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Election Uplift

US weekly titles saw a definite upturn in sales during the Obama election. With a General Election looming here, how will the UK market fare? What are the opportunities and challenges? And how will they cope with new media and wall-to-wall TV news? We sent David Stam on the stump to canvass opinion.

By David Stam

Only one thing is for sure. There will be a General Election in the first five months of 2010. As this article is written, Labour creeps up in the opinion polls and a March date is being hinted at. By the time this publication drops on your mat all may be clearer.

This luxury of certainty is unusual for publishers of news-related magazines planning election coverage. The previous two elections have been called after four year terms – a year less than constitutionally required. Whilst not exactly catching publishers on the hop, neither were they fully expected and so publishers did not necessarily take advantage of a heady political atmosphere to drive both short term sales and brand awareness.

Specialist news magazines normally benefit from modest sales increases during election campaigns. This time around, they are competing with a plethora of alternative channels: quality press, 24x7 broadcast news and a huge variety of internet sources. How will they compete this time?

The Obama effect

Let’s look first to the USA. From late summer 2008 until the early Spring of 2009, US news magazines benefited from a presidential campaign that made history. Time Warner reported significant increases in newsstand sales of the iconic Time Magazine – not just on home ground but also in Europe. Newsweek fared well also, whilst celebrity titles such as People benefited from the glitz and celebrity status that both Obamas – Mr and Mrs – brought to the political stage.

It stretches the imagination to see the Browns, Camerons or Cleggs in the same star-struck light, but there is little doubt that our more modest British affair can drive real benefits for those publishers who plan strategically.

The UK news weeklies

With distribution of the Economist, the Spectator, New Statesman and Private Eye, COMAG will be at the forefront of driving additional sales come the campaign. For Mike Mirams, COMAG’s managing director, the key this time is that publishers and retailers have a better sense of timing and can plan. The COMAG retail team is actively creating portfolio promotions for retailers and will be staging its own News In The City retail awareness programme during the campaign. According to Mirams, news and current affairs weeklies will attract casual purchasers by offering authoritative opinion, detailed analysis and thought provoking background stories. “The Economist has an unrivalled authority, the Spectator and New Statesman have excellent writers who give valued opinion pieces and Private Eye will have a field day whatever happens!”

The Week has been one of the most successful news and current affairs titles of the last three years and posted an ABC in August 2009 over 10% up year-on-year. Paul Hampel, trading director of distributor Seymour expects another good year and commented. “As a review based title, we expect our strongest selling issues to be immediately before and after polling day and we are actively planning promotions around that. There may be benefits of the sector working together to offer portfolio promotions so consumers can make conscious choices.”

A key major retailer agrees. WH SmithTravel trading controller, Karen Ratcliff says that the retail chain is expecting increased sales in newspapers and business and current affairs titles. Like Mirams, she adds that the key is sound planning; “All publishers are working on plans for the election now - in 2005 there wasn't a definitive deadline for them to work to in advance.”

Whatever one’s political beliefs, few will dispute that this will be the most hotly contested election since 1979. The two main parties stand for real differences that will effect Britain for the next decade. The Spectator has been on the inside track of the Cameron agenda since day one and managing director Ben Greenish is anticipating an uplift in sales across the whole sector. “The specialist news and current affairs sector offers really insightful commentary and opinion as a backdrop to wall-to-wall news coverage.” The Spectator will be committing a significant amount of retail activity around the campaign with flexibility to target the exact date when it is known. “We will also add value with special supplements focusing on key issues and above the line spend”, adds Greenish. He also sees broadcast news as a potential opportunity for enhancing the brand. “All day news channels have an insatiable demand for content and they will turn to high profile commentators such as Spectator editor Fraser Nelson for participation and comment.”

New media opportunities

Is new media and online an opportunity or a threat? 2005 was widely regarded as the first UK ‘internet’ election and content and technology have both moved on at a pace since then. Content has become increasingly diverse and readily available and there has been an exponential growth in blogging in the last five years. All major news weeklies have themselves invested in sophisticated websites but also compete with the one man bands such as the infamous Guido Fawkes.

Delivery has step-changed. In 2005, Blackberries were only for the privileged few who could persuade their bosses to sign the chit for IT – now internet delivery through smart phones is commonplace with over 10 million estimated to be in use in the UK. Publishers may be trying to build pay-walls around specialist and must-have content, but it has never been easier or cheaper to receive general news whenever and wherever you want.

However, this sector does not essentially trade in general news, more detailed background material and commentary. Weekly and time sensitive magazine delivery allows for real interaction between print and web with online picking up and developing streams first raised in print.

The Spectator’s Ben Greenish takes a positive view about these developments and has a very clear approach to how magazine and online activity differentiate. The Spectator Coffee House website is regarded as one of the UK’s leading political sites with frequent blogs and posts from the Spectator editorial team as well as outspoken contributors such as Rod Liddle.

Greenish sees the magazine and Coffee House as two completely different products targeting a varied audience. The magazine is a “lean back or travel read” with sharp and insightful comment which devotees will continue to pay for. Coffee House is more focused towards the Westminster community. “It is almost their trade website.” Greenish cites times where No 10 has quickly issued press statements responding to blogs, and claims that David Cameron looks at it several times a day.

There is little doubt that the Spectator’s online readership will significantly increase during the run up and aftermath of the 2010 election. Greenish and his team are ready to turn this into hard cash from increased advertising and sponsorship and of course through selling print on paper subscriptions.

Placement opportunities

The need for increased election coverage spurs editors to argue for more pages and provides good opportunities for publishers to use placement and sampling to show off their wares, enhance brand awareness and hopefully trigger future purchase. Advertisers clearly benefit. Gold Key Media offer a range of placement and sampling services for publishers and are no stranger to the political scene – with newspaper and magazine distribution programmes in place at all the major party conferences as well as world events such as Davos and Copenhagen.

GKM’s sales director, Duncan MacGillivray argues that the forthcoming campaign will be an ideal time to do this. Placement opportunities will be on offer through up-market hotels, Regus Offices and even private jets. MacGillivray states: “The trick from a publisher point of view is how to maximize revenues during this period, and also introduce their title to a new audience. Some titles attract significant extra revenue from advertisers by focusing on niche placement of their products, rather than relying solely on retail copies. This is also a way to get advertisers to pay for specific sampling, a perfect time to get your title in front of information hungry readers.”

The Spectator has also identified interesting opportunities for new advertisers to communicate a corporate message. “PR agencies, lobbyists and corporate communications directors are waking up to the fact that their normal contacts in government may just not be there by May”, states Ben Greenish. The magazine and website is working on a number of confidential pitches to clients who want to communicate a message to our potential new mandarins.

News and current affairs titles have largely fared well in the turmoil of the last year. Newstrade sales may have dropped but large subscription bases and placement have very much mitigated the effect on overall circulation levels. Their websites and new media strategies provide models for others to follow. There is clearly a lot of detailed planning and optimism anticipating the events before, during and in the immediate aftermath of the General Election.

What of the next five years? Events and change will be good for these titles. There are almost certainly more sales to be had in Cameron’s new broom as opposed to Brown’s older one. But win, lose or draw, this vibrant publishing sector has little to fear.