Free distribution has made men's weekly magazine Shortlist a success - even as the glossies falter. Can it do the same for blogger Iain Dales's new political title? James Silver investigates...
In the cut-throat political magazine sector, new readers are hard to come by and even harder to retain. Yet the Tory blogger and publisher Iain Dale is remarkably upbeat about the prospects for his new, politically neutral monthly title Total Politics.
Unlike almost every other current affairs publication in the market, Total Politics - which Dale describes as "a lifestyle magazine for the political community" - will be given away free to the vast majority of its readers. From fledgling councillors to Westminster greybeards, every one of Britain's estimated 23,000 elected politicians will be sent a copy - whether they want one or not.
Although the magazine will also be available via subscription and the newsstand (Dale would not be drawn on a prediction for these sales further than "We think we'll get a good four-figure sale within the first few months"), he believes that the free-distribution element of the title will make his project commercially-viable. "We looked at other ways of doing it, including online-only, but we weren't convinced that it could work. Given the age demographic of our potential readers, how many were actually going to download a PDF?
"I don't think the political audience would look at this magazine just online and I don't think advertisers would go for it either. So by going down the targeted free-circulation route we will have a major selling-point, which is if there's a message you want to get out to the political world, we'll be the only place for it."
Currently, Dale says, the only way a company, organisation or pressure group can reach politicians through advertising is via the House Magazine, which goes to MPs, peers, MEPs and a few others. "Right now there's nothing which not only reaches all of Westminster but also all councillors, MSPs, Welsh Assembly and GLA members and so on," Dale says. "We'll cover the whole lot."
He adds: "Of course the whole project is predicated on attracting advertising revenue, but all our research tells us the market is out there."
Although it is undoubtedly a pioneer in its sector, Total Politics - which launches in May and will be edited by Sarah Mackinlay, daughter of Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, and currently deputy editor of Payroll World - is just the latest print publication to use the "free" business model, in which revenue is generated entirely by advertising.
City-centre commuters have long been inured to the sight of fleece-wearing "merchandisers" proffering free newspapers. And increasingly the trend is taking root in the magazine sector too. With circulation figures for the second half of last year of 317,219 and 462,731 respectively, free men's weeklies Sport and ShortList, pictured left, have quickly established themselves as niche brands, while many paid-for glossy rivals including Maxim and Loaded have seen their circulations nose-dive.
ShortList, which was founded by the former IPC executive Mike Soutar, is given away for three hours on Thursday mornings in city centre locations in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The weekly, which made its debut last September, has also established "direct distribution deals" with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Eurostar, retail outlets including French Connection, the Cannons health clubs chain and even financial institutions such as Bear Stearns and ABN Amro.
Soutar says he chose the "free" business model over the traditional revenue mix of cover-price and display advertising for two main reasons. "The first one it that the newsstand is now incredibly congested and it's very difficult to achieve cut-through," he explains. "What the newsstand tends to do, because it is so crammed, is homogenise products: that's why so many consumer magazines in certain categories, like the men's market, are so similar. Being 'free' helped us be distinctive."
But just making a magazine free, he continues, does not mean people will read it. "If we produced a poor-quality magazine, it wouldn't matter how hard we tried to press it into their hands, it simply wouldn't stick. For example our ABC figure of 462,731 was off a total print run which averaged 515,000 over the period. So if anyone tells you distributing a free magazine is really easy because people will take anything if it's free, they are simply wrong.
"Putting together our distribution network has been painstaking work and takes a lot of management on a weekly basis to maintain. Going free is simply another route to market and I would argue strongly that if we weren't producing something our readers were very engaged with, then our figures would simply fall away in no time at all."
Differences in distribution models aside (Total Politics will not be a commuter title in the same way), Dale accepts that unless the magazine is of sufficient quality to ensure politicians actively seek it out and read it, there is a real danger that his free title will simply be lost in the blizzard of office paperwork, newsletters and leaflets with which MPs in particular are bombarded. "That's actually what happens to the House Magazine," he claims. "They say that most MPs read it, but I know for a fact that that's just not the case. If they do read it, they read maybe one article.
"We will be much more accessible and tabloid than anything else in the political sphere. If you look at the Spectator, the New Statesman and the House Magazine they're all to some extent a bit stuffy. We won't, I promise you, have any articles by John Hutton on PFI," Dale says.
Moreover, Total Politics, he concedes, will have a very limited window to make its time-poor readership sit up and take notice. "Iain Duncan Smith reckoned a new Tory leader had 90 days to make an impact, otherwise he was toast," he says. "I think exactly the same will be true for us."
The original article can be read HERE.