A new magazine requires a new idea, some good writers, an open field or a worthy competitor, advertising, strategising and managing finances. Or maybe it is something more.

And it is this ‘something more’ I want to explore. That something more has no definitive answer so I want to know what could go wrong to reduce wrongs and increase rights. The easiest way to do that is to go by the books. This journal deals with everything right a magazine could do theoretically to become successful.

I looked back in time for a good magazine gone bust. Maybe all the recession news, some bailouts and some fall outs got to me. It got me thinking that not only have banks and automotive manufacturers had a hard time, magazines have had their share too. Of the few magazines that come to mind, Test Drive is one the most prominent.

I asked my dad why there was smoke coming from under the hood of his Civic. I was four and engine overheating is a difficult concept to explain to kids which is why while we reached a garage and he poured some coolant, Dad handed me a magazine to keep my questions at bay.

When you go to a garage with a kid and two magazines are on a table, one is Nuts (no pun intended) and the other one is Autocar you give your kid an Autocar to read. Careers sometimes shape up in an early age and though predicting cup sizes is a virtue every man would want to possess, there can be only so much one would want to know about jeune fille.

You walk into a person you met some years ago; you remember the person but not the name. This is photographic memory for you. While words are often forgot, images stick along for a longer time. Maybe Nuts and Autocar are just a name I associate with the magazines I saw when I was four but the cars were for real and that is what makes me write for you about an automotive magazine that failed to work.

Dennis Publishing launched Test Drive magazine in October 2004 as a direct competitor to What Car? and Max Power. An £4.5 million (Wilmington 2004)  advertising campaign and a £2.99 price tag, some good photography, quite a few similar ideas to its rival, entertaining editorial and a comprehensive buyer’s guide; Test Drive had it all to become a successful competitor but folded almost two years later. And who was the title sold to? Its arch rival, What Car?.

Automotive publications depend heavily on advertising. The editorial team of certain titles like Classic and Sports Car have observed as much as 50% of the magazine content filled with advertisements while in weekly’s like Autocar it can go up to 30% for advertising. The advertising campaign by Test Drive to attract advertisers for its magazine was not a success which is why after a year and a half of the launch, several changes were brought into the magazine.

When Dennis Publishing launched Test Drive in 2004, it sold 109,880 copies (Haymarket 2006) per issue according to figures by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). This number more than halved after a year and a half.

From the original issue cost of £2.99, the price was slashed to £1.50 (Haymarket 2006). The magazine was launched as a competitor to What Car? and Car from Bauer. The contents in the magazine pitted it well against them but with the slash in price, also came a change in the magazine strategy. It was then sold as a buyer’s guide. Once you form a reader base you attracted by the content you provided them, such a change will surely lose them. This was one of many mistakes Test Drive made.

In order to hold the readers, content used in the magazine had to be chopped off to reduce costs of production. This was then featured on the website. That meant telling the reader to get their information elsewhere. Ok so it was their own website, but physically changing mediums was perhaps another mistake.

Soon Dennis publishing decided to sell the magazine. As soon as the publication was up for grabs, Haymarket took the master move. Instead of letting any other buyers buy the ailing magazine to revive it and place it back against What Car?, Haymarket publications bought it and ‘incorporated’ it into What Car?. In other words, they axed the magazine and the website and buried it, crushing the competition in one scoop.

So Test Drive’s failure after almost two years raises an important question… How do you make a magazine survive? And then thrive?

If I want to launch a new automotive magazine, what steps do I take to get the formula right?

How do magazines work?

To understand that let me create a virtual magazine. Being a journalist and one who does PR I will have to depend on money from advertisers and sales. It will not be manufacturer money from automotive bigwigs to paint them red when they don’t deserve.

Solely depending on readers is something novels do. A magazine without advertisements is the wrong answer. If magazines would have to be sold to readers at the cost required to be published, no one would be able to afford it.

This is well explained by an example of Cyrus Curtis, a publisher of a journal in the United States in the late 1800’s. This was the beginning of advertiser supported journalism.

The idea is to sell your publication at a loss at rock bottom prices to make people buy them; sustain the losses till numbers go up, and then get advertisements based on the number of issues sold (Morrish 2003: 7). With advertisement pages in the magazine, increase the pages which gives you a valid reason to increase the price of the magazine.

Captain of the ship

To become a staff writer or the editor of a motoring magazine, automotive knowledge is essential. The editor needs more than automotive knowledge and good writing skills. He needs to have a vision and one who can come up with good ideas for constant change and spice in the magazine. He needs to have good connections in the industry and one who is a good task master.

Advertising, PR and free gifts are definitely attractions towards a magazine but that only gets a reader to the magazine. Keeping them with the magazine is the job of the editor. Fresh writing, new ideas, attractive pages and more than all, quality informative content will ensure a magazine’s success in the long run.

The biggest mistake is to make massive changes often to show your involvement in the magazine because change needs to be subtle to keep the reader interested. Too much and you might risk losing a connection with the reader.

Identify the readers in your potential market and develop a strategy with your team to keep the reader interested.  The best question to ask yourself is ‘what can you give the readers that will give them an advantage over people who have not read the magazine?’ (Morrish 2003: 29). This is the best way of advertising- word of mouth.

Work with your publisher for ideas outside editorial strategy to get a further boost. If research is expensive study your rival to find out what they do right.

Build relationships with manufacturers, suppliers, readers and most of all your staff. Healthy environments produce better work. Understanding your role as a leader is important. Make a choice in the way you want to lead. You could dictate terms at the risk of shutting your staff from opinions but that makes you authoritative. You could also be your team’s friend and come to a solution collectively. This creates a comfort level which might also give your team some slack. If you know yourself well, it is easy to make the call.

Building a lasting relationship with your audience is equally important. Readers will lose interest if editors fail to consistently serve up a product with just the right mix of familiarity and freshness (Woodard 2006: 45)

Don’t be afraid to take responsibility for the magazine’s mistakes. The team needs to know that you are there for them when needed most. Time management is crucial. Journalists complain about time all the time, only if there were more than 24 hours in a day! A deadline is always there and it is imperative to abide by them to avoid embarrassment and huge monetary losses.

The pound and our models

Launching a magazine doesn’t just include money for publishing. A whole office setup with salaries, insurance, equipment, training, fuel costs, stationery and every other small detail needs to be taken note of. If there is a tap on every resource, unexpected bills can be avoided on recurring costs.

The most important component is our models. The car in an automotive magazine is the model. Getting them before the competitor is very important and they attract readers to us.

Is it what you want?

Starting out, you know what you want your magazine to look like and what you want to have in it. This makes the job simpler. You just have to ask whether the work is relevant, accurate, well written and more than all, whether it fits the theme of the magazine.

Don’t patronise anyone. It is difficult sometimes to avoid losing advertisers but if sales are strong new advertisers will come. Be true to the reader not a voice of manufacturers.

Develop a style for your magazine. The palettes, the layout, the text styles and the pictures have to have a common link in every issue to maintain the flow. Other publications are a great source for ideas on how to design your own magazine (Woodard 2006: 63)

Content is king

Writers are the soul of the magazine. Rich journalistic material is the most important factor for a magazine to survive. An editor needs to encourage his writers to write in their style without conflicting with the magazine’s style. Just enough freedom needs to be given to get the best out of them. In addition, fresh material is always necessary to fill up an issue which is why a good pool of freelance writers whom you can depend on for quality material should be at your disposal.

Every section such as news features, tests, etc can have an editor to further give a hierarchy and a filter before the final product goes to print.

The editor’s letter is quite important since it represents the whole issue. A gripping letter is a very powerful introduction to the issue.

Pleasure to the eyes

Automotive magazines sell for the way they look, at least for a first time buyer – Magazines are a visual medium (Morrish 2003: 146). As mentioned earlier, photographic memory is memorising pictures. A good picture will draw the reader to the magazine. But it is not only the pictures but the design of the magazine. The colours used throughout the magazine, the text style and the page designs could make or break a magazine. Keep specialist designers and encourage their creative minds to come up with impressive spreads. Once design is taken care of, pictures need to be addressed. More often than not, photographs do not directly go into a magazine without a touch up. The picture editor blends the pictures into the magazine by highlighting the important parts of the picture.

Photographs in magazines should be original where possible. Good locations are important too hence photo shoots are an integral part of an automotive magazine. A good photographer with the right equipment, a picturesque location and a beautiful car can make a feature very attractive and inviting.

Cover

More often than not, a magazine on the newsstand sells because of the cover. A cover layout that provides just the right amount of powerful information accompanied by beautiful pictures is the best formula for sales. Given the way magazines are usually placed on newsstands, the most important headline needs to be on the top left hand corner of the magazine. The next important headline needs to be above the title and the car featured on the cover needs to be directed with a left front three quarter. These styles are debatable but are noticed in most automotive publications.

The entire run

After all the features are ready and the raw copy is in to a editor, the editor and the sub editors read and edit the raw copy, send it to the designers for a page layout, then the layout gets approved and changed according to the adjustments required. Then the editor approves the final proof after the sub editor’s proof read it. The page is then checked again by the designers for colours and bleeds and then sent to the printer.

This is one run for one issue. But work overlaps because while the editor signs the final proof for a March issue, he works on the raw copy of the June issue.

Abide by the law

Editors are perhaps most worried of libel but defamation, contempt of court and copyright are other issues the editor has to keep in mind. Automotive publications are arguably safer in comparison to other publications but an aide memoire on media law is essential for all journalists.

Summing it up

Test drive failed for various reasons mentioned earlier. The things you can do right to develop and manage a successful automotive publication begin from the editor and revolve around the editor. Logistics, a good team and many more factors come into consideration but the editor is the most important person in the magazine.

The editor not only has to be a good writer, he needs to be a visionary, a leader and a good manager who can take responsibilities and direct his resources to produce a good magazine. Sales figures are the bottom line and all that matters is keeping it up.

A successful title requires a fine idea, a well thought of funding plan, a creative editorial team, cars for testing, constant influx of readable material, good photography and competitive pricing to get it right on paper.

— ends —

References

Morrish, J. (2003), Magazine editing :how to develop and manage a successful publication. London: Routledge

Woodard, C. (2006), Starting and running a successful newsletter or magazine. Berkeley, CA.: Nolo

Wilmington Business Information (2004) Press Gazette [Online] available from http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=26950&sectioncode=1 [7 May 2009]

Haymarket brand media (2004) Media Week [Online] available fromhttp://mediaweek.co.uk/news/search/513497/ [7 May 2009]

Haymarket brand media (2006) Media Week [Online] available fromhttp://mediaweek.co.uk/news/search/576239/Car-incorporate-Test-Drive/[07 May 2009]

Haymarket brand media (2006) Media Week [Online] available fromhttp://mediaweek.co.uk/news/search/576077/Haymarket-buys-closes-Test-Drive/ [07 May 2009]

Haymarket brand media (2006) Media Week [Online] available fromhttp://mediaweek.co.uk/news/search/546677/Dennis-accepts-online-challenge/ [07 May 2009]

Haymarket brand media (2006) Media Week [Online] available fromhttp://mediaweek.co.uk/news/search/545104/Test-Drive-reposition-buyers-guide/ [08 May 2009]

Haymarket brand media (2006) Brand Republic [Online] available fromhttp://www.brandrepublic.com/news/576056/haymarket-acquires-rival-car-magazine-test-drive/ [08 May 2009]

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