How are the papery ones doing? I had a look at the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s nice website to examine the state of the UK car magazine market.
The UK periodical industry owns and runs the ABC as a means to provide an independent (from one publisher) source of data on readership. That is then used to justify ad rates on the basis of the circulation of the journals seeking to sell space. The ABC describes itself as follows: “We deliver industry-agreed standards for media brand measurement across print, digital and events. We also verify data, processes and good practice to industry-agreed standards”.
Much of the information provided by ABC is by subscription. The basic data is accessible if you check their search tool, however. Here are the results:
BBC Top Gear 112,822: July to December 2016
Classic & Sports Car 63,000: January to December 2016
What car? 56,177: January to December 2016
Car Magazine: 47,567: January to December 2016
Evo 43,119: January to December 2016
Classic Cars 34,716: January to December 2016
Business Car 18,954: February to April 2017.
Octane magazine isn’t listed at the ABC. Another source says it shifts 38,428 copies monthly.
Unsurprisingly, BBC Top Gear stands above the rest as it gets a huge boost from the television programme of the same name. Perhaps you have seen it a few times. More surprisingly, Car magazine is languishing somewhere above Classic Cars in the circulation wars. What Car outsells it by almost 10,000 copies a month. I recall that in its heyday Car sold about 90,000 copies a month.
That makes the magazine now rather dependent on advertising which in turn makes it unwilling to maul the hands that feed it. The same might be true of Evo though they do have a mix of classic and new cars which Car lacks. If they are critical of the 1956 Ferrari 234 LGBT Lusso then I doubt there will be any consequences for their advertising contracts.
The weekly Autocropley sells 30,672 (January to December 2016) which would put it at about 120,000 copies a month. AutoExpress fares better, shifting 43,468 copies a week. I have never bought that one as it’s far too pulpy and the writing is boilerplate material most of the time whereas Autocropley has a better stable of writers.
Two things stand out for me. One is that in the age of instant news a car magazine is plainly not really about news (Jason Barlow spotted that first). News spews freely from every iPhone and Android in the land. Yes, news is a start but how it is presented and analysed is where a journal can make its mark. Another USP is in stylish photography and good graphic design. As is well documented here, I’ve given up buying car magazines because the writing is no longer worth paying for and because the graphic design is unseemly for the most part.
The publishers seem to think that if they can’t attract readers with a lot of graphic busy-ness then even more graphic busy-ness is the way forward. If you look at the style of magazines from the 80s onwards you can see how pleasant a calm layout can be. That leaves room for good photography and decent text. Ancillary to this is the imagery: for reasons I have yet to identify with certainty but which I have talked about already, the combination of digital photography and print quality has rendered the photos synthetic and hard to read. On-screen images are much easier to digest.
The second thing to stand out is that BBC’s Top Gear is something of a monster. The high circulation is supported by the programme’s screen presence. In turn the editors can hire the best writers (but doesn’t exactly let them write with much originality). The last time I checked a lot of TG’s staff were formerly at Car magazine from where I remember their entertaining prose.
I am very far from being a free market ideologue (well left of centre describes me) yet I do wonder if there is something skewed about the UK licence payer supporting what is actually a commercial endeavour at the expense of the rest of the sector. Thinking out loud, it would be fairer if the BBC didn’t get involved in print media. It’s not as if TG cleaves tightly to the mantra of entertaining, informing and educating by being a bit more high-minded than the other magazines.
I would not be upset if TG disappeared, freeing the journalists to circulate elsewhere and for the other magazines to have a bit of a better chance. Presumably one of the current crop of magazines might go under, having lost some of its sales to TG. Does that makes sense, that the license fee indirectly undermines the business case of a magazine that is not so lucky to have a massive television audience?