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Off The Page – David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

David Hepworth's regular column, in the March / April 2013 issue of InPublishing magazine.

By David Hepworth

What are they saying about us? It doesn’t matter as long as they’re saying something

The news that Pippa Middleton has been engaged by Waitrose Kitchen magazine to pen a monthly column called "Pippa's Friday Night Treats" triggered one of those periodic fits of harrumphing to which the magazine fraternity is prone. The fact that this was announced in the same week that Delia Smith says that she was walking away from broadcast television because it was interested in star power rather than quality cooking advice did not pass unremarked.

It was suggested by some commentators that the column wouldn't be very good. This is a gross distortion. Everybody knows that it won't be very good. Even after the subs at Waitrose Kitchen have run the copy through the editorial defibrillator and taken it in turns to revive it with mouth to mouth, it will still have all the literary qualities of the washing instructions on one's duvet. This certainty is based not on prejudice. It is based on long, bitter experience.

It won't be very good for the same reason that 99.9% of historical cases of celebrities being given columns weren't very good, whether they attained their celebrity through politics, professional sport or pop music. It won't be very good for the same reason that the punditry of Alan Shearer leaves so much to be desired. It won't be any good because the very few things these people have to say, they're not prepared to say.

They don't lack completely for things to say. It's just that their sense of career is so hard-wired into their very soul, that they worry that anything they do say may come back to haunt them. To avoid that, they say nothing in public and lots in private. I'm sure that when the bubbly is popped and the canapés are circulating, that young Pippa can dish as well as any young woman. But the reason why she's been given this column - because she's the sister of the future Queen and she has a delectable chassis - is the same reason why her column will never be any good. How could it possibly?

So why, say exasperated out of work cookery writers up and down the shires, do publications like Waitrose Kitchen keep on signing famous names like Pippa Middleton up? Surely they know that what begins in a blaze of publicity will be quietly dropped at some point in the next year when Pippa runs out of ideas and a new editor decides it would be better to have Jessica Ennis's guide to bottled water.

The answers have implications for everyone in magazines, no matter how far or near they are from the refined orbit of Waitrose Kitchen.

They do it, for a start, because they can. This is good news for all of us. It's strange and also wonderful that people who have got more money than God and are so famous they can scarcely step out of their front door are nonetheless suckers for the prospect of a bully pulpit from which they can set the world to rights, even if it's only the bit of the world that deals with things to eat while watching Graham Norton. They won't have had to pay her much money. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if she's doing it for no money at all.

Secondly, they're doing it because, despite all our posturing about being above such lures and snares, we actually are all so weak and feeble that we won't be able to avoid just having a look at Pippa's column. Some people who bought it occasionally will buy it a bit more often. Some people who have never investigated it before will do it for the first time. Thousands more will go and look at their website or follow the Friday night Twitter feed that somebody's bound to be cooking up already. That means that the world of Waitrose magazine will be, in some significant way, expanded as a consequence of signing up an indifferent columnist who just happens to be world famous. The number of people thinking about Waitrose Kitchen will increase, the number of people who will make sure they look at a copy, if only to sneer, will be greater than it was the previous week.

The buzz

This is not just part of our business nowadays. Increasingly, this is our business.

Old salts may complain that anything which doesn't directly result in the sale of an additional copy or an extra slug of ad revenue is merely vanity. They're missing the point. In the link economy, buzz is what matters. You have to be increasing the number of people who feel compelled - for whatever reason - to send people towards you, even if they do so in a spirit of derision. That's how buzz works. Your brand is very little help in creating it. It isn't driven by the things you do week in week out. It's a scientific reflection of the extent to which you manage to pique the interest of the people who lie outside your editorial compound. It's another challenge to traditional magazine editorial values. We tend to focus in, on the piece of work, on the issue, that we're working on. While doing that, we often lose sight of the fact that what really amplifies the voice of the magazine is the extent to which it manages to get itself heard in the wider world.

There was a recent scare at Radio Two when "station bosses", to use the term beloved of newspapers, said that they were going to try to judge the impact of presenters and programmes by supplementing the usual subjective measures of quality with a look at how much traction they got on Facebook or Twitter. This caused the same harrumphing in radio that La Middleton caused in magazines. And again, it's missing the point. Crude though these measures may be, and very often the people using them can't tell the difference between digital Stork and butter, they are a guide to what extent you're managing to puncture the thick hide of public indifference to your programming.

And you can't seek refuge in the argument that those are not "our people". I'm sure the people at MailOnline don't discriminate between those among its 8 million unique browsers who have arrived there because they truly identify with the paper's values, those who've just come to see a picture of a particular Oscars frock and those who've only come to point out how much they object to everything it represents. Traffic is traffic, buzz is buzz and in the words of Bob Dylan, those not busy being born are busy dying.

Cover of the Century?

I was looking at the PPA's ten Magazine Covers Of The Century with Pearce Marchbank. He was one of the old salts - Nick Logan, Tony Elliott, Andy Cowles and Mark Ellen being others - who were tempted out to the Skyloft at Millbank Tower to mark the launch of the PPA's centenary year and witness the unveiling of the ten titles which are slugging it out by public vote to decide the Cover Of The Century.

It was interesting to see how these old warriors were still bothered about who was going to figure in such an award when any student of the industry could see that they had been distributed among the PPA's sponsors, the big publishers. There were dark mutterings that the Beano cover wasn't really a cover, being taken off a special, and that Radio Times really could have picked one of its great illustrated covers rather than trying to achieve glory on the back of more bloody daleks.

Pearce designed lots of the covers of Time Out back in the day when it was the nearest thing in Britain to the legendary American Esquire of George Lois's day, when he had to work without stars or other reliable formulae, when each weekly cover had to be its own event. He designed the "two fingers" Winston Churchill cover of Time Out which is among the ten. The fingers belonged to the bloke who cleaned his office at the time. They just seemed right. He agreed that the best covers were always done in a hurry and said that on the occasions when he had a whole week to do them, he would do it all at the last minute. First thought, best thought, as ever.

Covers are still a key element in the magazine mix. People who wouldn't get out of bed to be on a top rating TV show will still jump through hoops in order to be on the cover of a prestigious magazine. Magazines trade harder on their covers than ever before but they don't mean the same to the public that they once did. On Apple's Newsstand, they are smaller than postage stamps and are unlikely to sway anyone to purchase. "Nobody will be standing here in a hundred years’ time celebrating the cover,” predicted Pearce, looking at his work. It's difficult to disagree.