Off The Page - David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

The first in a series of regular columns from David Hepworth.

By David Hepworth

The App Habit

Every morning, I read the Times in bed. This is not a paper copy, which my butler has collected from the news boy and then carefully ironed before delivering it with tea and toast. I catch up with the news and sport on my iPad via a paid subscription. Every single day. For me, it's restored a newspaper reading habit which was in danger of being exchanged for a cursory noodle around the websites of a few different papers.

Two other publications which I subscribe to also have very good iPad versions thrown in as subscriber benefits. The Economist works because in many senses it's laid out like a newspaper with the minimum of pictures, an absolutely standardised design and simple running copy. The New Yorker has a lot in common with it. Neither is particularly pictorial and they’re both weekly. I read them both perfectly happily on the iPad without ever thinking I'm doing anything space-age. Both magazines have been re-templated for the tablet which makes them a delight to read. They aren’t simply PDFs under glass, which may work for some titles as a stop-gap but are soon going to become tiresome.

Contrast these magazines with the likes of Wired and the Richard Branson-backed Project, both of which had so many bells and whistles that attempting to navigate them quickly made me feel tired. I’m sure there are some people who will buy very sophisticated magazine apps largely to have something to put their tablet through its paces but the majority of readers just want to have improved access to the same reader experience as they had on paper. I fancy I agree with David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, when he said at a recent MPA conference in New York that what matters with a magazine on the iPad is not interactivity so much as portability.

Future have boasted some early successes with Apple’s newly-launched Newsstand app with two million downloads (a mixture of free and paid) in the first four days. When it comes to learning about the new buying habits that are being formed around tablets and smartphones, we’re only in the foothills at the moment but there’s enough evidence to make you wonder whether widgets like Newsstand might be enough to pique the interest of those who stopped going into the non-virtual newsagent over the last ten years.

If that’s the case, then it will please the user-experience expert whose video of his one-year old attempting to “operate” an actual print magazine by pinching and swiping is heading past three million views on YouTube. “It shows how magazines are now useless and impossible to understand for digital natives,” he claims.

In defence of print, my 19-year-old is embarked on a college course which involves a standard commute and has suddenly, for the first time in her life, started buying a traditional magazine. I think it may be a while before young women are reading Look and Heat on the Tube on an iPad.

No man but a blockhead

Barry McIlheney at the PPA asked me some while ago to take part in a debate they were sponsoring on the motion “This house agrees with Samuel Johnson that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. This was to take place in a committee room in the Palace of Westminster under the auspices of the Debating Group.

Even if you can look beyond the august surroundings and the fact that the room is packed with a hundred faces who look as if they’re used to reducing presenters at their board meetings to tears, this is one of the more demanding speaking engagements you can be faced with.

Making my pitch in support of the motion was straightforward. The payment of money is an expression of earnest on the part of the publisher, and an implied contract with the reader. It’s professionalism that underpins whatever faith we have in our reading matter.

Phil Hilton of ShortList opposed the motion, pointing out that free magazines take their responsibilities to the readers no less seriously. Gill Hudson, who was on my side, felt that “free” was a slippery slope at the end of which was a media run only by the people who could afford to subsidise themselves.

Then the question was thrown open to the floor and the fun began. Stevie Spring of Future reckoned the motion was unsupportable because there were clearly times when she and others wrote for print without being paid. Many people pointed out that Doctor Johnson was a bit of a smart aleck and couldn’t expect to be taken seriously. Somebody else stood up and argued that Boswell had actually misinterpreted what Johnson had said and that, after all, there were many cases of the great man dropping his rates to write things for causes he was sympathetic with. Kevin Hand, now an adviser to Hearst, inveighed against the habit of major publishers using the talents of so-called interns without offering to pay them anything at all. Chris Llewellyn of FIPP pointed out that Chris Anderson, the man who wrote the agenda-setting book Free, demanded speaking fees which were anything but.

When the points from the floor are completed, the two principals have to sum up. This is the difficult bit. You have to cover what your opponent has said, summarise what’s been said from the floor, rebut some of it and slightly distort the rest so it appears that the room was agreeing with you all the time. When there was a show of hands, we carried the day but it was uncomfortably close. I emerged with increased respect for parliamentarians.

At dinner afterwards, I was talking to Brian Waller, the distribution director of Informa UK. He has to get a few thousand copies of Lloyd’s List, which has only been covering the comings and goings of cargo ships since 1734, put through the letterboxes of people in shipping hubs from Amsterdam to Hong Kong. Every day. Repeat. Every day. That’s an exercise in logistics you wouldn’t trust to anyone who wasn’t being paid to discharge it. When it’s late, they ring up and complain. Brian is the man who takes the call. “It’s available to subscribers online, but they prefer to hold the paper in their hands,” he said, half-marvelling at their loyalty while despairing of their conservatism.

Too little of a good thing?

Spin, the U.S. rock title, has announced an interesting response to the current challenges. It’s reducing its monthly frequency to six times a year and adopting a larger format on heavier cover stock. The idea seems to be that news and comment can best be dealt with on its website, leaving the paper product to use its increased real estate to accommodate longer features and more and bigger photographs.

This is an idea that’s been kicked around in more than one magazine office over the last few years. It tends to have a natural appeal to editorial teams, who traditionally warm to the idea of doing things less often at greater depth. It seems to me that advertising will be the make or break. Half the traditional appeal of less frequent titles has been in the amount of advertising and its luxuriousness. Without it, I think they may have chosen a hard road.

It seems inevitable that the likes of Apple’s Newsstand and the new Kindle Fire, which is going to be the Christmas gift this year, are going to have some effect on frequency. These devices make you do everything faster, cutting across the old rhythms on which monthly magazines relied. We are not in the mood to wait for anything anymore. This isn’t necessarily a good thing but it is a real thing. If you think we’re impatient now, just wait until that one-year-old grows up.