One would-be bidder who walked away was daunted by the commercial challenges they ran into, writes Pattrick Smellie for BusinessDesk.
It is now getting on for three months since the German magazine publisher Bauer announced it was closing its New Zealand titles.
Three months in which the company has hung onto well in excess of $2 million in pre-paid subscriptions for a range of magazines including the NZ Woman’s Weekly, the NZ Listener, North & South, Your Home & Garden, Metro, and others.
Three months in which the star writers for those publications have quietly gone on to find new work, found new titles, and for the brand value in those previously household names to start seeping away.
Either they are very difficult to sell, or they are worth very little, or Bauer simply doesn’t care what it gets for them. Perhaps a combination of all three.
The consensus among the many industry-watchers that BusinessDesk has spoken to in recent weeks is that the longer the process takes, the less they will be worth.
And the more likely it is that they will not be sold to a single buyer, but broken up and either sold individually or quietly buried in an unmarked grave in the parts of cemeteries where so many magazine titles go to die.
Seven weeks ago, a vestigial remnant of the Bauer NZ business wrote to subscribers of The Listener – and presumably other titles with pre-paying subscribers – about the delay in restarting the magazines that were closed down overnight in early April.
“The goal has always been to get your subscription up and running again as soon as possible and we are working hard to make this happen,” said Magshop, Bauer NZ’s subscription arm. “There has been a large amount of interest in the sale of The Listener and that, combined with the logistical challenges of Covid-19 restrictions, has meant we have had to extend the sales process by just under four weeks.
“This will have an impact on the timing of your subscription resuming under new ownership but it is good news for a positive outcome.”
Existing subscriptions would be honoured by whoever bought the titles, Bauer said.
That sale extension deadline was now more than a month ago – May 25.
Since then, the only thing to have happened is that Australian private equity firm Mercury Capital – run by New Zealander Clark Perkins and backed by NZ millionaire Craig Heatley – bought all of Bauer’s Australian and NZ businesses in a job lot and proceeded to try and find buyers for the NZ titles.
No one – not Mercury, EY or any declared bidders – is talking about where things have got to.
But BusinessDesk understands there is a bit of progress. Having trawled extensively through the list of tyre-kickers whose identities EY inadvertently released when first seeking expressions of interest back in April, we have a sense of what might be happening.
Firstly, we believe the real money-spinners, like the NZ Woman’s Weekly, will continue to publish in some form from Sydney. NZ advertising for Woman’s Day and the Australian Woman’s Weekly is still being sold from the ex-Bauer Sydney office.
These are probably not for sale.
All that Mercury wants to offload are what might be called the “luvvy titles” – the Listener, North & South, Metro and lifestyle mastheads that have relatively small, albeit well-heeled, devotees, but not in the numbers that make magazine publishing attractive.
Said former Bauer NZ chief executive Paul Dykzeul in emailed comments to BusinessDesk: “One of the things I’ve always found fascinating is how the smaller titles have historically been viewed here in NZ. The perception about profitability and relevance. Having a strong and broad portfolio mix in my view is critical for many reasons and is often a totally misunderstood strategy. It is just not about individual title profitability.”
Another would-be bidder who walked away was daunted by the commercial challenges they ran into.
“We did some extensive cost analysis and came away feeling that the brands were financially viable if we hubbed production in with our existing titles,” but “essentially, the subs liabilities killed it for us. A purchase with those liabilities could be done, but we would have to run the business heavily in the red for two years, which was too much of a risk as I saw it.
“The brands we looked at were more suited to a small publisher, as the rate of return would not have met a regular investor’s margin requirements and is probably why Horton did not proceed.”
Matthew Horton, owner at Horton Media, which also had a look at the Bauer titles, said something similar. Successful individual magazine title publishing had to be seen as a “cottage industry” activity, where the owners were close to their readers, personally devoted to the subject matter, and have strong personal relationships with advertisers.
Magazines could be respectably profitable on that basis, but were not a route to riches.
The Bauer experience shows that economies of scale can support a small publishing empire as long as the advertising market is strong, but that they will always be at risk of a global owner losing interest and having invested originally with no emotional attachment. An over-stuffed corporate head office doesn’t help either. The editorial staffs on the Bauer titles were dwarfed by the management, sales and other support staff around them.
Stripping out those costs will be part of the route to profitability for any of the titles that do survive, along with an online strategy.
“To make it work the brands would need to be stripped down to their basic elements and built up again, leveraging their respected branding for a digital audience,” said the anonymous bidder.
Mike Hutcheson, a principal at ICG, which publishes other magazines, says they had a look but it was “just too hard.”
So far, the glossy Property Press regionalised real estate magazine appears to have had a reprieve. It is strongly supported by the real estate industry, which remains a money trough. NZME’s Oneroof and Stuff’s Homed sections responded swiftly to its initial disappearance.
Air New Zealand has also apparently monstered Bauer into meeting its contractual obligations to keep producing the in-flight Kia Ora magazine.
But whether there is a single or multiple buyers for the remaining titles remains a mystery.
Clearly, the sale process organiser, EY, had thought it would be long over by now. In its email to subscribers on May 13, it thanked them for their “exceptional patience and support during this time”.
How much longer that patience will hold must increasingly be an open question. At some stage, like disgruntled Air NZ customers whose flights were cancelled during the Covid lockdown, they will start to want their money back.
Will anyone in charge of offloading these orphan titles, beloved by a small and loyal, but not especially commercially interesting community of readers, care enough to ensure they end up in the hands of someone who wants them before loyalty is replaced by no more than disappointed memories?
This article originally appeared on BusinessDesk. Their team publishes quality independent news, analysis and commentary on business, the economy and politics every day. Find out more.
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