Falling in and out of love with the Newsagent

August 2010

This is a big deal for me. Ever since I was a kid—regularly mooching up and down the luxuriously wide aisles of the Boronia Village Newsagency—the humble newsagent has always been my first stop when heading out. It’s the first place I seek out whenever travelling. Friends will tell you I have a hard time going past one without stopping by. I’m particularly embarrassed to recall a Christmas walk one year through an atmospherically empty London town—with my partner at the time—that included a brief diversion when I spotted a newsagency that looked like it was open, only to discover the staff were just utilising a quiet day to shuffle some stock around. See, embarrassing, huh. But then the local newsagency has always been my compass and my guide. This is no longer the case.

I want to say the iPhone has replaced the local newsagency as my first port-of-call for that familiar rush of information, but that’s not entirely true. I think I have just become tired of the newsagent's lack of ambition. Newsagencies don’t change. A whole industry in flux swirls around them and they stubbornly stay the same—only with less and less titles to stock on their shelves. Our unambitious local newsagents are only partly to blame though. The crux of the problem with the waning appeal of the magazine stockist lies in distribution.

The most common method of magazine distribution is over complicated and severely outmoded. And it has been for a while now. The past few years have seen this interdependence—between the newsagent and distributors—eroded even further. You see, when the newsagent was the sole high street purveyor of printed periodicals distributors could hog-tie magazine publishers into highfalutin deals in exchange for stuff like eye level shelf positions, numbers of stores they could be stocked in etc. Not that publishers could be guaranteed that their chosen ‘sweet spot’ would be where their magazines would land, or even if they would reach the stores they were hoping they would. You could say it was an inexact science. Doing convoluted deals with big distributors was, is and, it seems, will always be a false economy.

Browsing is a key selling point for magazines. If you go into a newsagent and they try to stop you browsing just say ‘I ain’t buyin’ nuffing without looking at it first.’ There aren’t a lot of newsagents with no browsing policies because their magazines simply wouldn’t sell. What’s happened in recent times, in the U.K., is that the magazine industry lost pretty much all of the big stores that had room to lavish on comfortably wide aisles and ample shelf space, along which visitors could browse in relative comfort. Places like Borders and Virgin Megastores etc allowed customers to flick through a variety of magazines without the pressure of the store owner constantly watching you out of the corner of their eye. This was important in giving potential readers the freedom to explore a range of titles.

The lack of interest and innovation smaller newsagents have, and the competition for the sweetest shelf space caused by over complicated distribution deals, have promoted a sort of ‘gulp and go’ culture, i.e. magazines are often treated like the chocolates bars and crisps that seek to engulf them. Quantity over quality is the natural theme in this environment. Still, bland repetitive mainstream mags like Heat and Nuts etc continue to struggle for relevance against a backdrop of falling advertising revenue. Mainstream publishers, together with your commonherd newsagent, have thrown their core product up against all manner of cheap and easy consumer conveniences and—in the process—started to cancel each other out.

So that’s a whole world of problems for the far-too-humble newsagent to resolve… or die trying. It’s also the reason I’ve lost hope any sort of recovery—but that’s enough negativity… There are people with answers and a whole realm of possibilities for new forms of distribution already accessible to publishers and readers alike. More excitedly, they mostly favour the independent publisher over the corporate behemoths.



Image — Postcard from the early 1970s showing the Boronia Village Newsagency in the bottom left corner as it looked only a few years after opening.

 Niche distributors

So, the models of distribution that have kept magazine publishers going for so long are now broken. It’s the time to move on. The recent digital explosion may have diverted readers attention away from printed matter but it has also opened up multiple avenues of distribution previously unimaginable. Take Stack for instance. The premise behind Stack is that, once you’ve subscribed, you get a series of carefully curated independent mags delivered to your door. Every delivery is a surprise. It’s a unique proposition that opens up a whole new realm of magazines to adventurous readers. Since Stack launched only two years ago a number of other independent online distributors have been popping up. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see more indie distributors appearing online in the coming years, supplying all manner of ace publications direct to readers and opening up more channels for niche distribution.

 Print on Demand

I’ve been banging on about print-on-demand for a few years now, as have a number of other emergent publishing evangelists. Truth told, growth in the popularity of Print-on-Demand has been slow and there’s is still a long way to go in terms of mainstream recognition. The problem of cost is one that has yet to be solved. MagCloud is edging closer to a viable proposition for publishers and their recent focus on distribution can only further the cause, with their new iPad app allowing readers to browse whole issues and then purchase printed copies at the tap of a button. More print-on-demand services keep popping up too, such as ubyu who offer a wide range of bespoke options for book and magazine designers. I’ve even heard traditional print houses flinging the term around and beginning to utilise digital printing technology to offer publishers shorter print runs. Then there are also the tiny specialist printers such as Ditto Press using Risographic techniques to offer bespoke print runs. It will be the point when print-on-demand services combine distribution with their core offer that will be key here though, and all eyes should be on MagCloud at the moment, to see how their recent bold experiments work out.

 New Places to Browse

All this online activity is fine but nothing beats being able to physically pick up a magazine and have a flick through. Browsing minus your browser is still an important way to lure and excite potential devotees. So what to do if newsagents aren’t providing comfortable, attractive spaces in which to browse? NZ and Australian based retailer MagNation understood the importance of browsing to magazine retailers and seemed to have the answer for a while but fell into the trap of diluting their offer with gimmicky enticements and garish decoration that only confused visitors who came for the magazines, not the frippery. Berlin is a rare place where, it seems, anyone can afford to experiment with retail formats. Hence the city has hosted, and continues to host, a number of interesting magazine outlets such as Do You Read Me? and Motto Distribution’s store. The recently opened Michelberger Hotel includes a huge magazine library in its foyer which could easily be seen as a homage to the act of browsing. In London, specialist bookstores such as Magma and Artwords fill this gap to a certain extent, but there’s a massive chunk missing in London’s retail scape for a place dedicated to magazines and independent publications. A place where readers can go to graze amidst a carefully curated crop of current magazines.

 Contract titles

One—often over looked—form of distribution, that’s been with us for some time now, inhabits the realm of contract titles. Magazines produced for very specific audiences—contract titles utilise targeted distribution, such as inflight magazines produced for airlines or in store magazines produced for specific clothing brands. Contract titles have the advantage of not having to rely on being stocked on shelves in your local newsagent, thereby negating reliance on overly complex distribution deals. Their main disadvantage is that a good contract title can be hard to get hold of if you’re not in the right place at the right time. Contract titles are hard to follow too as subscriptions almost unheard of.

The health of our magazine publishing industry and it’s distribution outlets is inseparable. With publishers running about, flapping their hands in the air, stressing out about failing readerships, methinks the problem of distribution is something they’ve been over looking for sometime now.

Published online via the Linefeed blog and in issue 3 of LineRead available via print-on-demand. LineRead was exhibited as part of the Walker Art Centre exhibition, ‘Graphic Design: Now in Production’.