Media Spotlight: The Face and J17 pay for losing touch with readers

Falling circulations meant the two magazines were not viable, Emma Barns writes.

It's the end of an era. This week all have been lamenting Emap's decision to suspend its iconic title The Face and close the teen magazine J17. Despite the strength of feeling toward these titles, they are closing down because hardly anybody is buying them.

The reason cited by Emap for ending J17's 21-year life and suspending The Face is that, in a changing world, the relevance of these magazines has declined, something reflected by their falling sales. The official line is that all options to make J17 a viable proposition on newsstands have failed and, despite assurances that Emap will be exploring opportunities to radically reinvent or sell The Face, it looks likely that it will meet the same fate.

Certainly, neither magazine has been performing well and the figures speak for themselves: UK sales of The Face are down to 24,556 copies a month when, at its height, in the early 80s, its sales were nudging 100,000.

Sales of J17 have also been dwindling with a 6 per cent fall in circulation this year. In a recently ungifted issue, designed to test the pull of the editorial, sales are said to have dipped to 65,000 (average sale was 134,650).

Originally, both titles were groundbreaking. The Face was launched in 1980 by Nick Logan out of his small publishing house, Wagadon, and marked the first style-led publication, serving to define a decade of fashion, music and popular culture. Just Seventeen, too, opened up a whole new market, launching the unexplored teenage sector on newsstands. But unique positions haven't guaranteed them success.

Peter Howarth, the former editor of Esquire, sees Emap's acquisition of The Face from Wagadon as the beginning of the end for the magazine.

"I couldn't think of two more different cultures," he says. "For Logan, The Face was a crusade - it was the launch of a pioneering magazine that he felt needed to be published, whereas Emap is a publication machine, there to make money."

Logan's sale of the magazine may have marked a turning point. But The Face was a lifestyle magazine created to reflect a particular era and it is perhaps unsurprising that it has fallen out of sync with its audience. Ian Tournes, the head of press at Starcom MediaVest, says this was the title's eventual downfall: "Titles evolve through lifestyle stages; as one dies, another emerges that better reflects lifestyle trends."

As one of the world's most famous brands, Howarth believes there is still mileage in the title. "The Face has been through crises before but it has endured," he says. Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, agrees: "The Face still has validity, it has just been going in the wrong direction and needs investment."

Emap is on the lookout for a buyer, so there is still a glimmer of hope.

However, in light of the publisher's latest statement that it will be focusing its energies on fuelling the momentum of the rest of its style portfolio, on titles such as Arena and Pop, it seems likely that closure will be the answer if a buyer cannot be found.

This strategy has received a mixed response and Jones argues that Emap has singled out the wrong magazine. "It seems like an arbitrary decision to pick on The Face when Arena and Pop also have low circulation bases. With its greater heritage, The Face really has greater potential than Arena."

Emap would argue that following this year's ABC results, which saw Arena's sales grow by 28 per cent, it is the obvious choice for investment. But while Arena has done well recently, it is still very niche and Tournes says: "Emap would do better using its money for a wider-ranging, higher-circulation title such as Zoo Weekly, as it will have more joy growing this."

As for Just Seventeen, effort went into reinventing the title with its relaunch as a monthly, J17, in 1997. It continued to trail behind the market leaders, though, and Alfie Lewis, the publisher of BBC Magazines' teen titles, says it is "a bit too cool for its own good", so distancing itself from the more girly Sugar and Bliss readers.

The launch of CosmoGirl in 2001, with its aggressive gifting and pricing strategy, into a market that is being affected by teenagers increasingly spending their money elsewhere, was the last straw for the weakening J17.

Emap's decision to concentrate efforts on its stronger brand, Bliss (number three in the market), seems an obvious one. Lewis says: "The teen market has been doing badly and even the leaders have been losing circulation. But it is good to invest in the successful magazines as these will stabilise. The teenage market does still have a role to play but just to a lesser degree than four to five years ago."

While some investment is required in the teen market, Tournes imagines that Emap will actually be concentrating more of its efforts on a new women's magazine in the Eve and Red vein. Certainly, Emap is exposed in the women's lifestyle sector after it lost Elle and Red to the French publisher Hachette Filipacchi in 2002; a war chest left from the closures of J17 and The Face could be just what's needed to fund the long-awaited launch in this area.

So J17's fate somehow seemed inevitable, given the general malaise in the teen market and the lack of momentum behind its sales. However, the jury is still out in the case of The Face and whether Emap is wise to focus its attention on Arena. Some argue that its fortunes would be better served by keeping an eye out for tomorrow's trends.

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