This week, the UK media landscape all but lost an old oak tree that has been a mainstay of the skyline for decades.
In the wake of dwindling readership figures and poor financial performance, Bauer Media has announced that two of the final remaining ‘Lads’ Mags’, FHM and Nuts, will suspend publication at the end of the year pending review, potentially costing 20 media jobs.
It could also mark the final demise of one of the most popular, yet derided media phenomena of the last 25 years, one which, at its peak, enjoyed a readership of millions and the adoration of a generation of young men.
Now, however you feel about this odd hybrid genre of Page 3, Shoot and Viz, it’s never a nice thing to hear that people could lose their jobs, or that a publication could cease to be, rather than simply undertake a brand rethink and have another crack. But the sad truth seems to be that Bauer Media feel that the latter response simply isn’t an option.
So why is this?
Well, personally I believe there are two fundamental reasons.
Dealing with the oft-cited first, there is a myth perpetuated throughout much of the UK media and communications industry that dictates that magazines are dying and that the loss of publications such as these is simply an inevitability.
As you may be able to tell by my tone, I am not someone who subscribes to this view.
This may be a longer discussion for another post, but I have long felt that press, media and comms are the ultimate Darwinist industries: adaptability and evolution are the building blocks of survival, not succumbing to a changing environment.
Any publication which a) produces good, relevant content b) packages and delivers it in a way which connects with their target reader and c) remains intuitive to the needs of that target reader can thrive in 21st Century media.
And here in lie the initial reasons for FHM and Zoo’s troubles; it wasn’t their content that let them down, it was their physical delivery and audience misfire.
A huge problem for both publications was a failure to get their tablet versions right.
For any magazine looking to connect with a generation more accustomed to the feeling of screen glare on their faces than newsprint on their fingertips, this is an important obstacle to navigate. But if your publication is well-known for punctuating news and features with a healthy dose of female nudity, it’s even more important that you give your readership as great a chance as possible to read your content subtly when on the commute to work or in the dentist’s waiting room.
The issue with the clunky, unresponsive apps and hosting services that both publications used was that they failed to deliver on the levels required to either move subscribers across or to a new platform, or attract a younger tech-savvy generation for whom a bad app is an instant turn-off.
This was their first problem. The second one comes out of this embarrassment, but from a different direction. The embarrassment factor itself is a difficult one to shake. It seems, finally, that the people in the right places have realised that not every male on the planet is demanding a side of breast with literally everything they read, watch or buy.
The ‘lads’ mags’ perhaps failed to grow up with the audience that made them, instead pandering to the same formula they’d dominated the world with in the late 90s/early 00s. FHM made a stride to clear themselves of this a couple of years ago, putting Will Ferrell’s ‘Ron Burgundy’ on the cover – the first male cover-star in 20 years – in an attempt to sidle slightly closer to ‘GQ’ and certain elements of ‘Men’s Health’, but it appears to have been an exercise in futility – slightly too little, much too late.
So, come the start of 2016, the UK could lose (like it or not) an iconic figure of the past 20 years of popular culture, some will celebrate this ‘new era’s’ dawn, some will mourn. Anyway you spin it, the loss of any job and a once-lauded cultural king is never a good thing – but failure to adapt to a fluid audience base and then a major game-changer such as the Internet is, unfortunately, fatal.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
By Jamie Stanley & Stuart Buchanan