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Off The Page – David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

David Hepworth's regular column, in the November / December 2012 issue of InPublishing magazine.

By David Hepworth

Newsweek was not one of the titles on my survival list

The prospect of at least one household-name media brand phasing out its paper version altogether, pinching its nose and then making the jump into a purely digital future is something we view in much the same way as economists view Greece's exit from the Euro. It may be inevitable in theory but it remains downright horrifying in practice. Nobody wants it to happen. They just want to look away and then look back to find it has already happened.

The eighty-year-old Newsweek isn't making the jump because it wants to, no matter what Tina Brown, editor in chief of the magazine and its allied website Daily Beast, says about "transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it". They're doing it because the waning revenue from the print version is no longer enough to justify maintaining the establishment of a major magazine. They're doing it to make some redundancies. They're doing it to save money printing issues that nobody reads. It's at times like this that the American publishing industry is reaping the bitter harvest of all those years when it effectively gave away subscriptions in order to maintain the rate-base it had promised to advertisers. Newsweek was in the worst possible place. It was number two behind Time in a declining market for general titles at a time when all the growth was coming from titles like the Economist and the Week, which at least stand for something.

When the closure was announced, somebody reminded me that in 1972, Radio One refused to play Paul Simon's "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" because the lyrics referred to being "on the cover of Newsweek". Perhaps that's what they're talking about when they describe Newsweek as "an iconic brand". It might have been iconic in 1972 but it isn't any longer. The brutal truth is that there's been so much saming going on in the American newspaper / magazine mix that if Newsweek's voice is not there to be heard when the next Presidential election comes around, nobody apart from its staff is going to miss it.

That's the real test for so-called heritage media. Whether the future is on paper or not, who's going to miss your voice? If there aren't a lot of people who will miss you, you'd better hope that they've got a lot of money. Around the time of the Newsweek announcement, the Guardian had to deny rumours that it too was thinking of exiting print. (Though why any newspaper would turn its back on even a declining daily revenue stream was not explained.) The Guardian may have difficulty making the sums work but at least it stands for something and therefore it seems reasonable to assume that, like Fortean Times, Mojo, Private Eye, Country Life and a few others I have on a handwritten survival list in my desk drawer, it will make it through no matter how bad the storm may get.

Writing in glass houses

The magazine industry is not so blessed with good news that it can afford not to shout about the fact that the first time the Jimmy Savile scandal was aired in public was in a magazine, specifically the March edition of the Oldie. There on page 48 under the headline "Savile Row" was a piece by Miles Goslett telling the story of the Newsnight investigation and alleging a cover-up at the BBC. This was long before ITV's documentary made it open season on Savile.

It took a general interest title to do it. The other obvious outlet for this kind of story, Private Eye, must have had the same story but decided, for some reason, not to run it. Specialist magazines don't often do scandal because they don't see it as their job. This may be because it tends not to sell. Magazines are traditionally a celebration of achievement and the readers don't take kindly to being told that their heroes have feet of clay. It may also be because specialist magazine writers, who are the kind of people who have an inkling of this sort of stuff, operate in a glass house where it's inadvisable to throw stones. Any magazine which got on the wrong side of the BBC would have to calculate whether the upside the story might bring them would be worth all the tiny inconveniences that a gatekeeper like the Corporation could put in the way of their daily work. Andy Sutcliffe, the former editor of Cycling Weekly, said in an interview with Radio 4 a few weeks ago that the use of illegal drugs in cycling was such an open secret that nobody bothered to hide it, secure in the knowledge that nobody would write about it.

There was always a fog of rumour and innuendo around Savile in the music and broadcasting businesses but I never heard a story that was worth writing down and he was such a cold character that people preferred now to dwell on him as a subject. I know a few things about rock stars that I could get a story out of (though nothing on the scale of the Savile revelations) but I don't bother writing them, not just because I can't prove them but also because the kind of outlets I might write for would not be interested in bringing down the network of access and patronage on which they've built their businesses for the sake of a muck-raking story. Similarly, there must be fashion journalists who know or suspect some fairly unsavoury things go on in the no-calorie world of models and designers and lots of sports writers who know where the bodies are buried, figuratively speaking, but most of it's kept for gossip over drinks. Why would anyone risk writing them up if it meant no front row seats ever again?

Having to work harder

I recently saw a presentation by Phil Hilton, the editorial director of ShortList Media, the publishers of ShortList and Stylist. One thing that couldn't help catching my eye was the twenty-eight try-out covers for an edition of Stylist about why diets don't work. These ranged from the standard tape-measure shots to a forest of fries with the line "chips are a feminist issue".

Phil's whole point is that free distribution demands that you be more adventurous in your choice of subjects and more striking in your presentations of them in order to combat people's perception that free media is something safe and undemanding. He points with pride to the fact that they ran a big piece about the poet Sylvia Plath. This will have delighted a small number of the readers and flattered the rest that they read a magazine that had such elite delights. It's something a paid-for magazine probably couldn't afford to do.

The newly-free listings magazine Time Out could do with some of the same thinking. The cover of the issue I picked up - not easy beyond its Tuesday distribution day according to many sources - had a cover about "London's Secret Nightlife" that seemed to have come out of the "will this do?" file. The same thing applied to the features mix - interviews with Leona Lewis and Dappy, a curious account of somebody dying in a pub - none of which they would have had to wrestle away from the competition.

A listings magazine is to a certain extent compelled to be bitty. In the case of Time Out, this is exacerbated by the fact that pages of semi-display advertising for gigs and exhibitions make it even bittier. I would imagine that the publisher is more concerned by the yields of such advertising than its aesthetic drawbacks. Time Out needs a couple of must-reads to start pushing those rates up.

The Power of Print

Last issue, I described a couple of launches of products which allowed people to compile their own magazines from their favourite pages on the web. Now comes Offscreen, which is a print magazine "exploring the life and work of people that create websites and apps". My digital chums reckons it may be an interesting sign of a world beyond digital in which young creatives who've spent their lives in front of screens finally get their hands dirty on an actual physical product.

I'd go further. I'd say that the one thing that magazines have got that no other media has is the power to make people seem important simply by featuring them. All those blokes with interesting haircuts who've been knocking out money-spinning apps in Hoxton for the last few years crave nothing more than an admiring print profile with a groovy portrait. That way they can go home to Dewsbury or Droitwich, slap an actual magazine on the coffee table and say 'look, mum, the world thinks I'm special'. It's an asset we don't make anything like enough of.