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Return of the city-centric magazine

Arti Sharma in Mumbai | September 25, 2004

Have we been down this route before? Back in 1979 the Living Media Group -- which publishes India Today -- launched Bombay magazine, which aimed to give the smart, young set the lowdown on latest news and events in the city.

Eleven years later it shut down, defeated by a combination of low advertising and competition from mainstream newspapers.

Now the publishing world is looking afresh at the city magazine concept. First off the block was Living Media itself which has cautiously launched city supplements that are distributed along with India Today. Now, more ambitiously, there's Smiti Ruia -- the daughter of Essar Group's Ravi Ruia -- who has tied up with London listings magazine Time Out.

Time Out has repeated its successful formula and now has 51 editions in different parts of the globe. If the formula works Ruia ambitiously wants to bring out Time Out editions in Bangalore and Delhi.

Will Ruia succeed where other veteran publishers have failed? Is the time finally right for city-centric magazines? "It's about reaching people who are out there to consume entertainment but don't know where to go," says Ruia.

On the plus side, it must be said, there's a huge appetite for lifestyle stories that centre on the rich, famous and stylish -- the movers and shakers of India's metropolitan life. That has already been proved by daily supplements like Delhi Times and Bombay Times, and other publications like Delhi's HT City.

Nevertheless, making money from a stand-alone publication could be a rough haul. Living Media, despite its vast resources, has been moving cautiously in recent months with its city supplements Simply Mumbai, Simply Kolkata, Simply Delhi and Simply South.

Each of these is a separate supplement of about 60 pages given away free with India Today. But Simply Delhi has, in recent months, become a part of India Today.

There are other players also in the city magazine space. But none have moved beyond being niche players in a limited space. In Delhi, for instance, there's First City, launched more than a decade ago. Smaller magazines are also published in other parts of the country.

Ruia became a Time Out fan when she lived in New York. Returning to Mumbai she figured there would be an appetite for an events and listings magazine. So she approached Time Out's publisher Tony Elliot about publishing the magazine in Mumbai.

The result is a ten-year licence agreement with Time Out. "Mumbai as a city has changed considerably and India generates a lot of interest especially in England. There is a lot happening here that needs to be highlighted to bring out what Mumbai is all about," says Andrew Humphreys, managing editor, Time Out.

Why is India Today trying again? Says Ashish Bagga, publishing director for the Simply series, "Our Simplys were started to address local information needs specific to the cities or regions being covered, with a view to grow the bonding and readership with our readers."

The Simply City versions are quarterlies that are distributed along with India Today, covering city-centric issues -- a mix of celebrity profiles and features on events in each city. Each magazine has a slightly different focus. For instance, Simply Mumbai is more celebrity-driven because the group reckons that's what appeals to Mumbaiites.

Living Media's Simply magazines, of course, start with a natural advantage -- they have a readymade circulation base because they are given out with India Today.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation India, India Today sold 55,345 copies in the January-June 2003 period in Mumbai and 89,277 in Delhi. The magazine sells about 21,939 copies in Kolkata and 89,052 in south India. The group isn't commenting on whether it will launch the Simply series as independent magazines.

In terms of content, Time Out is a comprehensive listing of the next fortnight's events be it art, film, entertainment, theatre, live performances or special events. The magazine priced at Rs 25 targets the 20-45 year old urban Mumbaiite and is out on the stands on Thursday.

Compared to that daily tabloids like Mid-Day are available for Rs 3. "Pricing is not an issue as long as the team is able to build a steady and loyal reader base," says one media planner.

While currently the print run is of 35,000 copies, Ruia and Humphreys are expecting to touch 50,000 by next April and break even in two years. Ruia also wants the magazine to turn weekly soon. By March 2005, Ruia is hoping for a turnover close to $1 million.

But it is a tough market to operate in. Media planners, while agreeing that there is room for players like Time Out, are quick to point out that daily newspapers today also carry listings and a fair share of reviews. "It is the right time for such a magazine now with a lot more money being spent and the working age population getting younger," says a media planner.

Adds Divya Gupta, president of Rediffusion DY&R's media arm, Mediaedge, "What is important is the kind of add-ons they develop to their offering."

Counters Humphreys, "We know what exists in the market, but we differ in terms of the quality of content. And what is being done can always be done better." Ruia, however, claims that the magazine will concentrate on forthcoming events rather than yesterday's parties.

"People who want to plan their social life ahead will look at referring to us," she says.

Media planners say that city-centric publications globally have altered focus from catering to tourists who didn't know what to do with their time in a new city to appealing to residents who are hunting for entertainment.

"Today, all the neighbourhood retail advertising is bagged by the tabloids and other supplements. This is one way for the national magazines to tap into that market," says a Mumbai-based media planner.

Adds another media buyer, "Advertising would largely be restricted to lifestyle oriented brands willing to pay a premium to reach specific audiences."

Niche magazines like city-centric magazines charge a premium over mainstream magazines, which in some cases may work out to a 15 per cent to 40 per cent increase over mainstream advertising.

Agrees First City's Bharat Kapur, "Being a thinking person's magazine, the advertisements we feature are mainly for upmarket products. Our target audience is anyone who thinks there is life beyond a career."

But are media planners really warming up to niche publications? Says Punitha Arumugum, chief executive officer, Madison Communications, "These magazines will rarely be in a media planner's perspective."

Several others agree. "Clients want value for money. I'm not sure such magazines translate into numbers for clients after paying a premium," says a planner.

So will existing players be able to break the ice? They certainly hope so. Ruia too is looking at extending other Time Out offerings at a later date like city guides, shopping guides, food guides and such.

And Living Media is rumoured to be toying with the idea of making the Simply Mumbai edition a monthly, at least during the festive season. Whether city audiences will bite remains to be seen.

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