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David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

David Hepworth

Posted on: 26 November 2015

Never Underestimate the Power of Gloss


“Everything in magazines is done for a reason.”
There’s no such thing as posh on the internet. Nobody is upmarket in the kingdom of clicks. You can’t put a red rope around Google. You can’t charge for a club class section on Netflix. There’s no such thing as a VIP area on Trip Advisor.

In this new dispensation, environment, which is what people in magazines used to speak of in hushed tones, doesn't really count. Everything sinks or rises to the environment which encourages the most clicks.

That’s why dukes and dustmen all end up on MailOnline, which is scientifically proven to mark the lowest common denominator. I’m not being sniffy when I say this. In this world, you either follow what appears to work or you go out of business.

Talking of which, ESPN has just decided to mothball its sports and culture website Grantland. This was all about “quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun”. These sound like qualities we’re all in favour of in theory. In practice, we only go looking for those qualities once a flood and nobody can build a business on things we only do occasionally, unless those things involve a significant transaction. I can’t believe anyone can build a web business unless they’re offering a service that a lot of people consult five times a day.

Of course, you could have built a site devoted to those very properties listed above for next to nothing but being an American media organisation, ESPN is culturally incapable of doing anything the cheap and cheerful way, so Grantland has to be closed rather than living on to fight another day. This is just the latest in a string of digital initiatives which have failed because they discovered that you can’t reconstruct the walled gardens upon which magazines were traditionally based on the internet.

If you want social and financial discrimination, it's better delivered within the glossy pages of a very expensive magazine. This can be something that either costs a lot or is given away free if you have the right postcode, the appropriate buying history, a seat in the House Of Lords or you are the kind of person who looks like you might benefit from it. There is still something about the glossy magazine experience that nothing else can quite equal. If you nose around in newsagents in London’s smarter postal codes, you find that not all that much has changed. You still find magazines discharging their ancient duty to give us something genuinely glamorous to gawp at and to allow advertisers to justify the price of their products by placing them in a truly expensive environment alongside them.

You’ve got to hand it to the posh. They’re not ashamed and they're not prudish. Only in the pages of Tatler would you find a feature devoted to listing “the 116 most shaggable single humans on planet Tatler". They know that even in the most exclusive world, people like the idea of an inclusive activity. The same issue has a special on balls, which is a word they roll repeatedly around their tongue with relish. It includes a list of the houses with the finest private ballrooms in Britain. They send famed documentary photographer Martin Parr to unblinkingly photograph the heirs of Brideshead against the background of an Oxford May ball. They don’t require the re-assurance of picture approval because they’re utterly assured of their status. On the cover is Lady Kitty Spencer, “the most ravishing niece of the late Diana Princess of Wales”. Why? Because Tatler says so.

On the internet, “everything sinks or rises to the environment which encourages the most clicks”.

The magical properties of gloss

The readers of SuperYacht World probably aren’t as posh but they have to be quite staggering wealthy. The stars here are the massive multi million pound boats. Take the cover star Irimari, which is sixty three metres long and sleeps twelve guests whose every need is catered for by a crew of seventeen. These are the kind of yachts that have their own circular bathtubs, private cinemas and terraces at the stern which the owners airily refer to as “the beach club”. You can see how print and paper remains relevant in this particular corner of the luxury market much as it becomes more questionable elsewhere. If you are going to celebrate your multi million pound superyacht, what you really need is a magazine printed on paper an inch think. You need a package so luxurious it smells of lino as you open it. You need the magical properties of gloss, which is something no screen possesses. Interestingly, the editorial focus of SuperYacht World is firmly on the fixtures and fittings, the design of the bedhead, the walk-in wardrobes, even the tableware, rather than the vessel’s more ocean-going qualities, which suggests that this magazine is more likely to be flicked through by the oligarch’s wife than the oligarch himself.

Everything in magazines is done for a reason. At least I assume so. When I see copies of Cornwall Life in a branch of Marks and Spencer in north London, I don’t assume that something has gone wrong in the distribution department. I figure that the person most likely to be in the Cornwall Life mindset is somebody who isn’t there but wishes they were.

I suspect that the readers of SuperYacht World may be types who in the past would never have been suspected of having enough cash. They might have been software geeks or the children of well-placed bureaucrats in the former Soviet Union. The world has done a 360 degree flip since they were born and left them the dazed beneficiaries. The same forces have been less kind to others. The Lady used to be the place even the middle class would use to advertise for a nanny. Even back in the eighties, you would find the odd butler looking for a situation. In a recent edition from this year, I can only find one advert for a nanny and then the couple doing the hiring only required help at weekends. I get the sense the world of nannying has been changed out of all recognition by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the internet, two events that future historians may bracket together quite comfortably. I fancy that the nearest some readers of The Lady will get to the genteel life is by knitting themselves their own Mr Darcy according to the pattern on page twenty-six.

Finally, a welcome for The Week Junior, which launches this month. There’s a boom in products for young readers, most of which are books, many of which are actually paid for by parents who are uncomfortable with the amount of time their children spend on the devices that they have bought for them previously. I intend to read it. I expect to learn a lot.

“There is still something about the glossy magazine experience that nothing else can quite equal.”

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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