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Off The Page – David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

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

By David Hepworth

Closing a magazine teaches you a lot about publishing in 2012

We had to close the Word in July. It had run for nine years. We liked to say this was as long as the Beatles. We'd told the team that they would look back on their time on the magazine with affection and pride, not least because there probably weren’t going to be any other magazines like it. The day of the brave independent company backing its hunch and asking the public to pay on the newsstand seems to be gone.

All that remained was to announce it to the readers, advertisers and other interested parties. That process told me more about why we had to close it than anything else could have done, underlining what a porous world this has become and how magazines can no longer operate as they once did.

In days gone by, the announcement of a closure would have meant a call to Media Guardian. There would have been some mistrustful bargaining over exclusivity. Were we going to get stitched up by a commentator? Were important facts going to get lost in the rush to come up with an overarching theory? At some stage a press release would have been sent. (Even the expression ‘press release’ seems as arcane as the words ‘penny farthing’.) There would have been a tense wait to see whether the story was treated sympathetically or shoehorned into a larger narrative. Then you would have to hope that your readers and interested parties happened to read Media Guardian. The story would have taken a few days to get around.

This is what actually happened. Before I went to the office that morning, I posted a statement explaining the closure on the Word website. Then I tweeted, using both my own and the magazine’s account, saying that the magazine was closing. This linked to my statement.

By the time I got to work forty minutes later, the story had gone further than it would have gone in an entire week in the old world. The Word site had fallen over twice through weight of traffic. People I hadn't seen for years were in touch. Slower ones were told about it by relatives in China. Media Guardian were on the phone, chasing after the conversation that they once would have started. This neutering of what was once the main channel for news of this nature is something I suppose I could have worked out but to see it acted out in this fashion was plain startling. This is the truth about stories that start on the web. They get more not less coverage in the mainstream media because the mainstream media are aware they’re no longer in control.

Then came the commiserations. People love a funeral and in the digital age they don't even have to dress for it. I’m sure a lot of people were genuinely bereft but I’m equally sure that the British love nothing more than mourning the passing of something they don’t use. People kept asking why it couldn’t be saved, “like 6 Music”. Obviously the reason it couldn’t be saved like 6 Music was that, unlike the BBC, we couldn’t just take a little bit of a budget away from one service and put it behind another, kicking the difference into the long grass in the hope that by the time it next becomes a crisis, it’s somebody else’s problem.

This funeral was even more attractive because the deceased was there to hear what was said about them. The words of tribute were kindly meant but sometimes over the top. Once people decide to say something nice about you, they don’t let anything like the truth get in the way. I read one gushing encomium on a very prestigious American website which singled out a shabby piece of mine and praised it in a way it really didn’t deserve and I’m not being falsely modest.

Cognitive dissonance

A surprising number of them were laced with anger. Surely somebody must be to blame for this. Somebody suggested getting up a petition, which made me wonder who they were planning to present it to. There seems to be a cognitive dissonance at work among the chattering classes, who should probably be called the twittering classes nowadays, in that they will mourn the eventual passing of the broadsheet newspapers but won’t connect their demise with the fact that they stopped buying them years ago. I detect a similar thing at work around the Paralympics. People queue up to praise the lavishness of the opening ceremony and Channel Four’s coverage while moaning about the sponsors and the advertising breaks. How else do they think anything is paid for?

Others seemed to hint at a wider tragedy about the decline and fall of so-called intelligent debate. Speaking as one who's played that card occasionally when in a tight spot, this kind of forehead-smiting, woe-is-us reaction is, to use the adjective of our times, ‘inappropriate’.

Here's what I learned through the closure of the Word. The speed with which this item of news spread and became a news event in which people could happily participate and the “disintermediation”, to use a jargon word, of the traditional news outlets was a live demonstration of the same forces which mean you can't publish magazines, or indeed anything, the way you once did.

Even the most established and successful ones are having to go about it in a different way. The boss of Hearst Magazines in the United States said recently that all magazines needed to have five revenue streams. They used to have two. It was hard enough to get those.

The organs of the media once sat athwart the roads down which information travelled, charging readers a premium for access to information they couldn't get elsewhere, and advertisers for access to readers they couldn't identify any more precisely. When I worked as a music business PR, you could supply the NME’s news editor with a piece of information secure in the knowledge that it would not escape into the wider world for the week it took to get through the production and publication process and actually appear on the page. The reason it would not escape was that there was hardly anywhere else it could go in that time.

That doesn't apply anymore. All the key bits of information about, say, the England football team, find their way to us via Twitter, either consciously or otherwise. Both readers and advertisers have got hundreds of choices and they use them, which is fine.

I don't yearn for the old days. I think the new wide-open media world is more interesting and fun than the old one. But what I still find staggering is the naivety of not just the general public but also the people who like to think of themselves as in the know. For the past few years, when people have been asking me “how are things?”, I’ve always answered with the same answer anyone honest in the media would come back with. Very tough. And yet people are still so surprised when the chickens come home to roost. I understand now why Spike Milligan wanted to have the words ‘I told you I was ill’ on his tombstone.

People who don’t run their own companies are impossible to talk to because they live in a different world. Not long ago, I had a conversation with somebody quite senior at the BBC who said, “but the magazine’s safe, isn’t it?” I thought about saying to him, “look, given the combination of the structural changes that are taking place right across the media, in the light of the recession and the Eurozone crisis, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if anything from a major national newspaper to a footling little magazine closed its doors while we’re having this conversation. The fact that you’re even asking me only proves that the BBC exists in its own eco-system and doesn’t even know it’s raining outside”.

From web to print?

In one of the most prominent ironies in what is a fairly irony-rich environment, two technology companies have come up with ways in which users can effectively make their own publications. Zeen is backed by the originators of YouTube. It promises you the chance to “collect links on your favourite topics. Publish the links in beautiful magazines. Add your voice – share it with the world.”

Little Printer, a British invention, sits in your front room and “scours the web on your behalf, assembling the content you care about into designed deliveries a couple of times a day.”

These innovations may or may not work but I suspect both will have to come to terms with the fact that the decision to read a magazine is a lot less rational than they think. It’s a habit. It’s an activity that slots into the interstices of one’s life. Once there, it’s difficult to interrupt. Once absent it’s even harder to put back.