Can Magna Publishing reclaim lost glory?

By , agencyfaqs! | In | July 29, 2002
The once strong Mumbai-based publishing group is now floundering. Why?

There was a time when titles of the Magna Publishing Company Ltd collectively ruled the minds of Indian readers. Stardust, Society and Savvy, the three most popular monthlies from the Magna stable, were benchmarks in their respective genres, each having created a niche for themselves. If Stardust thrived on the goings-on in Bollywood, Society did its round up of the rich and famous and Savvy was the quintessential woman's magazine. Of course, there were more spin offs from the group such as Citadel (Pune city magazine), Showtime, Health & Nutrition, Savvy Cookbook (quarterly) and Society Interiors.

Sadly however, over the years, the group has seen a steady decline in readership for its various titles. Leaving aside the English edition of Stardust - the group's flagship film magazine, which has managed to retain its readership (National Readership Survey 2002 ranks Stardust (E) as the tenth most widely read magazine in the urban sector) - most other magazines within the group seem to be slipping quite badly.

The question is, what is the cause for this decline? Why is it that the titles don't evoke much reader interest today?

But first, a quick number check. According to NRS 2002, Stardust (E) registered a readership of 30.64 lakh in 1999, 31.88 lakh in 2000, 29.03 lakh in 2001 and 23.58 lakh in 2002. Savvy saw a readership of 4.25 lakh in 1999, 4.28 lakh in 2000, 3.84 lakh in 2001 and 3.21 lakh in 2002. Society, on its turn, lapped up figures of 7.44 lakh in 1999, 7.51 lakh in 2000, 6.82 lakh in 2001 and 5.87 lakh in 2002. Health & Nutrition seems to be the only magazine to have shown a continued upswing with figures of 3.09 lakh, 3.21 lakh, 3.44 lakh and 3.52 lakh in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 respectively.

Interestingly, the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2001 (IRS 2002 will be released in a few weeks' time) has a similar picture to present - though the figures are slightly different. From 26.81 lakh in (January-December) 1998, the readership of Stardust (E) came down to 20.52 lakh in (January-June) 2001, a drop of 23 per cent. Savvy registered a decline of 34 per cent - from 4.3 lakh in 1998 to 2.83 lakh in the first half of 2001. Society saw the worst drop of 47 per cent owing to a fall in readership from 6.97 lakh in 1998 to 3.71 lakh in 2001. Showtime was the only magazine to have registered a single digit decline of 7 per cent due to fall in readership from 2.27 lakh in 1998 to 2.10 lakh in 2001.

So, where does the problem lie?

agencyfaqs! tried to get an official comment from the group on this, but there was no response to our repeated requests. So we put the story together after talking to several current and ex-employees of the group and media analysts.

"If you look at the complete picture, then the segments where Magna is present are actually witnessing intense competition with more magazines, the Internet and television, all vying for the readers'/viewers' time and attention. Stardust, for example, has suffered due to television. People today find it more interesting and entertaining to watch film stars on TV as opposed to reading about them in film magazine," avers a Mumbai-based media analyst. "Television today fulfils a lot of our emotional needs, which a while ago was the prerogative of magazines," states a media analyst from a Top 10 agency.

Some others point to the fact that overall, magazine readership has taken a beating over the last few years, as validated by the recently released NRS. According to the NRS 2002, from 93.8 million in 1999, the readership base for magazines in India is down to 86.2 million in the current year, representing a drop of 8 per cent. In reach terms, the study sates that the penetration of magazines has fallen by 17 per cent as opposed to newspapers/dailies, which have registered an increase of 8 per cent over 1999. Moreover, erosion in readership of magazines has primarily been observed in categories such as general interest, film/entertainment and sports.

The last IRS presents the following figures for three titles directly in contention with Magna's Stardust and Savvy. Filmfare and Femina (publications from The Times of India group) registered a double-digit decline of 24 per cent and 21 per cent respectively, due to a fall in readership. It fell from 39.68 lakh in 1998 to 30.08 lakh in the first half of 2001 for Filmfare and 17.73 lakh to 13.95 lakh for Femina during the same period. Cine Blitz, another film magazine, saw a decline of 15 per cent owing to a fall in readership from 10.63 lakh in 1998 to 9.03 lakh in 2001.

While analysts point at the decline in the overall market for magazines to justify the fall, some company insiders says problems within Magna are partly to blame. "Magna is actually a ship without a captain," says an industry source. "There is no drive within the group mainly because Nari Hira (promoter) doesn't seem to be taking an active interest in the magazines anymore." Incidentally, it was this "drive", coupled with the strong partnership that Hira shared with ex-model and columnist Shobha De, that fired the group's brands through the seventies and eighties.

"Stardust was the first magazine to have radically changed the way stories were written and presented in film magazines," reiterates Jameel Gulrays, independent media consultant. "They introduced bitchiness at a time when film magazines were a staid lot," he adds. Gulrays also points to the fact that apart from Stardust, the editorial content in sister publications such as Society and Savvy have not really been consistent or in sync with the times. "Stardust is the only magazine of value in the group. It has found its niche. Society and Savvy, in my opinion, are more like coffee table magazines. If Society is elitist, then Savvy seems to be suspended somewhere."

Agrees a journalist who has worked with the group at one point during her career. "Magna seems to be caught in a time warp especially in the way stories are tackled. That seventies/eighties feel of being predominantly sensational still continues, particularly in the case of Stardust. People today are on the lookout for well-rounded stories as opposed to sensational ones. In my opinion, sooner or later, sensationalism puts a strain on the credibility factor, which one can witness in the case of Stardust. In fact, the magazine is quite unpopular among film stars themselves."

Savvy, she opines, has moved out of the "shattered-battered syndrome". "Gender is no more an issue with Savvy as it used to be in the eighties. Today, the focus is largely on achievement and issues tackled are more contemporary in nature with obstacles forming a part of the story." Society, she believes, has the biggest disadvantage. "Readers are already getting a daily dose of the champagne and cocktails circuit on Page 3 of newspapers. How much more would they really want?"

A Magna insider however has an interesting point to make. "It's not as if we aren't doing good work. We do go that extra mile, but it's just that we don't shout out our stories from the rooftops. The Times, for instance, markets its brands quite aggressively. Let me tell you, we did a coup of sorts last year with Savvy. We had two issues featuring prominent international women who were in the news at that time. One was Padma Lakshmi, Salman Rushdie's lady love, and the second was Sabrina Setlur, Boris Becker's flame. At that point, most national newspapers could only manage fleeting references to them, but we did full-length interviews with the two women, which was lapped by the readers in India."

She also points to the drawback of owner/proprietor setups. "Owner/proprietor setups for most part reflect the age of the person in command. When Rusy Karanjia, founder of The Blitz (tabloid) was young, the paper reflected his energy and enthusiasm. It had the capacity to shake governments with Karanjia having access to any world leader. As he aged, however, the tabloid suffered quite visibly. This could well be the problem with Magna. But let me tell you that Nari Hira can be as enthusiastic as a child."

It remains to be seen if his childlike enthusiasm sparks a revival for his titles, or they are overwhelmed by brand fatigue. © 2002 agencyfaqs!

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