May 05, 2007

The Magazine Industry

The Magazine Industry 

Link to Lifstyle Magazines hub page

The following posts are written in relation to specific course requirements which examine issues and debates which circulate around the magazine industry. It is important first of all to define ones terms and then it is important to consider a brief history of the development of the magazine as a printed generic form which is different to newspapers, books and journals. This unit is examining the commercial consumer sector of the market however it is important to place this within the context of the overall magazine market therefore we will firstly look at the typology or different types of magazines with different types of market that exist at present. 

Introduction to the Typology of Magazines

As a description a magazine developed as a printed publication and then broadcast containing articles, stories, interviews activities by various people. Here we are focusing on the print media however with the growth of the internet most commercial consumer magazines have developed a web presence. This will need to be subjected to separate analysis on a case by case study as it is too early in the development of the web to come to hard and fast conclusions about form or even whether  online magazines have the potential to more or less replace print magazines.

The Magazine Mainstream 

Generically it is useful to split up the magazine market into three main areas. There are subscription only magazines which can be trade and business magazines which are not sold in the shops or newsagents. These are deservedly parodied on a regular basis in the TV 'quiz programme' "Have I Got News for You". To this type of magazine can be added magazines which are primarily aimed at subscribing members of organisations. For example the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is Britain's largest pressure group with a membership approaching 1 million. They produce a quarterly magazine which is only sent to members. As sometimes whole 'families' are members the print run isn't 1 million but it is significantly more than a monthly 'lifestyle magazine' such as GQ which only has a run of about 125,000. These type of magazines have in the first instance very specialist target markets whilst in the case of voluntary organisations and pressure groups such as the RSPB ideological identiy is the key factor which unites the readership across class, gender, national, ethnic and age distinctions. As such they aim at a universal target market seeking to inform and develop their specific intersts.

The other core sector of magazine production is commercial consumer production in which the primary aim of the magazine is usually to make as much money as possible. Income is gained through a combination of the cover price and advertising with advertising usually bearing the brunt of of the costs of production and contributing to the profitability of the magazine. As avery approximate rule of thumb we can say that the more expensive the magazine the smaller the real audience (those buying the magazine) / target audience and the lower the advertising revenues. 

Another type of magazine which clearly falls into the commercial sector but which doesn't have a direct cover price is the newspaper magazine supplement. This trend emerged during the 1960s with  the reduction in costs of cloour printing and the development of a larger consumer marketplace. It first occurred in the more upmarket Sunday newspapers such as the Sunday Times and then The Observer. This tendency has grown since then and most weekend newspapers now have some form of colour 'supplement'. while this has increased the cover price the main costs are covered by advertising and they helped increase the circulation and profitability of the newspapers. 

The 'Alternative' Magazine Market 

There are occasional exceptions to the typology above in terms of magazine production. Occasionally enthusiasts may come together to produce a magazine which comes from their specific interests and isn't really about making money as they can only exist  through the labour power of enthusiastic supporters and volunteers. Examples of this type of magazine would be the Fanzines of the early punk-rock period and also the football fanzines which sprang up in the same period of the late 1970s early 1980s. As such both were mainly expressions of a vibrant emergent youth culture. These magazines rarely lasted for more than a few issues, and frequently the most dynamic people behind them went on to be successful journalists and critics within the mainstream media organisations. The classic example of the latter are Tony Parsons and Julie Birchill who also produced a book on Punk versus Rock called Boy Looked at Johnny . The late 1970s through to the mid 1980s had a younger culture of people into thier mid thirties who politically and culturally were generally anti-establishment, often anti-capitalist but espoused a politics of identity rather than class. this lead to the growth of a range of magazines in the margins some of which made it into the mainstream if only for a short time. Here a marker of making it into the mainstream can be seen as managing to be nationally distributed through newsagents such as W. H. Smiths.  Magazines such as the weekly Gay Times based upon sexuality but in most otherways was establishment in terms of its attitudes to commerce and politics was the most successful of these. Spare Rib initially a broadbased feminist magazine managed to make it into W. H. Smiths but the increasing facionalism within the editorial board meant that they lost much of their readership and audience and the magazine disappeared. It was a magazine which had an uneasy relationship with its advertisers as on the whole it was against what it saw as patriarchal businesses and really wanted adverts from women only organisations. This tended to make even more dependent than usual upon its readership.

There were also other more class based socialist and radical magazines which emerged at this time such as New Socialist, New Times and The Leveller. These never made it into the mainstream and being dependent more upon readership than advertising for their income stream also disappeared as debts mounted. 

Commercial Consumer Magazines 

For the purposes of discussing issues and debates  the focus of these postings is upon the straight commercial sector of the magazine market which is:

  • Dependent upon creating developing and maintaining specific target markets
  • Relies primarily upon over the counter sales and advertising for its main income streams

As with any area of media production we can look at the organisations and ownership of the media and we can look at their target market and audiences, the kind of content that is used to win develop and maintain audiences and the underlying idological stances which inevitably accompany content of any kind whether it is acknowledged in a clear fashion as is usual with political magazines such as The Specagstator (Concervative) or the New Statesman (Labour) or whther there are deeper idological forces at play within consumption such as the growth of the 'Lad's Mag' which many would argue are a result of a reaction to a crisis of masculinity brought about by the progress made by feminism from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s in terms of women's rights and equality at work and in terms of a legal system better equipped to defend women against sexual harrassment.

The Lad's Mags Gender Construction and Media Issues

Below a discussion of a hot debate stimulated by the Ofsted report which saw Lads' Mags as serving a useful social function. In the Box below you can see how Sky News chose to report it.

Sky News Report

'Lads mags' are a valuable source of information for teenage boys learningabout sex, according to the education watchdog.

Loaded Cover

A study from Ofsted claimed that teenagers were turning to weekly publications such as Zoo and Nuts to learn about the facts of life to fill the void left by parents, who are often failing to give sufficient support.

There is a current hot debate circulating around the issue of lads mags relating to whether they cover sex and relationships in a serious way at a suitable level for their target audiences. Interestingly the governmental educational inspection body in the UK Ofsted has recently endosed the 'Lads' Mags' as being a useful media vehicle for enabling teenage males to deepen and broaden their undestunding in the realm of sex education. Many professionals within the educational and health professions were of course horrified by the naivety displayed in this endorsement. Social Psychologist and lecturer in research methodologies Dr. Petra Boynton has been keen to highlight the issues in her blog. I have extracted the reactions of two of the unsurprisingly macho reactions of the editors of two of these magazines that Dr. Boynton has followed extracted from Press Gazette:

Loaded magazine’s editor Martin Daubney was quoted as saying “It’s not our job to educate people on the perils of sexually transmitted diseases, the perils of young pregnancies or the perils of Aids. That’s the job of government or parents or health authorities. Men’s mags have never set out and said ‘you must wear a condom, and don’t forget about Aids’. Men’s magazines if anything are the opposite of that — we’re the good time. If you mention to people about gonorrhoea and syphilis it ruins the fun. It’s lights on at the end of the party.”

Also within the feature Derek Harbinson editor of Maxim stated “We have to get things through as entertainment — you can’t sit and lecture people. There’s nothing very sexy about a feature about chlamydia — that’s not our job as an entertainment magazine. Our job is to give people social ammunition to go out and live better lives.”

Doubtless the born again 'postmodernist' strand of media lecturer committed to defending rampant populism at all costs would argue that this is of course postmodern irony. This leaves us as critics with a range of ways of reading the comments by Loaded and Maxim editors. Are the comments:

  1. By male morons for male morons
  2. By smartasses for male morons (in order to keep up the chosen image for thier target audience)
  3. By smartasses for smartasses who are well versed in the tenets of postmodern irony and can defend their enjoyment of the statement s by quoting a wide range of postmodern thinkers who espouse the position that society is 'post-idological'.

Answers on a poscard to Ofsted please :-)

Petra Boynton then continues by analysing the situation. from the media organisations perspective she places her finger firmly on a core question which I have emphasied below. Do the advertisers care whether the magazines want to be associated with endorsing unsafe sex?

As well as their job being about entertainment it’s also about making money. I don’t know whether advertisers would want to be associated with a magazine that’s endorsing unsafe sex for young men. Moreover, print media is in trouble and these magazines are fighting to stay afloat. The whole time they show contempt for their readers and an old school view of sex coverage the whole time their readers will go elsewhere for the information they need.

My answer to Petra Boynton's question is that it is unlikely that the advertisers are in the slightest bit intersted in the content provided it doesnt threaten the financial security of their client's sales. They would argue that as advertisers it is not their job to control the content of a magazine. Provided there is an audience prepared to read whatever drivel is in the magazine and who may be persuaded that buying a particular brand of aftershave, deoderant, etc. is going to give them a better opportunity to have sex the magazine will be prepared to advertise. Magazine sales and readership are the issues. What would be rather more of a concern for the advertisers is a range of popular articles by social psychologist about the fact that aftershaves boy-racer cars etc REDUCE their chances of getting female attention.  No advertiser is going to like their products being trashed in the magazine they are effectively subsidising! 

As you can see we have rapidly opened up two cans of worms regarding media issues and debates;

  • The underlying ideology of media content
  • The issue of where power and control of magazines actually lies.  

As a social psychologist with an interst in the underlying human issues Petra Boynton sensibly continues her argument in relatin to the issue of the underlying content. In her next paragraph she tackles head on the underlying issue of the idological construction of masculinity which is the common discourse within the genre of Lads' Mags: 

These editors just don’t get sex. They think to make it interesting it all has to be about performance, products and risk. Rather than it being about finding out what you like, learning what a partner likes and enjoying a sexual experience together – with the option to ask for help when things don’t work out.

What makes this issue especially intersting is the role of part of what the philosopher of ideology louis Althusser described as the Ideologicsal State Apparatus (ISA). Althusser here was describing the role of state institutions such as the educational ones in transmitting a specific ideology. As is described in the quotation below Ofsted was misguidedly underpinning the anti-feminist ideology of the 'Lads' Mags'.  Of course part of being 'Laddish' is a pretended rejection of authority which might undermine their swaggering. Here Dr. Boynton is arguably a little naive when it comes to analysing ideological positions. Had the editors NOT vehemently denied the rational approach espoused by her then the ideological rationale of 'Laddishness' itself set up against a feminist reasoning as a deliberate restatement of a lost form masculinity then the audience would have rapidly melted away.  What 'true lad' wants to have their masculinity authenticated by Ofsted for heaven's sake :-).    

Ofsted started this by stuffing up a report and naively believing because men’s magazines happened to exist they were a source of information for lads. We all knew that was a load of nonsense but I don’t think any of us expected that it would be lad’s mags themselves who came out and admitted what we knew – that Ofsted were wrong – and that men’s magazines take pride in not giving good sex information to young men.

How do audiences read texts? How can we tell? 

This leaves us with the tricky question of what the readership of these magazines actually does believe. The now commonly accepted view amongst media analysts who deal with the reception side of media (how audiences read media products) is that those who constitute any given audience are far more diverse in their life experience social, cultural and educational background than can be expected from the direct content. This means that inevitably the contents and overall stance of a magazine is negotiated by individuals in the audience. Some readers will understand the 'Loaded' position as a bit of laddish bravado. It would be seen as 'girlie' to deal with things such as sexually transmitted diseases but in reality they would have picked up the information elsewhere. Isn't sex education after all part of the school curriculum? This is important because it relieves the magazines of social responsibility which is offloaded onto the state. This of course leaves us with the reader who is especially moronic, who has wagged all the sex education lessons and neither knows nor cares about sexually transmitted disease.

Here we can pause to remind ourselves that underlying the concept of transmitted communications there are:

  • Preferred readings (there could be levels of complexity here): In the case of Loaded young men are looking for 'fun' and on the surface espousing forms of naughtiness in carefully adjusted ways of behaving a little bit socially irresponsibly
  • Negotiated readings: This is where the target audience will read a media text from thier own life positioning and have a more complex understanding of the surface preferred reading of the text
  • Resistant reading: Here Petra Boynton is resisting the preferred reading and wanting a more socially responsible magazine in an overt way which is more closely modelled on the construction of women's magazines. she is resisting the construction of masculinity as socially irresponsible and self-obssessed which is the dominant discourse of 'Lads' Mags'  
  • Aberrant Readings: This is the sort of male reader of these magazines who is so stupid that he doesn't recognise the whole stance of 'Laddishness' as being a bit 'tongue in cheek' ans becomes constructed as a serious machismo likely to genuinely transgress in life by spreading around sexual transmitted disease, being abusive to women, getting into fights.  

In the first instance the attitude of the 'Loaded' editor could be seen as not actually being genuinely socially transgressive in the sense he is not really encouraging his readership to have unprotected sex. Presumably he is intelligent enough to recognise that it would be a social disaster if alll his readership got aids. If he didn't have that level of intelligence then the magazine would be unlikely to survive or he would be sacked. True transgression of social mores it can be argued is therefore something else. These magazines unpleasant and stupid as they seem to most people with a modicum of social responsibility are in reality are tools  doing nothing to threaten the stability of the social system whatsoever. So says our classic postmodernist media analyst at least.

This kind of attitude denies the workings of ideology - in this case with regsrd to gender relations - it even denies the construction of the concept of a dominant discourse through which the social, economic, political, cultural and bodily gains of feminism are gradually recuperated by men. It is exactly when people don't recognise the existance of ideology that ideology is at it strongest. Arguably it is within 'Lad's Mags' that the narcissism and corresponding weakening of social responsibility in terms of personal behaviour which can be strongly linked to the growth of the mass consumption and 'lifestyle' are represented in their most acute form within the 'Laddish' culture. As argued below the Ofsted report which briefly mentions their role is sadly uninformed about the social realities. 

The Ofsted Report and inaccurate assessment of Men's Mags

As a councillor and psychologist Petra Boynton correctly raises a number of pertinent issues regarding these magazines with a a persuasive analysis of how these male discourses go well beyond the 'it's just a joke' kind of position which feminists have had to deal with since the 1960s and show how pressure form men on women can be demeaning and positively harmful whilst at the same time reconstructing women as merely objects of men's pleasure: 

What is worrying about the Ofsted report is the assumption that because lad’s magazines exist they automatically offer an opportunity for advice giving to young men. Evidence and experience of sex educators working in the media suggests this is completely untrue. Having lads magazines available has done little to increase young men’s knowledge of sexual health issues – but has led to an increase in incorrect sex information being given – in particular encouraging sexually coercive behaviour. Although Ofsted praised problem pages, where they exist in lad’s magazines they’re not written by qualified staff and often give young men inaccurate messages about sex.


To summarise the above we can see through the brief case study of 'Lads' Mags' that we quickly get into areas of the issues and debates which the unit is examining. Ownership / Advertising /Content / Audience are the key areas around which the debates emerge. At the wider level of society the ownership it will be argued reflects the power and wealth relations within the wider society and the content is geared to not challenging the mores of our current societal modes of living. This raises the question of whther the currently unfashionable ideology critique of the magazine industry as a whole needs to be resurrected in the light of a general refusal of the industry which is narrowly controlled to take on board the serious issues facing the World today.  

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Nick Lacey

    I (somehow?!) missed Ofsted’s point about lads’ mags but the stupidity of their conclusion is not surprising (having endured a number of inspections). I liked your description of:

    the born again ‘postmodernist’ strand of media lecturer committed to defending rampant populism at all costs would argue that this is of course postmodern irony.

    I wonder, however, to what extent the weekly lads’ mags retain the irony of the original Loaded? David Gauntlett (who might be one of the media lecturers you characterise above) did distinguish between the down market mags (like Front) and the more middle class publications like FHM. My observation (from comparing a 2004 issue of Zoo Weekly and the current Nuts) is that, although laddish hyperbole (which is itself ironic) is still evident in the weeklies (which are themselves down market) it is far less so (maybe totally absent) in relation to its representation of women. So pp. 6-7 of Nuts shows ordinary guys in superhero outfits, the next spread is ‘Rude News – What’s happening in a bra near you!’ The question is whether the ironic tone of the previous pages carries on to the women… I don’t think so.

    Even when, in Zoo Weekly of 3 years ago, there were ironic captions of women, the sheer amount of flesh overwhelmed this anchorage; it was a fig leaf for a male who wanted to appear soffisticated.

    When Loaded and FHM rose to prominence, in the mid-90s, they were vilified for their sexism. Looking at them now they seem incredibly tame. Partly due to the relatively small amount of sexist representations of women; but is mainly due to the successfully ironic tone that, Loaded, at least, imparted.

    06 May 2007, 10:11

  2. Thanks for this useful comment Nick. The swipe at po-mo was a generic one + I have have high regard for Adorno when it comes to populism and ideology. He isn’t to my mind a ‘pessimist’ rather a critical realist.

    Re the magazines, I defer to your obvious expertise in this area. Perhaps you will get the time to blog it in depth. I’m only really familiar with GQ in any depth if that is the right term. Clearly most magazines target themselves towards a particular class base which we now euphemistically call up / middle / down market. Weeklies and Fortnightlies – political genre- excepted seem to be largely downmarket.

    The other thing is that it is useful to apply the theory of the ‘Male Gaze’ to these. Noting that the explanation of this within media is sometimes foreshortened. In the 2nd Ed of Studying the Media by Tim O’Sullivan et al their glossary only half explains the term. The issue is how do women gain pleasure from being looked at through a male gaze. Here one must obviously look to women’s magazines to examine the culture of being-looked-at-ness as well as the representations of women in gender delineated magazines.

    I suspect that only good qualitative research has any chance of examining to what depth irony is functioning. At the psychoanalytic level and / or discursive level the culture of Lads’ Mags does appear to be a reversion to older sexist attitudes. Peter Redman of the Open University did some interesting cultural studies type research into some male Sixth Form college students’ attitudes to romance, which would be nice to see developed in relation to media reception.

    06 May 2007, 18:15

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