For many people, the name DC Thomson will be forever synonymous with some of the most iconic titles in children’s magazine publishing. Generations of people will remember the thrill of comics such as Topper, The Dandy or The Beano dropping onto the doormat once a week along with the family newspaper.
Such well-established brands build huge loyalty, with readers growing up to become parents and passing on that brand devotion to their own children.
Times, though, have changed and many titles have come and gone during DC Thomson’s 101-year history.
(The Beano, though, thankfully still survives and thrives, both in print and online. It was even featured on a Royal Mail stamp in 2012.)
The multi-channel imperative
In today’s marketplace, a one-dimensional print product, such as a comic, needs new channels to deliver its content, or it is in danger of seeing its readership fall into potentially terminal decline. Not all brands are able to make the transition – Thomson’s 75-year-old comic, The Dandy, which closed four years ago, being one of those that didn’t.
Mike Watson, general manager of DC Thomson Publishing, which encompasses the company’s newspaper and magazine holdings, is all too well aware of this challenge.
The task, he acknowledges, is the same as for all print publishers, and it isn’t new: how to grow revenue and readers. What is new, however, is that there are now myriad potential solutions. And these are not about simply migrating the print content online. They extend to one-off, brand-building events, such as a Shout Hangout, for teen girl fans of Shout magazine, and the well-established Press and Journal’s Energy Ball in Aberdeen for those in the oil and gas industry. Plus, there are of course, the usual Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts. There is also a brand extension into mainstream TV, with the 78-year-old Beano’s most popular character, Dennis The Menace, appearing in cartoon form. Dennis will even enter the world of CGI next year as the series Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed appears on CBBC.
DC Thomson publishes an eclectic range of magazines in addition to newspapers, including long-established brands such as The People’s Friend, the 275-year-old The Scots Magazine, My Weekly and Commando. It also publishes the national weekly titles the Sunday Post and The Weekly News; online, Energy Voice specialises in the North Sea oil industry and is read in over 100 countries.
The company’s Dundee headquarters is also home to some of the country’s oldest and most successful regional newspapers, including The Courier, Evening Telegraph, The Press and Journal, Evening Express and Aberdeen Citizen. The Press and Journal and The Courier are two of the UK’s highest-selling regional titles, with average per-issue circulations of 56,422 and 46,991 respectively.
Where to cut, where to invest
Like newspapers everywhere in the UK, the market for DC Thomson’s titles has its challenges. Economies and efficiencies have been made. As a result, over recent years, Watson says, three print centres have been cut to one, and further efficiencies were created with the outsourcing of distribution to Menzies two years ago.
Watson readily acknowledges, however, the paradox that, while efficiencies are necessary, they actually create stronger and more purposed content, as this is where a brand’s real USP lies.
“I think the big thing that we all recognise is that, while we create these efficiencies wherever we can, we must continue to invest heavily in the content. Content and maintaining its quality are key,” he says.
“The huge benefit we have with being a family business is that we’ve not been shareholder driven; so, we can afford to take a much longer-term view of things as we invest in the lifecycle and the quality of our products.”
Digital is an increasingly important part of the business, but Watson sounds a note of caution here; he believes it is important to define its specific role, especially with newspapers.
“I think we do need to be careful when we talk about migration of content online, because for us it’s vital to protect the print product,” he says.
“Digital,” he believes, “has to provide something more, it has to augment the print experience, giving additional information and analysis to the reader, and introducing different types of content, such as video. But print is still the cornerstone of the business.”
Unlike many other publishers, Watson says, DC Thomson’s newspaper earnings from circulation is high, at 65 – 70 per cent of total revenue.
“Therefore the migration of advertisers away from print towards digital has a less significant impact on us than perhaps for others,” he says.
There is, Watson stresses, a distinction between newspapers and magazines and the role of digital.
“With magazines, you’re also augmenting the offer, but more in terms of widening the platform the content can be accessed from. You will never see the same migration of users online in magazines as you have in news,” he says.
The company has applied a paywall to the online version of The Press and Journal, offering subscriptions giving various levels of access ranging from £10 to £22 a month.
It has been successful in distinguishing the most committed readers, those most engaged with local content, Watson says.
“The casual reader who drops in from a link on a social site, who is not really that useful to us because they’re not so fully engaged with the brand, they don’t stay around on the site that long and they don’t pay. But where you have readers who are particularly interested in the local brand and the quality content, then we do see a good take-up with the paywall. And these committed readers are the ones we’re interested in attracting.”
The key to making this model work is to invest in unique content; the more localised, the better, he says.
“That's why we continue to invest in our local journalists – to deliver information that people want and need about their community. It's information everyone can relate to because it affects their day-to-day lives – that's where you really get that important reader engagement.”
The company’s magazines cover a wide range of interest areas and demographics, from much older readers to the very young.
“With the magazines, what we’ve been doing in the last two or three years is to have additional launches particularly in the children’s arena of both our own and particularly licensed IP from movies or TV, and this has driven circulation” says Watson.
Targeting the Grey Pound
The company also produces a number of magazines that attract readers at the other end of the age spectrum, such as The People’s Friend, Evergreen and The Weekly News.
So, as the digital offering plays an increasingly important role, are these older readers somewhat reluctant to embrace online offerings? Not a bit of it, says Watson; and he sees an older readership profile as a significant positive.
“We all know the country itself is getting older, and it’s interesting: if you look at the uptake of digital, which is increasingly moving to mobile, the older, 65-plus age group is one that is the fastest growing in the uptake of that medium.
“Technology is now a part of daily life for this age group. And people in this group are now so much ‘younger’ than twenty years ago. You’ve got to be very careful of how you position yourself because of this,” Watson says.
“It's a completely different situation to how it used to be. Their level of disposable income is also significantly higher as well, and this group engages more in a wide range of activities including travelling widely.
“So, again, digital is another platform we can use to provide information to this readership and we can communicate significantly with them through our website and through Facebook. All this certainly increases engagement with the products.”
So, what of the future? A company with such a long history must have learned a thing or two about resilience in changing markets.
Watson sees the company’s current trajectory continuing.
“I think, in the magazine business, we’ll continue to see significant new launches and will look to add to our portfolio where we can, whether it’s through our own or external IP.”
For the newspapers, Watson believes the focus will remain on what the brands do best – consistently producing quality local news content. And, while the company will look to expand its digital audience, this must be done while maintaining and nurturing print products.
What digital content allows, Watson acknowledges, is for advertisers to target the profile of audience they are most interested in.
“Certainly we know a lot more about our audiences than ever before and that has obvious advantages. For example, where we have similar audiences across various papers, we can combine those and give advertisers a much bigger reach. We can use analytics and pinpoint specific sectors advertisers are looking to communicate with.”
What is crucial, he believes, is for the business to stay lean, nimble and creative. The same innovative mindset that brought those ground-breaking comics to market almost eight decades ago is as important as ever, Watson says.
“That spirit has always been in the company. And we've always had launches, but they have tended to be much more small scale and sporadic. I think the recognition over the last four or five years has been that we cannot stand still or we're going to go backwards.
“So, we will continue to be fast where we see an opportunity. If you don't do that, then there is really only one way a business is going to go – and that's not what any of us want.”
General Manager: Mike Watson
Publications include: Press & Journal, The Beano, The People’s Friend, The Courier, Thunderbirds and Shout
Recent launches: Your Best Ever Christmas magazine (Sept, ’16); Danger Mouse (July, ’16); the Weekend Telegraph (Dundee, August, ’16)