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David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

David Hepworth

Posted on: 03 February 2016

Is this what they call Killer Content?

The Sean Penn feature about his clandestine meeting with fugitive Mexican drug overlord El Chapo in Rolling Stone magazine is a collector’s item for long-time observers of magazine theory and practice in all manner of ways.

Like most celebrity encounters, the description of the set-up of the interview – the suspicious intermediaries, the surrendering of mobile phones, the bumpy plane rides to remote air fields, the lengths to which the subject goes to make himself likeable, the arguing over terms and copy approval – are, in truth, more interesting than anything that this real-life James Bond villain has to say. The truth is that we don’t really expect him to say much, any more than we expect it from Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian. We simply want to visit their world to have a good nose around. In that sense, Penn’s story does a pretty good job.

Apparently, the decision to grant the subject sight of the interview prior to publication was unprecedented. Lucky he didn’t ask for any changes. The quote from Montaigne at the top of the piece is one of those wince-making touches of pretension that people taking a holiday in journalism like Penn seem to find it impossible to resist. It’s the kind of thing you would throw back in the face of the standard hack, asking who they thought they were. Celebrities like Penn never quite know who they are. We invented the “who the hell does he think he is?” format for Q all those years ago because we realised that the first thing that fame does to people is deprive them of a realistic idea of their place in the universe, making this a valid question to ask. Penn furthermore goes to great lengths to identify himself as “the single most technologically illiterate man left standing”, which is a title claimed by so many people that it ceased being amusing years ago. It’s like boasting that you can’t drive a car.

Although, having said that, that may have been written after El Chapo was re-captured, when Penn was contemplating the possibility that he may have unwittingly led the authorities to the fugitive’s lair. In which case you would think it would take more than an explanation of fat fingers to get him off the hook.

The actual interview, which all this is supposed to be building up to, is not very interesting because the subject is responding to written questions on film and the first rule of the interviewer’s craft is, the only question that matters is the one that goes “in what way?” If you’re not going to put the follow-ups, there’s very little point putting the first question.

The El Chapo incident further emphasises that celebrity nowadays opens doors that remain closed to mere journalists. Everybody has a weakness for a little stardust, whether they’re a head of a state or a criminal overlord. It particularly works with Vladimir Putin, who has combined those two roles. The lure of having a film made about his life clearly went to this mass murderer’s head. The prospect of spending time in the company of an attractive film actress like Kate Del Castillo evidently proved too much even for him. And now he’s back in jug and she’s got her own TV deal in the English speaking market and I bet Sean Penn’s asking price has just added a nought. Of course, if El Chapo concludes that somebody in Penn’s entourage was responsible for leading the Mexican authorities to him then he’ll need all that money to buy himself an island to go and hide on. Never mess with men who’ve got their own submarines is what I say.

“What consumer magazines have always been best at is killer packaging and delivery.”

Tell it to the magazine

But these are details that we can leave him to worry about. The good news for the publishing industry is that the criminal mastermind was a lot more tickled about the prospect of telling his story to a magazine than doing the alternative, which presumably would have meant taking his plea for greater understanding to Oprah’s sofa or wherever else you go nowadays to get in the ear of polite society. And Rolling Stone ended up with a story that dominated the front pages of the serious papers, led the news bulletins and was the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating among the many new digital news sites which might have hoped they would be the first port of call for such a story.

Since the last Rolling Stone story that got so much play was their exposé of alleged rape on the campus of the University of Virginia which turned out to be made up and cost the managing editor Will Dana his job, this must have been a particular relief. When Sean Penn called his mate Jann Wenner and told him he could get an interview with the hemisphere’s most wanted man, the Citizen Kane of Woodstock Nation must have thought he’d been granted one of those second chances which are so rare in American lives.

So, finally, a magazine has something that everybody has been paying much lip service to – killer content - in this case about a killer. It's often been said that if anybody knows about killer content it should be consumer magazines. But – whisper it – we know the truth. What consumer magazines have always been best at is killer packaging and delivery. The word ‘magazine’ derived from the world of ordnance and refers to a carrier that can deliver fissile material to a target. Therefore magazine editors have always tended to be better at designing the package and mixing the elements within it than finding the killer content itself.

One of the problems with killer content is it’s often beyond your control. It comes in the door in ways you can’t predict, is often accompanied by conditions you’re not willing to meet and can frequently be superseded by other stories of even more urgent concern. Less than twenty-four hours after Rolling Stone announced their major coup, it was overshadowed by the death of David Bowie. We are none of us promised tomorrow, particularly in journalism. No wonder some editors think you’re always better off with one of those “100 best albums of all time” cover stories. They may be dull but they’ll never be out of date.

The end of an era

Whenever big magazines close, people can always tell you why it happened. The passing of FHM has allowed all manner of coffee shop sociologists to exercise their chops. It was the inevitable result of the rising tide of feminist pressure, they say, or the impossibility of competing with the tide of free filth on the internet. It was the passing of the lads’ moment.

That sort of pronouncement is very easy to make when you’re looking at life through the rear view mirror. What’s harder is to pick up what’s happening when it’s on the road ahead. Charles Handy had a line about all generations accepting that they are necessarily different from the generation before and yet planning as if the next generation will be the same as them, which seems apposite in this case.

What will I remember about FHM? Well, I don’t remember the name of the unknown British boxer who was on the cover when we at EMAP bought it.

I remember that it grew into something so big that it eventually quite overshadowed the company.

What will I miss? I’ll miss a lot of the people who worked on it and the “what have they done now?” feeling that went through the company every time a new issue appeared.

What will I regret? The fact that it gave up the ghost in a climate of priggish, social media censoriousness which by rights it ought to be doing everything in its power to puncture. Ah well.

“It grew into something so big that it eventually quite overshadowed the company.”

About David Hepworth
(Details last updated: 23 September 2016)

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 1971: Never A Dull Moment.

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