High gloss for China's magazines
It is another bustling morning in Beijing's south-eastern Chongwenmen district and the news-agent stalls on the street are doing brisk business.
Alongside plastic bottles of water, orange squash and green tea, there are countless Chinese-language daily papers sitting in small piles on the front of the stalls. Yet what really catches the eye are the myriad magazines on display.
There are scores of these glossies and they cover what seems like every subject imaginable, from fashion to football, from China's military to cats.
The occasional stall has a cardboard box to one side selling previous editions of the magazines, still in their plastic wrappers and offered at the bargain price of 5 yuan (Dh2.90) each, less than half what most typically sell for.
Given the plethora of titles and their prominence in stalls on almost every stretch of pavement in the capital's shopping districts, it is hardly surprising China's magazine industry is thriving.
According to state media, profits in the sector jumped 50 per cent in 2010 to 1.9 billion yuan on the back of a 4.1 per cent growth in turnover to 15.7bn yuan.
There was an even brisker performance in the first nine months of last year with CTR Market Research reporting revenues increased 15 per cent to US$2.04bn (Dh7.49bn).
This comfortably outpaces the West's magazine sector. In the United Kingdom, the circulations of consumer magazines grew a modest 0.4 per cent in the first six months of last year, while in the United States they were down 1 per cent and advertising revenues have fallen for five straight years.
An ever-increasing number of Chinese consumers, their wallets bulging from rapid economic growth, seem happy to shell out up to 20 yuan each for magazines.
"The traditional magazine is much better than the computer screen. If you sit in front of a computer for half a day, it's very tiring," says Wang Shuqin, 56, a government official who enjoys Reader's Digest, one of the many western magazines to have started publishing in Chinese, even though it recently ceased publication in the country.
"People buying a fashion or travel magazine, they want a physical thing they can leaf through and look at with lots of photos," agrees Doug Young, who is a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"The lifestyle magazines here in China and outside China are probably a little more insulated from the downturn … [of] the news-oriented media."
Along with Reader's Digest Chinese versions of many other well-known western magazines fill the news-stands.
Although they make up less than 10 per cent of the market, some 9,884 titles in 2010, according to the General Administration of Press and Publication (Gapp), these foreign offerings often tend to be among the most prominently displayed and highest-selling.
Among the magazines from overseas to have made inroads in the market are Grazia,Elle, Cosmopolitan, Men's Health and the German car magazine Auto Bild.
Each is published by a local partner. Reader's Digest has been available through a licensing deal with Shanghai Press and Publication Development.
Just as the magazine sector in China is growing faster than its equivalents in developed markets, so the country's newspaper industry is, as yet, proving relatively robust in the face of the march of electronic publishing.
In an interview with state media published last year, Gapp's director, Liu Binjie, said total newspaper sales were up 13.9 per cent in 2010, with more than 50 billion copies of newspapers sold. This is happening as many titles, among them the People's Daily, undertake initial public offerings with their websites.
They are looking to compete more effectively with news aggregating sites such as Sina that have attracted the interest of China's 500 million-plus internet users, more than in any other country.
In the printing and publishing industries as a whole in China, there are more than 40 listed companies with a total market capitalisation last year of more than 570bn yuan, according to state media.
Following a trend pioneered in the West, free newspapers given away at subway stations have been launched in China in recent years and are proving a hit with readers and advertisers. They are now available in, among other places, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Last year the first such title was launched in Shanghai - 8 O'clock, produced by Shenzhen Press Group.
"China is the ideal place for free subway-distributed newspapers to thrive. Start with the fact, of course, its cities are huge and subway ridership dwarfs that of most western cities," said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive of the investment bank China First Capital, in a recent online post.
Mr Fuhrman predicts these free papers' circulations and profits will grow because subway systems in big cities are expanding and residents have healthy disposable incomes, attracting advertisers.
Some paid-for titles with close links to the Communist Party have by contrast suffered severe falls in sales, although often this dates back to the 1990s and is not linked to the internet's growth. Instead, the increased commercialisation of the sector and a cut in the number of official subscriptions accounts for the decline.
Three decades ago, the venerable People's Daily was selling 6 million copies a day but now the figure is about 2.4 million, although officials say there have been slight rises in the past several years and the title remains China's second-highest selling newspaper.
Ultimately, analysts believe paid-for titles will encounter, or are already encountering, the same internet-related struggles as their counterparts in the West.
"There's no question, even the real circulation [of newspapers in China] is going to start going down. It probably already is starting to go down," says Mr Young.
In Beijing, even mature readers who might be expected to still enjoy sitting down with a newspaper they can flick through, are migrating to the internet.
"I read traditional newspapers less and less often. I can read the news on the internet at home or at work. It's very convenient," says one 60-year-old female financial administrator.
It seems even here, the page of change is turning.
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Updated: August 5, 2012 04:00 AM