Back to the future - without the fluff

Do you remember the good times? Circs hitting 600k, advertisers queuing at the door, expense accounts, burgeoning staffs. Those were the days! The problem was that, in catering for the needs of marginal readers, we started to alienate our core. We lost focus. Now, says David Hepworth, magazine publishers need to go back to basics.

By David Hepworth

Bear with me while I conduct you back through the mists of history. We're going back, way back, to the days of the previous Labour government, when I first started dabbling in magazines. Back then, magazines were relatively modest enterprises, certainly compared to what they became in the 80s and 90s. The lifestyles of the people who worked in them were equally modest. I can remember one conversation at Smash Hits in the early 80s about whether the company was morally obliged to provide its employees with coffee and tea to drink in the office. The day of the two-pound coffee had yet to arrive. In those days, it wasn't considered insane to run a fortnightly like Smash Hits with a staff of six and one advertising person. You could run a whole weekly with twelve. This was of course before the arrival of labour-saving I.T. and the thing we called "desktop publishing". In those days, nobody had a bike account, there were no media members clubs and the Ivy was sunk in its forty-year sleep. Magazine publishing wasn't a particularly smart business. That changed, dramatically, in the 80s.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie

I've always been puzzled by the amount of scorn media people pile on Margaret Thatcher. It was on her watch that the media began to boom, advertising grew, magazines proliferated and a load of people who would have previously followed a quite modest trade found themselves enjoying a lifestyle more usually associated with the film business. Magazines grew because they were a magnet for disposable cash; the increasing amount they spent on pictures and art direction made them ideal vehicles for the commuter in search of a quick hit of luxury and they began attracting readers from beyond what had previously been regarded as their natural core. This is why you saw magazines like Elle, Marie Claire, Q and Empire selling far more than magazines in their category had ever sold before. They no longer appealed purely to people who regarded them as a priority. This was good news on the circulation front but it meant that advertisers demanded circulation numbers that often took a magazine beyond its natural constituency. In Britain, that tends to mean even a really popular magazine like Smash Hits or FHM or Heat hits a ceiling of around 600,000, at which point it becomes too ubiquitous for its own good. Smash Hits never recovered from the exposure it got from the televising of its annual awards shows. People feel good about their relationship with a magazine until they start to feel that the magazine is spreading its favours indiscriminately.

Umm, let’s do a horoscope

In the late 80s and 90s, magazines were casting their net farther, often with the help of high-value cover gifts and expensive TV campaigns, and dragging in people who were not natural readers, people who would never have been subscribers but nonetheless responded to the magazine because they felt it reflected the lifestyle to which they aspired. This eventually had a diluting effect on the magazine's editorial proposition. Suddenly specialist magazines that had concentrated on delivering their core proposition felt they ought to also have the features of lifestyle magazines. Celebrity columns, horoscopes, soft features and film reviews began to sprout in the least likely places; the fluff around the core gathered until in some cases you could scarcely glimpse the core any longer. Even technology magazines felt the need to have a ration of Photoshopped flesh a la FHM if they were going to compete. The battle was taking place in the newsagents; that battle was increasingly about covers and so magazines were ineluctably drawn to a position where they were promising far more than they could ever deliver. They were no longer catering to the core. They were flirting with the fluff.

Back to basics

Now that recession has come along and coincided with a fall-off in advertising and a crisis of confidence in the medium to create the most difficult publishing environment I've seen in my time in the business, publishers are facing the prospect of having to diversify or retrench. The diversification tends to be more theoretical than practical. You can go mad listening to the siren voices telling you that the future is in selling associated products, in the web, via the Kindle, in television production, in some airy talk of "new models". The retrenchment means a sober examination of what function traditional ink and paper magazines should be performing and what resources they need to perform it. Here it's possible that even the most apparently draconian economies will only take them back to the position they were in before the boom. Publishing overheads rarely grow in response to need. They always grow in response to how prosperous a company is feeling. A recent study of American newspapers discovered that even the titles that were undergoing the most marked cutbacks were merely returning to the way they had run things twenty years ago.

As they put themselves on a war footing, there are certain principles publishers should be following to make sure they secure their base. These encompass editorial values, use of technology and the things you need to do and the sort of people you need to do them.

1. You need all-rounders.

Magazine staffs are going to get smaller and will not have room for people with a narrow specialism, no matter how important that specialism might be to the title. There was a time when some magazines had staff photographers. It seems absurd now. Specialisms can be bought in.

2. Use people who don't need editing.

I know all the arguments. Yes, everybody needs editing. Everything needs a second and third pair of eyes. But does that mean every title requires dedicated subbing staff? Journalists writing directly into a layout will come and it will come sooner than you think.

3. Other media - are you any good at it?

If your readers really value your website and you've got a team who want to put their energies into it, then work out how much of their effort should go into it. Don't start doing web TV or pointless Twitter feeds because you've read it's the way to go, particularly if you don't have any plausible talents on your staff.

4. How much of your material is unique and valuable?

You're never going to be able to "un-bundle" your "content" as the analysts keep advising but it's worthwhile asking yourself which pieces your readers would pay for even if they were delivered to them handwritten on tissue paper. Where does the beef end and the salad begin? It goes without saying that if you know what these things are you should be doing them regularly but it also probably follows that you should be giving subscribers privileged access to these things, in longer versions, in archived form, ahead of the newsstand reader.

5. Are you spending too much time on presentation?

Although presentation is important, particularly if it's sitting alongside upmarket advertising, it's an unsustainable truth that while every other arm of the media has become increasingly formulaic (and formula is not always a bad thing), magazines now take longer to get their material to the page than ever before. In 24/7 media you need to be increasing the amount of time you are in contact with your readers and that has to come out of the time spent in the back room making minute decisions about the caption on page 76.

6. You're publishing a magazine for magazine readers.

They're a certain breed. Guess what? They like to read. The danger of basing too many of your editorial decisions on what could appeal to people who might buy your magazine is that it can alienate the people who should buy your magazine. I see too many examples of publications trying to do what it thinks people are interested in and not what magazine readers are interested in. Every medium does what it excels at and the current multi-media jamboree harbours terrible temptations for people who are impressed by the things that other media apparently do well. The pages of a magazine are not great places for reader interaction, for instance, although websites are. Personality columns don't work in magazines. They work on television. And then there are the things that magazines used to do best and don't any longer. In the age of peer recommendation and unlimited inventory, is there really much point in presenting your comprehensive guide to best buys in a consumer sector when your facts will have changed by the time you're on the street? 

7. Readers are different now.

The same things that have made your professional life more challenging have also made their personal lives more complex. They are no longer coming to you for the things they used to come to you for, at least not in the same order. You are no longer standing in front of the curtain delivering the goodies to them one at a time. They are swarming all over you and numerous other sources as well and managing to secure their own information in their own way and at their own speed. You are no longer their only or even their prime source of information and entertainment. You are one of hundreds of people competing not for their money but for something that will be the prime unit of exchange in the new economy, their attention. Attention is not the same as reach. Not the same at all.