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Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

My media week

At a reception held by the outgoing chairman of the PPA, Kevin Costello of Haymarket, to hand over his mayoral chain and seal of office to the incoming chairman of the PPA, James Tye of Dennis, a fellow middle-aged white guy leaned over to me, raised the eyebrow of sarcasm and said “my, what a diverse bunch we are”. I looked around to see the whole top floor of the Century Club on Shaftesbury Avenue occupied by middle-aged white men, all wearing suits and most having discarded the tie in order to look more informal. (In fact, it makes them all look as if they’ve spent the day in the dock and are just relieved to have got off.)

I couldn’t help but think that if you’d gone back twenty years, there would have been a lot more women there. Maybe they’ve got something better to do than stand around chugging on a cold one and saying, “How’s it going? Really well”. Maybe they left magazine companies to have children and never came back at the kind of level that gets you invited to such occasions. Maybe the tilt in the power axis from consumer to B2B has resulted in an industry that seems more male than it used to. I trust somebody’s trying to redress this imbalance and that in a couple of years’ time, James might be handing over to a woman.

Party hopping

To the launch of Jeremy Lewis’s biography of David Astor, the son of privilege who subsidised and edited The Observer during its glory years in the 50s and 60s. This took place at the In and Out Club in St James’s and felt like something from a bygone age. Mark Ellen and I were, believe it or not, among the younger people there. We joked that fellow guests were giving us sidelong glances and working out their avenues of escape in case we started something and it all kicked off. “It’s like being in a New Yorker cartoon,” Mark said to me. I felt it was more like something out of an Anthony Powell novel.

The walls were heaving with ancient oil paintings, the table groaning with bottles of wine, venerable faces were peering over their glasses and scanning the index of Jeremy’s book to see if they got a mention and everywhere you looked, people were leaning towards each other in order to make sure their good ear caught one word in five that the other person was saying. These people, who were mainly, I would guess, in their seventies and eighties were, let’s not forget, the swinging young things who made The Observer the grooviest place to work in the sixties.

Even The Observer was initially a boy’s club and anyone else seeking admission had to be young and beautiful like Katharine Whitehorn. It was Whitehorn who passed into Observer legend by observing of the legendarily wavering Astor, “the editor’s indecision is final”. If she didn’t say it, she’s far too savvy to let on. I told her I heard her from time to time on Radio Four. The last time she was singing the praises of John Lewis, pointing out how a trip to its bedding department would always see off any anxiety she happened to be feeling. “Did I really say that?” she twinkled. That’s what becomes a legend most. We always put our favourite words in their mouths.

From the era of David Astor to the age of Alexander Lebedev, publishing posh newspapers tends to call for the deep pockets of a wealthy benefactor with a belief in newspapers that goes beyond the rational. But even they get to the point where it doesn’t make sense any longer. When the last of the old style press barons shuffle off this mortal coil, they’ll be missed, not least because the mysterious entities that have taken over their role have power that the old Lord Copper could only dream of and are considerably less scrupulous about using it. When they get married for the tenth time in their eighties, I venture they won’t be doing it at St Brides, as Rupert Murdoch did.

Money in news?

I was interested in Duncan Painter, the chief executive of Ascential, saying that it’s possible that you can no longer make a business out of the provision of news. The news is only any use, he said, if it helps you attract an audience who can then be monetised. Ascential is owned in part by the Guardian Media Group, who may be arriving at the same conclusion from another angle. They’ve spent years pursuing scale only to find that next to Google and Facebook even they are in toy land. In Painter’s prescription, it’s all about getting more money out of what you already have. If you want to do that, you start by not giving anything away for free, which is where the Guardian is going to have the greatest problems when it comes to plugging the £100 million hole the new CEO says needs to be plugged. They’ve encouraged the people who traditionally value it most – the young and radical – to believe it’s something they don’t have to pay for. If they were getting it cheap, it might be possible to see how they could be persuaded to pay more. If they’re paying nothing, it’s hard to see how you can get them to pay a little. Here, once again, it doesn’t matter what people say. What matters is what they do. I never trust any sentence that begins, “I’d be happy to pay…”

Today’s reading habits

I wish the publishers of The New Day all the very best but they probably wouldn’t have launched it if they’d done what I did one morning recently, which is note down what reading matter my fellow commuters were using on that morning’s journey from the suburbs of north London to Green Park. It was an averagely busy Piccadilly Line train and I was moving from carriage to carriage, stepping on and off the train like Fernando Rey in The French Connection, and these were the results of my entirely unscientific audit: the most read paper publication was, not surprisingly, the Metro, which is given away free. I saw one man reading The Times, another man reading the Mail and a third reading the Mirror. In each case, they were old enough to require spectacles (which is something that editors and designers should maybe take into account more than they do). I saw two people reading magazines, both of them men. One was reading The Economist, the other Retro Gamer, which was a new one on me. I didn’t see a single woman reading a magazine, which twenty years ago would have been inconceivable. Don’t shoot the messenger. That’s just the way I saw it.

The Special Ones

Obviously, everybody wants to know what this column thinks about the American election. What this column wonders is: which of the candidates truly wants to be president of the United States? I can see how the likes of Rubio and Cruz want to make their name. I understand that Bernie Sanders wants to tilt the Democratic Party in his direction. I have no difficulty understanding that Hillary Clinton wants to go down in history as the first woman president but the really big question is, does Donald Trump seriously want to be president of the United States? I can understand that he might want to win. It’s the ultimate TV star triumph. But once he’s got his feet under the desk, how’s he going to like it then? If recent political history teaches anything, it’s that the president can’t do an awful lot. He certainly can’t fire anyone. You need more than a punchline in that job. You can’t cut to VT in the White House.

People also want to know about this column’s take on the next move of José Mourinho and what it has to do with publishing. The answer is hardly anything at all. I’ve done a lot of hiring of editors in my career and if one had ever turned up and said, “I’m a person of rare skill and charisma and the only reason it didn’t work in my previous job is because the staff turned against me,” I don’t think they’d be coming back for the second interview. Only in football, thankfully.

David Hepworth’s book 1971: Never a Dull Moment is published by Transworld in April.