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Off The Page - David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

David Hepworth's regular column, in the May / June 2012 issue of InPublishing.

By David Hepworth

No other area of the media calls for quite the same level of fiddling about as consumer magazines. Newspapers use a much higher proportion of the material they consider for inclusion. They can spit it out every which way, which is why digital comes relatively naturally to them. TV and radio are highly tuned machines into which the material is quickly fed in and just as immediately extruded. But the same doesn’t apply to magazines, particularly monthly ones.

Monthly magazines agonise endlessly and, in many cases, pointlessly. The lion’s share of the material they consider for inclusion they leave at the edge of their plates. And they are immensely presentation-heavy with the stuff that they put on the end of their fork. This was brought home to me once again with some force a couple of weeks ago as we prepared to launch the iPad app of our magazine the Word. In the process of adapting the content for the tablet, I had to dispense with so much of the vocabulary, so much of the furniture of the magazine, so much of the complex interplay between words and pictures. The headline and stand-first style of the average monthly magazine simply doesn't work in the new format. Within the confines of an iPad window, the reader needs to know what's going on in the fastest way possible. All that energy put into the womanly editorial arts of teasing and flirtation doesn’t seem worth it once it’s poured into a different kind of reading experience. Unless they decide to go the bells and whistles enhanced tablet approach, the likelihood is that the tablet is going to force all magazines to get to the point more quickly and to forsake many of the more touchy-feely aspects of the editorial craft. Personally, I won’t miss it at all.

I would like to have back all the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years of my life that I've spent fitting copy, polishing puns, working on witty captions and begging for higher res pictures because although the results of these labours are appreciated by the end user, the reader, they're not appreciated in a way that is in any way commensurate with the amount of time they take away from other things. In this new age, we have to be subtracting the amount of time we spend wrestling with the business of putting things on the page in order to be able to add the amount of time getting the right stuff to put there in the first place.

If, as seems likely, publishers can get the growth through the tablet editions that they can't get in the paper editions, then it's only a matter of time before we're no longer adapting the latter to fit the former and instead working on the former first and the latter afterwards. That probably means content management systems to keep the editorial machine operating and less editorial fiddling with individual issues. This, I would have thought, will be a major cultural revolution for magazines and the occasion for much sucking in of breath and long delayed re-evaluation in editorial departments.

Who’s following who?

The skill set will inevitably change the more that these changes bite. Editors used to be picked for their ability to predict what was about to be interesting to people. In the future, they'll be picked for their ability to note where the interest is and minister to it. The old idea of followers and leaders doesn't apply any more. Many of your readers know more than you do.

That may be a disappointment to many people. There will be people thinking, this is not what I got in the business for. I’m a cavalier and you are telling me the future is roundhead? We all know that there's something special about a magazine. There's something special about paper. It confers a legitimacy that few other things do. It's been proven to work over decades and even centuries. There's something about it that appeals to the soul. That can't just go away. And maybe it won't go away entirely. After all, taking another parallel from the music business, the long-playing twelve inch LP didn't go away. We keep hearing that it's making a bit of a comeback amongst hi fi nuts or dance deejays or traditionalists like me. Everybody accepts that it's a beautiful thing and the best way to listen to music but for most people, it's a charming irrelevance.

Between now and the end of the year - because any plan made for any longer term is in the realms of fiction - the people in this industry have to decide whether magazines are going to go the way of the LP record. LP records still have a market and command premium prices but they don't put a lot of food on anyone's table.

When I was a young man, the only things I wanted were records and magazines. All my desires for worldly wealth were focused on those two, very tangible product categories. The things I wanted were things you could hold in your hand, file away under your arm and attract envious glances to when carrying them on the Tube. Now that music is spat down phone lines as a series of noughts and ones and even magazines arrive as apps on tablets, there's no longer quite such a need to dress up the product in the same old way.

Desire for experiences

The music business has found that, while it can't get people to pay more than a couple of pounds for a CD, which not long ago their older brothers paid over £13 for, they can get those same people to pay £50 to go and see that artist perform live. This may mean that the digital revolution is not as significant as the longer, more gradual shift from the desire for stuff to the desire for experiences. Football matches, rock festivals, blockbuster movies, meals out, expensive beers, lavish family occasions - people seem increasingly content to spend money on things which don't last rather than, as they might have done in the past, on items that looked expensive or advertised their status. This has implications for the magazine business, which has traditionally set a lot of store on production values in the belief that they still matter to people. Judging by the last issue of Vogue that I saw, they do still matter if you're in an area of the market where people value luxury over immediacy and there’s lots of advertising. If you're in the same area as the very thin issue of American magazine Rolling Stone that I saw recently, they don't. These challenges are going to force us to decide whether we’re people who make stuff or people who do things.

You can’t hide. I was talking to somebody in the record business recently who pointed out, rather mournfully, that it was no longer possible to hype people. What he meant was that it was no longer possible to convince them that something was more popular or widely adopted than it actually was. You no longer went into Radio 2 and told them that they should be playing a record because it was going to be popular among this or that demographic. You simply sent them a link to the You Tube page where they could see how many people had streamed the video. Digital is its own audit. This is something magazines are going to have to get used to.

Everybody in the magazine business likes to laugh at the music business. I was in the office the other day and one of our people paused from opening his post to say "it just doesn't make any sense for record companies to keep on putting CDs in Jiffy bags and sending them to us for review in this day and age". Then he went back to correcting paper proofs of a paper magazine and probably spent a good half an hour putting in soft returns to make sure that the column lined up in a way that was pleasing to the eye. The irony went flying over his head.