It is easy to believe the writing is on the wall for all print media, decimated by the rise of the internet and readers' increasing reluctance to pay for content. However, children's magazines - which were last year valued by Mintel at £136m, up 44% in real terms since 2003 - provide the perfect counter-argument.
Browse through the shelves of any newsagent, and children's and teen magazines still have a nostalgia factor, with their tantalising cover-mounted gifts and glossy gatefold posters remaining loyal to an old-world news-stand revenue model.
Sam Vernon, creative solutions group sales manager at Egmont, says: "Magazines are a medium that parents understand and recall from their own childhood. While gaming, the internet and TV are policed by parents, they have a far more comfortable attitude towards magazines, which have created an emotional bond with children."
But is that enough to combat the modern distractions of multichannel TV, gaming, MP3s, social networking sites and text messaging? TV, once the dominant medium among young people, has been replaced by online, and eight to 15-year-olds are twice as likely to have the internet in their bedroom as a television set (source: GfK). Almost three- quarters (70%) of this age group use the internet every day, whereas only 44% watch TV every day.
With the latest ABC figures showing circulation drops for teenage titles Sugar, Top of the Pops and Bliss, Carat's head of magazines Andy Taylor issues a warning to publishers. "Covermounts still have a strong appeal, but the teenage market is susceptible to drifting online, particularly with programmes such as The X Factor setting up sophisticated digital offerings. Magazines must be relevant and think carefully about their digital strategies."
Peter Hart, editor of Top of the Pops magazine, says the greatest challenge for publishers is the 21st-Century onslaught of information. "There was a time when teenagers would buy two or three magazines a month that would serve as their main source of gossip and stimulation," he explains. "Now they get that stimulation through reading magazines, texting friends, listening to podcasts and surfing the net."
As a result, Hart believes magazine content must change. He says: "Readers are less interested in the microscopic details of celebrities' lives. Instead, they are looking for information specifically targeted at them, such as celebrities giving advice on boosting confidence or making up with friends."
Digital media presents publishers with two main hurdles. Firstly, how to engage an audience whose digital habits change so frequently, and secondly, publishers' belief that the web is a difficult market to make money from. Because children's magazines depend so heavily on news-stand sales, publishers fear a strong internet offering will detract from the print magazine.
But it is possible to resolve this dilemma. Ian Foster, editor of BBC Worldwide's Match of the Day, comments: "The goal should be to use digital media to encourage children to spend more time in our universe. Done correctly, everything should lead back to the magazine and foster a deeper connection with the reader."
The solution is to work across platforms in a way that draws young readers back to the parent magazine. Match of the Day's weekly digital offering includes a preview e-mail on the eve of the magazine's publication; a fantasy football team game that requires readers to use special transfer codes that are printed in the magazine; and a new podcast, which launched last month with an interview with Arsenal star Cesc Fabregas.
Egmont's Go Girl magazine launched its nationwide Sleepover day on 24 October, giving readers collectible cover gifts over several issues in the run-up to the day. Vernon explains: "We supplemented the free gifts with a wealth of extra content that could be downloaded online, including celebrity masks and pamper cards. This ensured we created a perpetually virtuous circle, where the magazine fed into the website and vice versa."
The challenges for publishers will only increase as devices such as the iPhone and iTouch become more prevalent in the children's market. The news-stand formula that charmed a generation will only captivate today's children so far; technology will demand the final say. n
Blurring boundaries: Five cross-media pioneers
1) MATCH OF THE DAY
BBC Worldwide's weekly football title has a website featuring online games, quizzes and downloads. Last month it launched a podcast, available from MOTDmag.com and iTunes, and it plans to expand its social media presence.
2) DR WHO ADVENTURES
The tie-in magazine for the BBC's Dr Who series has a reader panel that acts as an online focus group and issues a weekly e-newsletter.
3) GO GIRL
Egmont's Go Girl hosted its nationwide Sleepover day on 24 October. It gave away collectible cover gifts in the run-up to the day, plus downloadable resources online.
Egmont's pre-teen title for boys has a website featuring movie clips, games, competitions and downloads. The title has also run interactive ad formats and competitions inviting readers to contribute to content.
Future is developing a site for its title for pre-teen boys, which will include a weekly newsletter and online resources to support the magazine.
This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk