Photo credit: Time Inc.

Sadly, it is the end of an era – NME aka New Musical Express has finally decided to cease its weekly print edition from today after 66 years.

While the magazine spent most of those years on the newsstands, in 2015 with circulation at an all-time low of 15,000, Time Inc. decided to move NME to a freemium model – an ad-funded free title.

Although pitched as a strategy to widen audience participation, essentially the rationale was to cut newsstand distribution costs and boost ad revenue.

According to the BBC’s report, publishers Time Inc. said the decision to stop its print edition is “due to rising production costs and a tough advertising market”. Instead, it will be “focusing investment on further expanding NME’s digital audience”.

While the move did indeed expand distribution to 300,000 – it seems both core and potential new readers weren’t so keen to engage.

What went wrong?

For me the cracks set in much earlier. Was it the merger with Melody Maker back in 2000? Possibly. It was around that point the title began to lose its unique voice and perspective. NME shifted the paradigm from that quirky content readers of all ages loved so much and began covering more mainstream artists such as Hear’say and Jay-Z. The aim was to broaden editorial coverage and thus appeal to a wider audience.

In 2002 the then newly-appointed editor, Connor McNicholas, bought some stability with a boost to circulation along with a more innovative approach. He was backed up by his stoic deputy Krissi Murison. However, she left for pastures new Stateside in 2006, only to return three years later to take up editorship following McNicholas’s departure.

Then came the traditional new editor relaunch and NME got another makeover.

Fast forward to 2012 – and some might argue there is a transitional pattern emerging here – former deputy editor Mike Williams took over from Murison. Under his leadership, the team successfully relaunched NME but this time on a digital scale focussing on 360 content across platform.

All good . . . apparently.

Certainly, NME.com has received accolades for its excellence, yet this relaunch did not quite harvest the desired results, because by 2015 circulation figures had nose-dived making the print edition unsustainable on the newsstands.

While NME as a brand might have made a bigger impact digitally, the quality of its print edition deteriorated significantly. So much so that I was not in the least surprised by Time Inc.’s recent announcement.

In the press release announcing the move, Time Inc. UK group managing director, Paul Cheal, cited it as good news as NME was moving to a digital-first strategy. He stated:

“NME is one of the most iconic brands in British media and our move to free print has helped to propel the brand to its biggest ever audience on NME.COM. The print re-invention has helped us to attract a range of cover stars that the previous paid-for magazine could only have dreamed of.”

“At the same time, we have also faced increasing production costs and a very tough print advertising market. Unfortunately, we have now reached a point where the free weekly magazine is no longer financially viable. It is in the digital space where effort and investment will focus to secure a strong future for this famous brand.”

Nothing surprising in that statement.

My verdict

Is it simply a case of tough times and a knock-on effect of the digital disruption? I think not.

To me, this appears to be a culmination of issues, which started with a loss of identity way back. A rapid expansion of brand extensions perhaps didn’t help.

Somewhere along the way, NME’s print edition ceased to have the depth and breadth it readership had loved so much. Did the decision to make it a free magazine signal the end, or had the content of the print edition simply become a diluted version?

Maybe, but I refer you to that old adage: quality, specialist content sells copies.

What could Time Inc. have done differently to change the outcome? My advice would have been to take a more creative approach and opt for a high-risk strategy. Cut the frequency and up the quality of production while steering the editorial firmly away from mainstream coverage.

Published by Mary Hogarth

With nearly 20 years industry experience in editorial, branding and publishing, Mary Hogarth is the consultant to call if you are thinking of setting up a new magazine or eNewsletter, relaunching a title or just need advice on best practice. Author of How To Launch A Magazine In This Digital Age, Mary's extensive experience and unique approach will help you transform your project into a viable and sustainable concept.

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