Today sees the last print edition of the UK’s best-known general engineering magazine, The Engineer. The magazine will now be published online only. Editor Jon Excell wrote last week: “Its hard to know what our Victorian forbears would make of the proposal to close the magazine. Some would certainly be horrified. Others might well be astonished to know that a publication launched more than a century and half ago is still in existence.”
I see it as part of a sad but inevitable conclusion to a free ride which began forty or fifty years ago. That was when some innovative publishers (including the forebears of The Engineer’s current owner) realised that if you could get a magazine out to all the important decision-makers in a market, advertisers would be prepared to pay so much more that it would actually cover the cost of print and distribution, and still leave a healthy profit. The “controlled circulation” magazine was born. Instead of selling a magazine to a few thousand self-selecting individuals, it could be given away, for free, to a larger number of more targeted readers.
For all of our working lifetimes, we’ve probably not even thought about the business model of all those free magazines which plop onto our desks. We’ve found them useful, however.
The problem for “controlled circulation” magazines came about 10-15 years ago when they started to get competition from the internet. The new information distribution medium might be complementary, but it took away readers and it took away advertisers, a double blow which has been driving down the profitability of print titles ever since, killing them off inexorably.
It wasn’t hard to see this coming at that time, and as editor of a hugely successful engineering magazine throughout the 1990s, I wrote a paper for my then-publisher explaining the likely outcome. Getting on board didn’t fit in with his relatively short-term business plans, so I left to found what would become one of the most successful early online business-to-business publishers. The only thing I got wrong was in predicting how long was left for controlled circulation magazines, and I’m still amazed at how many have struggled on this far. That, I’m sad to say, is due to the surprising ignorance and inertia of advertisers, who continue to pay the same (or higher) advertising rates as they did 20 years ago, for what we all know is a fraction of the readership. It can’t last.
The Engineer was one of those titles which boldly tried to restore the subscription model for print magazines in the past ten years, but this was never likely to be successful in a culture which had grown up expecting these things to be dropped on our desks for free. Now it has to focus its attention on competing in a crowded online information market, which it should be in a reasonable position to exploit, having had its parallel online operation for some time.
Jon Excell points out that The Engineer’s online version has enabled it “to extend [its] reach far beyond that of the magazine, seed daily debate on the key issues, bring our subject matter to life with video and break and analyse news in a way that’s simply not possible within the constraints of a fortnightly magazine.” He is correct. People love print magazines, but not enough to pay for them, especially when they’re full of two-week-old news. In the future we’ll all have cheap A4 e-readers which will be barely distinguishable from holding a magazine in our hands, and the first couple of decades of this century will be seen as an interesting transition period in publishing. I’m sure The Engineer will still be around then, when everything merges back together.