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Q&A with Mia Freedman about the future of Dolly and Cleo.

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Last week, news broke from publisher Bauer’s head office that Cleo and Dolly magazines would be merging their staff.

Though both magazines will continue to run separately, they will work under one editor-in-chief and with one set of staff . Half of the magazines’ current staff will lose their jobs including current Cleo editor, Sharri Markson who has stepped out of the ‘race’ for the editor-in-chief position across both titles, presumably leaving it to Dolly editor Tiffany Dunk.

It has also emerged that Cleo and Dolly will be using content translated from Bauer’s youth titles Joy and Bravo which the publishing house produce in Germany. Bauer insists there will still be Australian content in the mix.

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This is just the latest difficult news in what has been a turbulent year in the Australian magazine industry.

Earlier this year Bauer Media also announced the closure of both Grazia and Madison magazines due to declining circulation.

With the talk of the decline in sales in current magazine climate, Mamamia’s founder and publisher who is the former Editor-In-Chief of Cosmopolitan, Cleo and Dolly has been fielding a lot of calls from media wanting comment about the current state of the younger end of the mag market. We decided to run some of her answers here in full for those interested in magazines.

Q:  Cleo and Dolly have suffered a steady decline in circulation in recent years – most recent figures show Dolly suffered a 12.8% drop between June 2012-June 2013 and Cleo a 17.4% decline. What do you think has caused this?

MIA: The Internet. That’s where mag readers have migrated en masse. And the failure of publishers in the 90s and 00’s to adapt to that massive generational change in media consumption has been catastrophic for youth brands like Dolly and Cleo. Decisions were taken years ago that meant those titles never became digital forces which is a travesty because those brands should have quickly followed their readers online. Or got there first. Instead, they remained as printed products. Publishers didn’t realise they were content producers, they kept acting like magazine makers, much to the detriment of those once powerhouse brands. Now it’s too late.

Dolly and Cleo and Cosmo used to have a lock on a huge amount of really important, really valuable information. Sex, relationships and sexual health were their USPs. Where else could you find the content covered by Dolly Doctor in the 70s, 80s or 90s? But now in the age of internet porn and Miley Cyrus, sealed sections look positively quaint.

Q: What about the tone and content of magazines like Dolly and Cleo? Has that evolved as it should have?

M: The way women’s magazines talk to women has not changed in decades while the way women speak to each other and the world has changed dramatically. When I was editing Cosmo and we had our 25th birthday, we looked back at the first issue and it was spooky how little the tone and content had changed during that time. Even the covers portrayed women in much the same way. Also, print is a one-way monologue where online is a conversation and thus far more attractive to women.

Social media has been the biggest game changer in women’s media. The best you can hope for in magazines is a readership figure that’s maybe twice the number of paid circulation. But an article on Mamamia can be shared 100,000 times. With the average woman having 250 Facebook friends, that means suddenly your content is appearing in an estimated 25,000,000 Facebook feeds. This scalability of shared content is astronomical and something we use to amplify our reach on every form of social media dozens of times a day.  Magazines just can’t compete or even compare. It gives me no particular joy to say this – I feel desperately sad at the decline of these brands.

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Like most Australian women, Dolly and Cleo in particular were my lifeblood growing up and sparked my love of women’s media back in the 80s and 90s.

But I’m also frustrated and disappointed at the lack of business foresight that has brought those titles to this point. One of the reasons I left magazines was because I was so tired of trying to get my bosses to understand that Armageddon was coming in the form of online. I knew the young women’s market was the most vulnerable. But nobody would listen so I left and started Mamamia.

Mia Freedman in her Cleo days.
Mia Freedman in her magazine days.

Q: It’s not just Dolly and Cleo who are being challenged by market conditions. The whole sector has suffered a decline both in Australia and overseas. UK copy sales from the top five companies in the first half of 2013 are all down again, four of them 8-11% behind last year. US  single-copy sales are down by 10%, as are eight of the 10 largest-selling titles. In Australia, all 13 weekly magazines are still sliding, by anything up to 30% year-on-year. What do you believe is the future of titles like Dolly and Cleo and other women’s magazine titles?

M: I honestly don’t know. How do you stay current and relevant in a 24hr news cycle when you’re publishing once a week or once a month? It’s a very uncertain time and I can’t see things improving. There are pockets of encouragement like the Vogue online forums and the increasing sales of alternate niche titles like Frankie magazine. Who magazine is also managing to stay relevant and I’ll always have a soft spot for Cosmo.

You know, I still meet wide eyed girls who want to work in magazines but they’re far fewer in number these days. The girls I meet are more likely to already have their own blog and be more interested in curating their own content rather than paying for the content curated by a big brand.

Magazine editors and brands used to be the ultimate arbiters for young women but that’s shifted. Now there are fashion bloggers you’ve never heard of who have ten times more followers than the biggest magazine’s circulation. The game has changed.

We’re going to see a lot more beloved brands like Madison and Cleo fall by the wayside. Nobody wants to see them fold or merge but magazine publishing is a business not a community service. Kerry Packer was prepared to support magazines who never made a profit – like The Bulletin – but today’s owners have no such sentimentality. If the numbers don’t stack up they will merge or close titles. They have to. Magazines are a business and if the readers aren’t prepared to pay for the product, the publishers simply have to cut costs. This means mergers like Cleo and Dolly and importing translated copy from German magazines. How sad is that? But some would argue what they’re doing with Cleo and Dolly is preferable to closing one or both titles altogether.

Q: So what can be done to stem circulation declines?

M: Honestly? I have no idea. Nobody does, anywhere in the world. In a digital world, printed products are an incredibly tough – some would say flawed – business model. To sell 30K copies of a magazine you have to print at least 50K or 60K. That’s why I moved online and launched Mamamia in 2007. I recognised that a medium that communicates with women once a month or even once a week when those women are themselves communicating incessantly 24/7 is not a sustainable one.  It’s impossible to stay current or relevant in that demographic. Magazines who have not already established a strong online presence will become niche, like vinyl.

Up until a few years ago, mags still had the advantage of what was called ‘lean-back browsing’ – something that laptops and desktops just didn’t have. But with smartphones and tablets, that lean-back experience is now available online. I occasionally read mags online via their apps but in that ‘lean-back’ time I have, there is a huge amount of free online content available to me and competing for my attention.

Q: What will be the consequences of the decline of young women’s mags like Cleo and Dolly?

M: My greatest fear is for teenage girls. As one expert pointed out this week, teenage magazines aren’t being replace by teenage websites, they’re being supplanted by the Internet as a whole. Dolly in particular has always served an incredibly important role in helping to educate Australian teen girls about things they might be too embarrassed or naive to find out about elsewhere. I’m particularly thinking about Dolly Doctor. Sure, a 13 year old can Google anything, anytime in the privacy of her bedroom but there is no accountability, not like the care Dolly Doctor has always taken with its content and the adolescent health experts who provide it.

I wish everyone working in magazines the best during these tough times and I would encourage all of them to sharpen their digital skills because as uncomfortable as it is for some to admit, that’s the future of media.

What do you think about the decline of women’s magazines? Are there any titles you religiously buy?

Tags: media
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