Somebody once asked me to describe my role as a trade press journalist: I was working at a magazine called Media International at the time. I mentioned that I’d transitioned from local newspapers. “It’s the same thing,” I said. “You report on a community. On a local paper, your community is the town where you live and work. On a trade magazine, it’s the industry you cover.”
Both come with a responsibility, as you’re giving a voice and a platform to people whose lives are linked to yours. The difference between a trade magazine – or a local newspaper – and a generalist magazine is that sense of proximity. You’re part of the same community.
So how is the marketing press faring in 2022? As a unique gathering of journalists, through its jury and the related Press Club, the Epica Awards ought to have an idea. I might also add that, thanks to a few years of experience, I’ve pretty much had a front row seat when it comes to the evolution of the press, starting in the late 1980s when I cranked out articles on a manual typewriter. At the time I thought of fax machines as new tech.
One thing of which we can be certain is that the trade press can’t survive on subscriptions alone. It never has. Advertising is a vital engine, of course. But also what a former boss of mine called “ancillary activities”. She meant activities that support the main task of the organization. Events, conferences – and of course, awards shows. Almost every trade magazine worth its salt also runs an industry awards show.
In-person awards shows took a giant hit during the peak of the pandemic, especially those based on the model of selling tickets for black-tie events. Some continued in a digital format, but it was hardly the same. There’s a palpable feeling of relief now that real-life, glitzy shows are possible again.
Arguably, live events have become more important as the existence of print magazines has lessened: they personify and extend the brand. Having said that, if I look at the Epica Awards jury, it’s actually astonishing how many titles still exist in a magazine format. Some have switched from weekly to monthly. Others look distinctly slimmer than they did in the past. But they live on. Print has a certain prestige for advertisers; and for the people featured in articles. Probably, let’s be honest, for journalists too.
Resilience and diversification
I’m not ready to write off print entirely. In a digital era, print has an analogue charm that a new generation is beginning to discover. Years after we were warned of the imminent death of books, keen readers are buying stacks of them and posting pictures of them on Instagram, or reviewing them on TikTok. Bibliophile influencers have become an important marketing force for publishers. A trade magazine may not have the allure of a hardback book, but it has some of the warmth and tactility.
Once again, examining the titles on the Epica Awards jury, I see that a number of them devote sections to paid-for or sponsored content written by industry figures: what used to be known rather disparagingly as “advertorial”, but now tends to be referred to as “native advertising”. Either way, it’s another source of income as well as further proof that the industry regards trade magazines as useful mouthpieces.
The fact is that, for a long time now, a magazine has been part of a whole panoply of elements available to a media brand. Yes, you can keep the magazine if it’s still making money for you. But you should also have newsletters, podcasts, online videos, and a healthy, active presence on social channels. In terms of reaching your audience, there’s a whole toolbox out there. A business magazine is likely to find a more natural home on LinkedIn than on TikTok; but no platform should be discounted, and experimentation encouraged.
Because the ongoing opportunity for the trade press – or the specialist press, if you prefer – lies in the subject we mentioned earlier: community. We’ve grown used to influencers talking about their “community” of online followers; a community they’ve painstakingly built over time. Brands employ community managers to encourage a sense of belonging among consumers, as if a brand is analogous to a club.
But trade magazines don’t have to build communities from scratch. Their community is already out there, living and breathing, and has been for years. Just like the small town where I once worked on a local newspaper still exists today.
To remain relevant, all the trade press has to do is keep reaching out to its community – and giving it a voice.