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Off The Page – David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

David Hepworth's regular column, in the July / August 2014 issue of InPublishing magazine.

David Hepworth

Posted on: 14 July 2014

Synergy is Dead and it Never Existed in the First Place

There’s a fascinating piece about the American magazine Entertainment Weekly published on long reads website The Awl. It’s fascinating because the writer, Anne Helen Petersen, grew up as a devoted reader of the magazine and went on to make an academic career out of Pop Culture. This means she takes an intelligent interest in rubbish, which perfectly reflects the magazine’s stock in trade. Her piece is sub-titled “25 Years Of Corporate Torture” and recounts in staggering detail how the magazine has never managed to find the same kind of niche that its less fashionable stablemate People did.

I trust Petersen as a close observer of the editorial product and also as an academic but it’s my contention that anyone who hasn’t sat in on the meetings or looked at the accounts of a magazine can ever properly understand what made their publishers act the way they did. She may be wondering about the most recent cuts to the team and the editorial budget. Long-term observers like me are more likely to wonder how the hell that team and that budget survived as long as it did when it seemed obvious to anyone with a calculator and a sceptical view of what passes for “circ” in the United States that this magazine has never in that twenty five year history made Bean One.

In Britain in years gone by, we would devour new issues on import, pore over every page and envy them their clever little ideas, their smart spin, their box-outs, their perfect marriage of the commercial and idiosyncratic. How did they do it, we wondered. They did it because Time Inc made so much money out of People that nobody was worried about what they were losing on EW and the company operated in such a way that there was about as much chance of EW’s photo budget being discussed at a high level as there was of a Premier League club talking about how much money they’re still paying to the player who left years ago. If you do that, it only embarrasses the boss and you get nowhere doing that.

Where I side with Petersen is in her belief that the magazine was born at the beginning of the age of “synergy” and was kept going for as long as people believed in such a thing. EW came about when the paper publisher Time came together with the film and TV company Warner Brothers. In those circumstances, senior executives gathering in conference venues would rub their hands together at the huge rewards that were bound to flow once the company’s magazines were boosting their TV shows and once those shows were putting the journalists on the air. At the same time, on the editorial floor, heads were turned at the prospect of on-screen exposure. It was scale. It was bound to work.

There were similar conversations at News International where it seemed inevitable that owning The Sun must make life easier for Sky and that owning Sky would make things more profitable for their print publications. Round about the same time, they even took the step of calling their entry into the style magazine sector Sky in the hope that this would have some kind of a magical effect. The magazine prospered for a while but the public rarely made any link between it and the TV service.

Just an illusion

Synergy was an illusion entered into by the people at the top of the world’s media companies and it was embraced so fervently that they failed to notice that in practice, it simply didn’t work. Not once. Not for a moment. Not ever.

It didn’t work because the people involved with the individual products concerned had their own web of deals and contacts and favourites and preferences and resented being told by their seniors who they had to play with. It didn’t work because nobody - journalists, producers, readers and viewers - wants to think that the thing they’re enjoying has come about because of some kind of corporate box ticking exercise. It didn’t work because it’s hard enough to guarantee the success of one project, let alone to orchestrate the mutual benefit of a whole portfolio.

That wouldn’t particularly be a problem if the companies hadn’t shown themselves prepared to pour away huge sums of money in pursuit of the chimerical benefit they would derive when synergy kicked in. Why did they do it? Why in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, did they continue to pursue it? Why did they believe that if they got a company like that and put it together with one like this, they would magically vault over the competition? Why did they think that all media behaved in the same way?

It was partly the time-honoured business tradition of getting two and two to add up to five. It was also because the bosses of those companies were in pursuit of a mad dream of omnipotence, a fantasy of the power of scale born in those days when media valuations were going through the ceiling and leading indirectly to those enormous new corporate HQs which now have more Aeron chairs than people to sit in them. You can read it here.

Act in haste, repent at leisure

You could have been mistaken for believing that Richard Ingrams, a bloke who started a magazine called The Oldie, who set himself up as the corduroy embodiment of the virtues of wisdom and experience, would be the very last person to make the schoolboy error of flouncing out of an editor’s chair. I don’t care how sorely you think you have been provoked. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by flouncing. It may feel delicious when you’re doing it but that very soon fades and you’re no less out of a job just because you become the centre of a very small trade media story for a short while.

It doesn’t matter what your sympathetic colleagues say to you in the pub. They’ve got mortgages to pay and career paths which you may well have suddenly cleared. It doesn’t matter how popular you are. It doesn’t matter what they say to you at your leaving do or what hilarious and touching sentiments they pen on your leaving card. Never forget that whenever you leave anywhere there are a bunch of people quietly happy to see you go. This is how opportunity works.

Furthermore, there are no recorded examples of people calling out their bosses in public and living to tell the tale. If you’re the majority shareholder of a small magazine in 2014, you are sufficiently inured to pain to be able to shrug off whatever one of your staff says about you in public and take comfort in the fact that revenge is a dish best served cold. Take note of the managers who survive and prosper in football. They may or may not fall out with their star players. They never fall out with their owners, not at least in public. My old colleague Tom Moloney was fond of saying, “you can never choose your boss and you can never choose your successor”. Alex Ferguson was bright enough to know the former but not the latter. Bet he does now.

Why no NutsOnline?

The accepted wisdom about the demise of Nuts is that it fell victim to the irresistible transfer of men’s interest in girls, gags and tackle from paper to the realm of noughts and ones. If that’s the case, it’s interesting to note that when IPC announced the closure of the magazine, they further announced the closure of its accompanying website. If you felt that interest was migrating from one medium to another, then the sensible thing to do would be to follow it, particularly if you could follow it to a place far beyond the power of disapproving shop assistants or the opinionmongers of the women’s pages. And if you didn’t think it advisable to put the company’s money behind such a venture, then you might nonetheless have thought that you could sell it for buttons to the people who used to run it. One can only conclude that it wasn’t worth that to them either. I wonder how many magazine websites could survive the extinction of their parent.

About David Hepworth
(Details last updated: 22 September 2017)

David Hepworth has worked in consumer magazines for over thirty years. As editorial director of Emap Consumer Magazines, he was involved with titles such as Smash Hits, Heat, Q, Mojo, FHM and Empire. He is a director of Mixmag Media, writes and broadcasts on media issues and is the author of the books, ‘1971: Never A Dull Moment’ and ‘Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars’.

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