and need for a traditional women’s magazine was waning. That was, until a striking publication with the image of a stern Frida Kahlo formed from tiny collaged flowers caught my eye in a bookshop.
It only had three small headlines—if they could even be called that—but one in particular stood out: ‘Women as revolutionaries’. My interest was piqued. I googled the masthead, pleased to discover it was Australian, but even more pleasantly pleased to discover it was an advertising-free magazine. Incredulous, yet impressed, I purchased it immediately.
Magazines have been synonymous with advertising for decades. However, generally they resisted advertising for a fair while after inception. In Australia, the first magazine with advertisements was the Sydney Literary News. Founded in 1837, it didn’t introduce advertisements until the 1840s. In the US, Time Inc. didn’t let advertising onto its pages until 1955. Many publications wished to avoid the ‘insidious’ nature of advertising which was deemed to not line up with literary values. Today, however, it’s rare to find magazines that exist (or are profitable) without advertising.
But, a small shift appears to be happening, and a growing trend towards cutting print advertising is re-emerging. Womankind is not the only publication to employ this tactic, New Philosopher—the parent magazine to Womankind—crowd-funded to launch their first ad-free issue back in 2013. Now, Prevention—owned by Rodale Inc.—is set to entirely cut advertising out of their print publication by July 2016. (Rodale Inc. is a family-owned American company who also publish titles like Men’s Health and Runner’s World.) Other lesser-known publications that are already ad-free include: Darling, The Sun and Orion.
Due to the rise of the internet and social media, the publishing industry’s current profit model is ceasing to be viable—it’s evolve or die—and many publishing houses are experimenting with new and inventive ways to stay profitable. In the last few years alone, several major Australian publications have closed their doors. Titles like Cleo, Madison, Grazia and The Bulletin, to name a few. At a time when other Australian publications are shutting down, Womankind is apparently growing and thriving.
Flicking through Womankind is an experience to savour. Even though it’s officially listed under the category of Women’s Fashion & Beauty, it really isn’t either of those things. In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint this magazine into any type of genre or category—besides being a magazine for women. It is a magazine with a conscience; offering women more intellectual, philosophical and sociological articles that are in no way compromised by advertisers.
In an interview with ArtsHub, editor, Antonia Case, said, ‘If you think about other products, such as shoes, they don’t have advertising on them. We are exactly the same.’
‘Your margins are a bit lower, but it is not about that. It is not all about profit in this world. There is also an element of doing things right. Being ethical. Having good impact. And for us that is much more important than profit,’ said Case.
You’ve got to give it to Case, according to iSubscribe, Womankind is the fourth most successful magazine in Women’s Health & Beauty, on par with other titles in the same category like Vogue, Marie Claire and ahead of well-established magazine Frankie. It should be noted that Womankind’s cover price is $15, about $5 more than other magazines listed in the same category.
So, does this mean that entirely cutting the costs associated with advertising, subsequently raising cover prices, and marketing magazines as more ‘ethical’ because of this, is the way forward for the publishing industry? Would this work for other major titles that primarily exist to ‘inspire’ (read: brainwash) women into purchasing products? Or is this an option that few magazines actually have the ability to pull off? After all, Womankind’s success could be attributed not to being ad-free, but to being wholly unique. And if the market becomes saturated with similar ‘ethical’ ad-free publications, are these likely to be just as successful?
And, is a magazine still a magazine if it’s not existing as a vehicle to get products in front of consumers? According to Andrew Calcutt, to anyone in the sales and marketing teams at these publishing houses, probably not. As Calcutt writes in Inside Magazine Publishing, magazines could be defined as ‘vehicles for delivering readers’ eyeballs to advertisers’.
But how do consumers view magazines? Picking up Womankind is inspiring, sure. And informative, yes. And I, the reader, walk away from each copy wanting to be better, and do more. And not even a tiny bit of me wants to run to a store and purchase anything. It makes me feel like all the tools I need to be happy, successful and content in this world, are inside of me. The question is, is there really any room for magazines such as this to thrive in a consumerist society? Or will capitalism eventually win out?
Prevention is a mainstream publication that currently contains advertisements but will be eschewing them as of July 2016. Time.com reports that although the magazine sold more ads in 2015 than 2014, the revenue from these sales was less overall. This has led to Maria Rodale—heiress to Rodale Inc.—to take drastic action and cut print advertisements out entirely. According to Rodale this will lead to savings in production and labour costs. And by coupling it with a higher cover price, Rodale projects that this will make the publication profitable again.
Cutting out print advertising not only saves pages and print in each publication, but it also means that jobs are rendered defunct and whole divisions are no longer required. The Wall Street Journal reports that Prevention will cut 13 ad sales jobs, which is about 50% of the publication’s operating expenses.
‘If you have to run the numbers out with an advertising model, it’s hard to see it ever getting to profitability … With a non-advertising model, it quickly becomes profitable,’ said Rodale.
With a higher cover price, and no advertisements, what will really separate a magazine from a coffee-table book—besides the frequent nature of publication? Are the lines becoming more blurred between the two? And is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps the magazine is moving towards something more like a book: a beautifully printed publication to display on a coffee table. A memento to treasure, as opposed to an aspirational sales vehicle that urges us to consume.
Much of Womankind’s success can be attributed to filling a gap in the women’s magazine market, one which most current magazines failed to notice, or maybe, to care about. The current publishing model of making profit purely from advertisements, as opposed to from readers, has led to a decrease in the quality of the magazine as a product, and has me, as the reader, wary of trusting magazines as a source of knowledge and curation—mostly a magazine seems to be at the beck-and-call of the advertisers that fund its pages.
What really is the issue of having the reader of the product, actually paying for the content that they’re reading? Paying for the privilege of digesting a specific curation of content that a magazine—a source of knowledge—has specifically gathered. Just for their niche audience. And to provide value that a reader is happy to pay for. Value which that reader cannot get anywhere else. Yes, knowledge that the reader cannot find easily on the internet either.
I came across a cooking magazine in America who reportedly does this very well. America’s Test Kitchen launched their print magazine Cook’s Illustrated in 1993 and they attribute its ongoing success to giving away little content for free. According to an interview with CEO Christopher Kimball on Gigaom.com their print business is growing. Three of their print magazines have over 1.3 million subscribers.
According to Kimball, ‘I don’t think it’s a question of print being dead. I think it’s a question of a publishing model that’s dead. I’ve always felt you should make the reader pay for content because the advertising driven formula was based upon a rare moment in time when you had lots of advertisers with lots of money and not a lot of places to go. It was short term.’
‘Ninety-nine percent of what goes in our magazines [and] TV shows is based upon surveys that we sent out to readers and viewers, yes. We don’t take advertising, so we don’t have the luxury of telling you what we want to do,’ said Kimball.
What Kimball is saying is an interesting concept; because their publication doesn’t take advertising, they have to give their readers content that their readers actually want. Good, informative content. Because readers are the ones actually supporting the publication. It’s a novel concept, apparently, but really, it makes perfect sense.
Today we live in oversaturated ad-world. Advertorials, popups, sponsored listicles, 30 second videos before sponsored YouTube videos, banner ads. We’re surrounded by advertising 24/7. Of course people are willing to pay a premium to have content that is without advertising. To pay for content that feels ‘authentic’. Content that has no ulterior motive, no underlying ‘insidious’ nature.
Perhaps, instead of thinking magazines are morphing into something entirely new, this is really just magazines coming full circle—slowly making their way back to their literary (and therefore, more pure) roots.