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Happy Birthday PPA

Just in case you’d missed it, the PPA is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. To mark the occasion, former PPA Chief Executive, Ian Locks, give us a whistle-stop tour of the key moments in magazine publishing.

By Ian Locks

One hundred years ago, a group of “frock-coated, lavender-spatted gentlemen, easing their after-lunch bulk in the lounge of the Howard Hotel” agreed to form The Society of Weekly Newspapers and Periodical Proprietors with the principal object being to 'protect rights and interests’ of its members.

Now PPA – the Professional Publishers Association - subscriptions were set at £5.15.6 for one title, rising to £23.2.0 for five or more.

At the 60th anniversary dinner in 1973, attended by Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, then President Sir Gordon Brunton said his predecessors could have had “no conception of the upheaval that was about to transform their lives and the world to which they had just added their cornerstone.”

It was “no less than a miracle” that the association had lasted for 60 years, Brunton continued: “Nor, as the Empire was swept away, did it long remain an association of prosperous publishers relishing in their peaceful world, but rather a protective association to which its members clung as the tempest of change and two world wars raged over their heads. It had survived undoubtedly because of their careful planning at the Howard Hotel, and the doughty and devoted work of my predecessors in the intervening years. But also because it was needed. It was needed to save the industry, which it did.”

From the beginning

It had taken 1,500 years from the invention of paper to that of the printing press in 1436 and a further 150 years to the idea which created a magazine for women in 1586, generally attributed to be the first “magazine”.

Then another 300 years plus for those in Britain who produced magazines to recognise themselves as an industry – an industry which over the next 100 years was to see magazines live up to their name as the development of technology enabled them to burst into the riot of colour, excitement, entertainment and information which makes them such a fundamental part of the social and economic framework of our world.

But of course it took much more. As PPA President Sir Gordon Brunton put it: “The publishing industry as we know it today was born, not with a shout or a whimper, but with an education act”: the WE Forster Education Act of 1870 designed to address the fact that 80 per cent of the population received little or no formal education.

Allied to this the inventions of the 1800s all played a key part in the story: the typewriter by Remington, the Linotype, railways, the rotary letterpress and rotary gravure – a process established in the 1300s - all contributed to enabling magazines to take centre stage by the early 1900s.

Titles published in 1913 included survivors such as the Spectator, the Grocer and Harpers; other great titles that have not survived included Saturday Review, Pall Mall, Illustrated London News and Lady’s Realm. Punch proudly announced that year they had recruited a new writer by the name of PG Wodehouse and the New Statesman and the Advertisers Weekly were launched.

Alfred Harmsworth

Alfred Harmsworth was one of the earliest to realise the significance of mass literacy and had started Harmsworth Brothers, which became Amalgamated Press, the first giant of the magazine publishing business.

Within a few months of the association’s formation and with magazines enjoying the best of times, war was declared and paper rationing imposed. Feast followed by famine has been no less a feature of the last 100 years than those before it.

The run up to the birth of magazines as an industry had been a long one, with guiding lights such as John Dunton in 1693 with his Ladies Mercury which concerned “all the nice and curious questions concerning love, marriage, behaviour, dress and humour in the female sex” – an early Cosmo maybe? Lloyd’s List founded another genre as a trade title in 1734. As did the Economist in 1843, established to campaign for free trade.

The Scots Magazine founded in 1739 claims to be the oldest consumer magazine still in print – but then so does Tatler, founded by Richard Steele in 1709, disputed as being not continuous but surviving in name.

The start of the 20th century saw William Randolph Hearst become the first international magazine publisher, starting National Magazine Company in UK in 1910, and was accompanied by a rush of activity. Woman’s Weekly launched in 1911 with the motto, “practical and useful”. The weekly New Statesman, founded by Sidney Webb, was launched in 1913.

In the year PPA was founded, some 199 periodicals, magazines and reviews were recorded. By 1973, this had risen to 4,431 – a number which was to reach a peak of some 8,500 by the year 2000. By 2013, the internet has taken its toll…

There are, no doubt, many reasons why magazines have proved such an enduring success and those words of 1693 are as relevant now as then: “all the nice and curious questions”, or “practical and useful” from Woman’s Weekly, or indeed to campaign such as the Economist for free trade.

The influence of magazines

The question of whether magazines reflect or shape society interests can be endlessly debated but two vignettes perhaps best encapsulate their influence. In 1848, Illustrated London News showed a picture of the Christmas tree of Albert and Queen Victoria, so popularising an idea that had been seen as a Germanic import.

Roll forward to 1939 and there was a sudden increase in accidents in the workplace reflecting the increase in the number of women being employed in factories. Bending to government pressure, Vogue highlighted the new smart fashion in Paris and New York for short hair and “within a few months Absalom-type accidents had disappeared from our workshops” according to Harry Yoxall, then Managing Director of Condé Nast.

The ending of paper rationing after the 1914-18 war brought a new rush of titles including Good Housekeeping, launched in 1922 by National Magazines and the creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Times just one year later – with Christmas covers in colour – as important landmarks.

In 1927, the final Sherlock Holmes story, Shoscombe Old Place, was published in the April issue of the Strand Magazine. Thirty-four years earlier, 20,000 readers had cancelled their subscriptions when the pipe-smoking icon had been killed off, before Conan Doyle relented and revived the detective.

Although the first television images were beamed in 1928 by Baird from the UK to the US, the invention was not to take hold until the end of the 1940s.

Both magazines and newspapers had to take advertising more seriously and, with advertisers and agencies, set up the Audit Bureau of Circulations in 1931.

The Great Depression and strikes of the late 1920s and 1930s made this a fallow time for magazines but made more colourful by a rush of comics: Mickey Mouse Weekly printed in full-colour gravure, Dandy and then Beano launched by DC Thompson.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, paper shortages forced many closures and with it more than a decade of restrictions. The night of 11 May 1941 brought catastrophe to the offices of PPA (shared with the Newspaper Publishers Association who had hosted PPA since its beginnings in 1913) which were devastated by a direct hit during a night time bombing raid.

Thus the first recorded meeting of the association was on 15 July 1941 when paper rationing and re-housing the association dominated discussion. The association remained at the offices found in Imperial House, Kingsway, until 1997.

Firm sale

The lifting of paper rationing in March 1950 sparked rows with printers and retailers as a slew of new titles – a bright spot, at least for the youth of the day, being the Eagle in 1950 - were launched on the principle that what the retailer took the retailer paid for – or firm sale. This was a row to rumble on for almost another 40 years…

A series of rail strikes, a Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry – one of four - and The Obscene Publications Act of 1959 shaped the industry in the rather dull 1950s.

An early sign of rebellion came in 1952 with Anne Scott-James's book In the Mink published by Michael Joseph. Her former role as editor of Harpers Bazaar (1945-51) gave her the material for a satire set in the offices of a glossy fashion magazine. Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson found it “shocking and disgraceful”. It took the wilder sixties, the Oz trial and the imprisonment - and making - of Felix Dennis and others in 1971 for public attitudes to change significantly and the scene to be set for new genres of magazines.

Start of the VAT saga

The introduction of VAT in 1972 with a preferential zero rate for newspapers, books and magazines became a recurring issue with major campaigns for its retention in the eighties and nineties and still running 41 years later over digital editions being not similarly privileged.

The 1980s saw the start of two important genres – arguably men’s magazines, with Arena, and celebrity with Hello! Also pivotal in 1984 was Private Eye's 'Spot the worthless Czech' cover of Robert Maxwell resulting in a £67,000 libel damages against Private Eye, which had suggested Maxwell had tried to bribe his way to a peerage. Who won? Well Private Eye is still published…

Deregulation of the listings market in February 1991 destroyed the monopoly of BBC's Radio Times and IPC's TV Times and sparked the rise of a new genre of listings titles as IPC slashed cover price to move downmarket and launched What's on TV. Bauer launched TV Quick while newspapers and magazines such as Time Out launched their own weekly guides.

Sunset or sunrise?

By the end of the nineties, Hello! publisher Sally Cartwright was able to announce as PPA chairman: “This has been a wonderful decade for magazines. We have seen outstanding growth in our £6bn medium against an explosion of television, radio and the internet.” The statement was part of a celebration edition of PPA’s Magazine News which had been launched ten years earlier with the assertion by now Sir David Arculus that magazines were a sunrise, not a sunset, medium.

Hubris? In true style, nemesis was to follow in the form of the internet taking hold, the crash of 2000, economic collapse and subsequent recession from 2008, mobile technology, tablets, obsessive digital social networking by a new generation of young people…

Will the next 100 years bring welcome catharsis? Let us hope it is not just singing in the bath.

The author would like to thank Magforum’s Anthony Quinn for his assistance with this article.