In a little under ten years the foundations of the UK’s, not to mention the world’s, periodical publishing industry have been swept away. The internet has now become the default setting for the information age, and this along with rising costs and declining attention spans has created a perfect storm which has engulfed the magazine business. As publishers’ incomes have fallen so has followed a chain of closures and consolidations, the latter seeing once fierce competitors brought together under the control of a handful of those who believe they might buck the trend.
Earlier this year Future Publishing provided an exemplar of what has taken place across the industry when it acquired, among others, Shooting Times, Sporting Gun and The Field as part of a deal to buy out TI Media, thereby adding to a stable that already housed Clay Shooting and Sporting Rifle. In a single stroke Future became ipso facto the only shooting magazine publisher of any consequence in this country. Before the deal went ahead it was referred to the competitions regulator, who waved it through. No one was surprised by that. TI’s owners had wanted shot of the operation for years but beyond Future’s had received no serious offers. Given the dire not so long-term prospects for magazine publishers, Future’s was the only game in town. Which leaves the UK shooting industry with the question, is this a good thing?
The answer to that question is likely to be in the negative, but not for the usual commercial reasons, ergo that being in the maw of one owner will mean a loss of competitiveness between titles – a loss that would be paid for by their advertisers. And the reason for that is that for the most part brands can now actually manage to prosper without the assistance of print publications. Indeed, where Future may well be hoping to recoup its investment is by building multimedia platforms around the key titles it has acquired. No, what is likely to harm the industry is already taking place and can be seen – or rather not seen – in the pages of another Future magazine; GTN (Gun Trade News).
When GTN first appeared in the early nineteen nineties its then publisher, John Storrey, launched it because he wanted to take the Gun Trade Association to task for what he saw as its amateurish handling of the British Pavilion at the IWA trade show. Storrey was a maverick and an outsider, but his position, which admittedly arose in part from business interests, disturbed what until then had been the cosy parochiality of the gun trade establishment. It also set the tone for GTN editorial positioning for the next 20 years; a tone which was robust enough at one point for the magazine to be labelled ‘The Sun Trade News’. With the aim of improving standards across the industry the magazine would regularly feature examples of good and poor marketing, innovations and ideas, drawing praise and criticism in equal measure. Coverage was not linked to advertising, leaving it free to evaluate products without one eye on advertising revenues. And what GTN was especially well known for was a willingness to call the consumer press to account when examples of poor editorial standards and dishonest circulation claims were revealed. None of this was driven by anything other than the belief that it is central to the role of a trade publication to champion the industry it represents and that an integral part of that is to hold that industry to account when standards slip.
It rather seems that Future does not see guardianship of those standards as any part of GTN’s role. For example, take the not-at-all rare occurrence, when the editorial content of one of the consumer magazines is inaccurate and worthy of lampoon. Could we expect to see that appear on the GTN feature page The Sniper Column, if the authors of the offending material are in the office next door? Similarly, would examples of dodgy claims about circulation numbers and coverage find their way into GTN if the culprit was one of their sister publications? The omens are not good and haven’t been so for some time, for whilst the magazine’s credentials for standing up to those who oppose shooting and wish to see it restricted are good enough, it is hard to think of any occasion in recent times when it has taken any individual or part of the industry to task for faltering standards. The shooting organisations perform well on the whole, but need to be kept on their toes. Looking at GTN in recent years one is struck by the absence of any serious comment about the performance of these bodies, negative or otherwise.
One can conclude from this that what guides editorial policy at GTN is one of not rocking the boat. Don’t lead, just follow the line of least resistance and keep your head down. In all likelihood this will prove financially the best strategy. It has to be doubtful that it is a strategy that will fortify the industry against the challenges that lie ahead.