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Off The Page – David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

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

By David Hepworth

How did magazines get so old?

Some time in the late 80s, when the living was easy, the fish were jumping and the cotton was high, I interviewed a young journalist called Mandi Norwood for a job on a young women’s magazine.

I asked her the standard questions about how she saw her career developing. At this point, people traditionally make modest noises and then blurt out that ultimately, and here they blush, they’d like to see if they could edit a magazine.

Mandi wasn’t like that. She came right out with it. She said that by the time she was 30, she wanted to be the editor of Cosmopolitan. That’s very women’s magazine self-help - if you’re going to make a promise, always put a term on it. At the time she was 24, and our company didn’t even publish Cosmopolitan so it was a fairly grand ambition to own up to.

As it turned out, Mandi did become editor of Cosmopolitan by the time she was 30, having already edited a couple of magazines on the way there. She subsequently went to New York, which is where most nakedly ambitious British editors end up.

I was thinking about Mandi the other day when I read an interview in the Guardian with Louise Court, who’s editing Cosmopolitan at the moment. She admitted to being 51.

This in itself is fine. I’m not one of those people who think you have to be “in the demo” to be able to successfully edit a magazine. I’ve edited teenage girls magazines while being neither a teenager nor a girl. I’ve known women who edited men’s magazines very successfully.

And nobody should be made to apologise for their age, whatever age they happen to be. In fact, it’s probably against the law to even mention it. But here’s the point that the contrast between the two editors of Cosmopolitan got me to pondering. How did the magazine industry get so, well, old?

The effects of this ageing process can be seen far beyond Cosmo. If you look around at all the biggest consumer titles in the UK, you’ll find they’re edited by people who’ve been editing something for over twenty years and may even have been holding down their particular chair for more than ten.

Any industry is allowed its share of doyens or doyennes (notably long-serving editors such as Dylan Jones at GQ and Lindsay Nicholson at Good Housekeeping). There’s a great deal to be said for experience. But there also used to be a lot to be said for inexperience, for freshness, for the youthful desire to throw everything up in the air and start again. It’s just that nobody appears to be saying it anymore.

It’s beyond this column’s remit to do a scientific survey of the median age of magazine editors in 2012 but even the most cursory look around at any industry gathering will tell you that most British magazine editors aren’t going to see forty again.

Before writing this column, I launched a quick Twitter survey. I asked whether there was anybody out there who’s editing a magazine and wasn’t yet thirty. Not a lot of hands went in the air. I can tell you that the editor of Your Family Tree from Future is 27 and the editor of Australia’s foremost wilderness adventure magazine is under 30 but there were no takers from the big titles. Joe Barnes was appointed to the editorship of FHM when he was just under 30, which makes him almost unique. It probably represents an effort to differentiate the title in a men’s market which for the last twenty years has been dominated by the increasingly middle-aged.

Joe Barnes’ experience used to be the norm rather than the exception. In the 80s and 90s, talented people could expect to become editors by the time they were 30. Nowadays, they don’t reach this eminence until they’re within sight of 40 and then, because it’s taken them so long to get there, they cling on as if their livelihood depended on it. Which by then it does.

The effect of this is to turn what was once a youthful industry which prided itself on sometimes reckless innovation into a middle-aged one which prides itself on efficient execution according to budget. How did this state of affairs come to pass?

In the boom times, the obvious way to climb in a company used to be via launch. The best people moved on from established titles to put their names on new magazines. That doesn’t go on so much anymore.

Then there was the pull of other media. Good people from magazines were poached by newspapers, radio and TV. When the ongoing boom was further stimulated by dotcom madness, people were leaving the business every week with visions of I.P.O. fortunes dancing before their eyes.

All this movement created opportunities for the next generation and the one after that. But then the dotcom offers dried up, the launches either stopped or became less frequent, those who had the editor’s chair weren't in such an all-fired hurry to get on to the next level and they stayed in post year after year, getting more bothered about covering their mortgages or paying tuition fees.

The result was that there were no longer the same opportunities for the bright young things. The people who might once have expected to be editors by the time they were 30 were having to defer that ambition until they were forty or even indefinitely.

At the same time, the digital industry was recruiting young, as is only right in a young industry. When I issued my appeal for editors under 30, I got lots of response from people in the age group who were editing but all their editing was done on websites. This is still something I have difficulty accepting as proper editing because it doesn’t involve dealing with difficult members of staff and shifting copy off a newsstand.

But what’s going to happen to these people? Once people have successfully looked after a website, they're unlikely to want to work on a paper magazine. Their instincts will have been trained in a different direction, they’ll be understandably impatient and they won’t have acquired the paper skills, which tend to be learned at mother’s knee.

I looked at the PTC's list of award winning young publishing people from last year. Even their editor of the year was somebody who looked after a website and while I’m sure they had many qualities, part of the reason they won that accolade must be that the judges couldn’t find that many paper editors who qualified as “young”.

At some stage in the future, this is going to be a crisis. Either the skills base within a magazine organisation is going to gradually tilt away from paper to digital (for the simple reason that it’s in the latter area that the young talent will be recruited). That’s going to mean a brand’s web applications getting better while their paper parents stand still or go backwards. And if there aren’t many young people working on them, then it would be a bit much to expect to find many young people reading them.

Power of continuity

One magazine that’s a remarkably good advert for sticking with your editor is Private Eye, which has had only two editors in fifty years and recently celebrated its birthday by recording its highest sales in 25 years. In this it has obviously been helped by the arrival of a high profile scandal in the media. But even when such scandals recede, as recede they must, the Eye will continue to flourish thanks, I believe, not so much to the occasional high profile exposé as to the steady insistence with which it executes its artillery of regulars.

All magazines are only as strong as their regulars and Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner, Street of Shame, Luvvies, O.B.N., Commentatorballs (magically changed from Colemanballs) and the rest provide a perfect series of lenses which can be trained on different aspects of the passing show.

They don’t even have to be uproariously funny. In fact, 90% of the humour comes from the fact that they’re there all the time. As shows as old as I.T.M.A., The Fast Show and Little Britain have demonstrated down the years, nothing tickles the British funny bone quite so much as a really old joke.

Life’s rich pattern

Last month, I spent a day with the people from Archant’s Lifestyle titles, the teams behind county magazines such as Lancashire Life, Cheshire Life, Somerset Life and, well, I’m sure you’re getting the picture by now.

It’s during encounters like this that you are reminded once again that the magazine business is all about hot buttons and how its editors live nearer to the skin of public taste than just about anyone. It seems that just as some pop stars sell copies of music magazines and some don’t, certain towns in every county sell while others remain nailed to the shelves. I could tell you the names of these towns, but obviously then I’d have to kill you.

A lot of front

I spend a lot of time walking through the West End. The magazine offices that I regularly pass no longer declare themselves from the outside. There is one exception. The handsome building in Bedford Street, Covent Garden which houses the Lady actually has the magazine’s logo in the top corner of its facade, almost as if it were an actual cover. Looking at a recent copy, I noticed that they run a vintage illustration of the building at the top of the masthead. Letters from the editor traditionally try to paint a picture of where a magazine comes from. The Lady can go one better. Good for them.