Like a phoenix from liquidation – mag experiments with partnership model

Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

When the numbers fail to add up, the publishers of most small magazines take the simple, expeditious step of simply folding the thing. But when weekly regeneration magazine New Start was deemed no longer viable, it embarked on a new direction which could point the way for other, similar publications.

The magazine, launched in 1999 when public sector journalism was burgeoning, quickly carved out a niche for itself among its professional, policy-oriented readership. Being small, it was sufficiently fleet-of-foot to move from London to Sheffield in 2002 and – when the going got really tough – to relaunch as a monthly at the beginning of 2009.

But by October 2010 the costs of print and distribution had finally become prohibitive, and New Start Publishing Ltd went into liquidation. Yet instead of disappearing, the title was acquired by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), a think tank based in Manchester.

The thinking behind the take-over was that, with both parties sharing a common audience and values, each would benefit from joining forces. A model was evolved which combined affiliation to the organisation with subscription to the magazine, and CLES membership and New Start subscriptions became part of a single package, with readers-members simultaneously sold a magazine, a platform for debate, and access to research, training and consultancy.

At the same time, the move cut editorial costs, since the magazine – which had lost its freelance budget and now had only two members of staff – was able to source much of its copy from non-journalist experts working elsewhere in the organisation.

With the last print edition appearing in October 2010, the magazine is now entirely online. A website offers a mix of free and paywall content, while a designed e-zine is sent to subscribers once a month. The dual online format presents a novel version of the print-versus-digital dilemma that has exercised magazine publishers in recent years, potentially pitting two rivalrous forms of e-publication – a news website and a monthly e-zine – against each other.

According to New Start’s editor Austin Macauley, the speed of web publication makes the conclusion obvious. ‘My view is that if copy is good to go and you have a website at your disposal, it should be published at the earliest opportunity,’ he says. ‘Perhaps more importantly, the web allows readers to respond immediately with their observations and hence we have a comment facility on all articles. We want to create a ‘community’ out of our membership.’

He insists that the magazine’s reliance on editorial from non-journalists compromise the quality of the journalism: ‘The New Start/CLES model is unusual – bringing together journalists and an established title with a team of researchers and consultants who are creating new material all the time,’ he says. ‘People are thinking more and more journalistically about their work,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to get the right balance; we’re not just a mouthpiece. We were bullish about that from the start.’

The coverage continues to come from a variety of quarters, including the think tank’s direct competitiors, he adds.

Of course, as a magazine published by an organisation with which it shares common ground, the New Start model is hardly new. But what makes its experiment interesting is the way it knowingly combines a common-sense alliance with the diversification characteristic of the successful new business models emerging in the digital age, by offering readers range of services all centering on a relationship with the brand.

But, even with costs cannily reduced in this way, will the money stack up sufficiently to keep the magazine in circulation for another decade? One suspects from Macauley’s response that the answer is in the future workings of the corporate psyche. ‘The view of CLES is that it has to be sustainable by itself,’ he says, adding: ‘In reality it’s not just about whether we covers our costs with subscriptions, it’s more that we add value and give them the edge in marketing initiatives.’

The switch from print to digital lost the magazine very few readers, and the magazine/think tank is now gaining new subscribers-members, so the future looks promising.

With the emergence of publications such as The Day, an online news service for schools and colleges sponsored by the likes of the Independent Schools Association, it’s possible that New Start is part of a developing trend of what could be called sponsored or partnership journalism.