When the pandemic struck, we at The Spectator adopted the brace position. Like many publications, we furloughed staff and prepared for the worst. When subscription growth picked up, we became the first company in Britain to return the furlough money to the taxpayer and say we’d instead trade our way through the storm. Our last reported sales in 2019 were 83,000 (a record high) and we set a pretty big goal: to hit 100,000.
I’m delighted to report that sales of The Spectator averaged 105,850 copies in the first half of this year, up 27 per cent on the first half of last year. Digital-only sales are popular but when new subscribers sign up online the vast majority opt for the full package: print and digital. This has lifted sales of the printed magazine from 70,055 in the first half of last year to 77,675. Print is at an all-time high, thanks to digital. The combined picture is below.
This makes The Spectator the fastest-growing current affairs magazine not just in Britain but in Europe (not bad for the oldest continuously published weekly in the world). Suffice to say this is not an industry-wide trend: over the last decade the magazine market is down by about two-thirds and our sales have almost doubled. For the first time in its 193 years. The Spectator is now selling as much as some national newspapers. I’d like to say a little bit more about what’s happened this last year.
These angry, sectarian times have increased demand for what The Spectator has always offered: variety of opinion, independence of thought and (above all) quality of writing. And now on a daily basis thanks to the website: we have more in-depth coverage of the pandemic, foreign affairs and economics. All with the same Spectator approach: we offer space to think and debate, from every angle. We devote more space to book reviews than any other weekly, and throughout lockdown did not cut back on arts. Both our literary and arts sections saw readerships hit all-time highs.
The other part of our business, live events (we used to do 60 a year), was hit hard by lockdown – we’ve started Spectator TV to broadcast the debates and discussions. But subscription growth has offered us stability overall: today, 87 per cent of our revenue comes directly from readers. We returned the furlough money because our subs-based model gave protection that we did not expect: when disaster strikes, the demand for top-quality analysis increases. But only if the analysis is significantly and consistently distinct from and better than the competition. Once the crisis has subsided, our new subscribers have stayed; we’re up 6 per cent on the second half of last year and are growing still. I like to think the calibre of our analysis and reviews have never been better. And there have certainly never been more ways in which The Spectator serves its readers.
Email newsletters. During the pandemic Kate Andrews launched a lunchtime email newsletter with all Covid news, facts and figures. (To support this we set up a data hub, recognised in this year’s British Press Awards). Her email soon became the biggest of its kind with more than 100,000 subscribers. It joins Isabel Hardman’s Evening Blend (124,000 subscribers) which is by some margin the UK’s most-read politics email. Both have open rates above 45 per cent, against an industry average of 22 per cent. More newsletter launches are planned.
Podcasts and Spectator TV. Monthly listens to our podcasts were 1.2 million, up 50 per cent on two years ago: Coffee House Shots (which Cindy Yu records on a coffee table in the office) is in the podcast Top Ten ahead of far bigger-resourced rivals. We launched Spectator TV, with generous support of our sponsor Charles Stanley, and we now have 140,000 subscribers with 12.9 million views over the past 12 months.
Website. We don’t pay much attention to total traffic now: our focus is on recruiting and serving subscribers. But for those interested, unique pageviews reached 6.7 million in April-June, up 50 per cent on the same period last year.
The 18 months have perhaps had more drama for publications than the previous ten years. Our industry is still going through a revolution and at the start of this pandemic, we at The Spectator really had no idea how it would finish. But we got through it stronger than ever thanks to one thing: the support of you, our readers. Our long-standing subscribers and tens of thousands of new friends.
We are inviting readers to our garden for drinks over the course of the summer to say thanks personally and I wish we had the space to meet every one. To work for you really is the greatest honour in journalism. Together we’re about to open a new chapter in the history of The Spectator – so stay with us. And for those not with us yet, sign up for a free trial here.
PS The Spectator is the only UK publication to publish a comparable 20-year analysis of its sales figures (here). The above figures are for full-priced sales so do not include 12,000 triallists.
PPS the print and digital split is below