The last Word
Another one bites the dust. Just as the same obituary for record stores and bookshops can be dusted off and recycled as one after another closes its doors, the same sentiments can sadly be applied to last week’s news about …
Another one bites the dust. Just as the same obituary for record stores and bookshops can be dusted off and recycled as one after another closes its doors, the same sentiments can sadly be applied to last week’s news about The Word magazine. The nine year old title will appear on newsagents’ shelves one last time before joining Select, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, Record Mirror, Volume, Number One and hundreds of other titles in the great inky after-life.
As you can imagine, the wake is in full swing with some nice pieces on what the magazine meant to its readers and writers (such as this one from regular Word contributor Andrew Collins). Helmed by magazine publishing veterans David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Andrew Harrison, The Word set out to cut a dash and did so with great vim and enthusiasm as it sought to show that there was a market for a New Yorker-style title dedicated to music, film and books. Yes, such a market does exist, but it’s not a big one. The most recent circulation figures had the title at just over 25,000 sales on a downyard year-on-year curve.
Hepworth himself did the task of saving everyone pointing out the bleeding obvious with a post about what happened after he announced the magazine’s closure. In a digital age, he notes, everyone knows about your news within minutes, which goes a long way to explaining the pickle which print publications find themselves in. “The speed with which this item of news spread and became a news event”, Hepworth mused, “was a live demonstration of the same forces which mean you can’t publish magazines, or indeed anything, the way you once did.”
In many ways, this news kills the optimistic trend which we occasionally use to explain why some traditional bastions will be the exception to the disruption rule. The Word had 25,000 true fans in that they bought the magazine from newstands or got it through their letterbox every month. It has a brilliant website and a happy, clued-in relationship with its readers. The magazine had the clout to get the interviews it was after and the writers it wanted to see featured in its pages. Yet even that wasn’t enough.
Writing about the magazine’s circulation back in late 2010, Hepworth noted that the closure of the Borders’ chain had taken 10 per cent of their sales. Even for a magazine with a heavyweight partner – Guardian Media Group owns 29.5 per cent of Word publisher Development Hell, which also publishes Mixmag – it was hard to make everything add up.
Hepworth also touches on an uncomfortable truth in his blog post which the vast majority of those involved in print publications just do not want to acknowledge. “I also wouldn’t be surprised to see any media enterprise – from massive household name newspaper brands to tiny ones like The Word – shut their doors tomorrow. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.”
This is something which is rarely accepted by those who work at the coalface. For all the gnashing of teeth and stomping of feet (and even well-intended though totally futile petitions) which follows a favoured magazine or shop or what-have-you going of business, the truth is you have absolutely no entitlement to stay in business. A nine or 90 year run does not guarantee you anything if the market changes and your customers can go elsewhere for their wares (or, as is the case with paid media, can do without it). You can talk about the many and varied ways to square the circle – believe me, every single possibility to save their skin has been discussed, debated and disected at media companies worldwide – but the main problem remains: the costs which have to be paid and the revenue which is earned do not add up.
It’s a lesson which media organisations will face again and again in the coming years as they struggle to make business sense in a new age. Even doing the right things – and The Word did all of these and more by developing its readership base – will not wash. Unfortunately, even though the writing is firmly on the wall, we’ll be reading a lot more of these obituaries and mourning a lot more titles like The Word in the years to come.