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Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

Off The Page

Total recall?

RemArc or Reminiscence Archive, is a resource from the BBC which is aimed at helping people with dementia. It uses archive material – news items, old interviews, snatches of sports commentary, memorable images – to help trigger memories in people who have difficulty remembering.

It’s not long since I was discussing with a friend whether it was an entirely good idea to show his elderly mother old clips from YouTube. Since she sometimes seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between the present and the past, surely it was potentially hazardous to risk confusing that difference further? I know we’re all used to looking at footage from the past but the sheer range of YouTube fundamentally changes the game. We’ve already reached the stage where anything from past or present, anything, in fact, that we happen to be talking about, can be immediately summoned in moving pictures at the click of a button. This is bewildering enough for somebody who was born in the 50s, let alone the 1920s.

I have recently come to see the same challenge from a different angle. My own granddaughters, at the age of six months, have already accepted the idea that members of the family who are not in the room, the house or even the same time zone can suddenly appear on a screen and address a few words to them on the screen of a tablet. That, it seems to me, is a fairly profound alteration to our view of the limitations of time and space.

The other day, I was asked to predict what I thought might happen in the media in the next five years. The only honest response is to say I don’t have an earthly idea but I do know that in that period of time, there is bound to be a new piece of technology which we cannot imagine right now, would not comprehend even if it were explained to us right now and will in time meekly accept when it arrives while wondering how we ever lived without it. Six years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows – How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read and Remember. It probably needs updating already.

The Gatekeepers

In the mid-1970s, I worked for a small record company. When we had a scrap of news about one of our artists – a few tour dates, the announcement of a new release – we had to deal with the music weeklies. And if you wanted to get reasonable prominence for your story, you had to promise one of the news editors that you wouldn’t give the story to his competitors until the week after. The best place to put it was in the pages of the NME and that meant dealing with Derek Johnson, who had been at the NME since before the Beatles. Derek was an old-fashioned newspaper man who somehow still managed to put together his quite traditional pages (“Wetton quits Crimso for Heep”, “Zappa Slams Albert Hall” and, in the direst emergencies, “Elvis to tour Britain”) amid the fug of marijuana smoke and the crackle of faux leather trousers.

The process went as follows: you would contact Derek the week before, set up the trade and then on the Friday, you would ascend to Derek’s eyrie in King’s Reach Tower (no email, no fax, couldn’t trust a bike, let alone afford one) and present him with the piece of paper with your info on it, which he would then lock in his desk drawer. The paper would go to press on Monday and Tuesday and be on sale in the West End of London on Wednesday. So, what’s special about that? Nothing except the fact that between Friday and Wednesday there was no danger of the information escaping because there was nowhere for it to escape to.

That’s the thing that I most often reflect upon. The days when there was only one route to market and your way could be barred or smoothed by gatekeepers. In those days, if you wanted to get any kind of story out, if you wanted to publish it in the purest, most basic sense, you needed a Derek Johnson, that is a man with the skills required to put that information in a news story and then put it alongside lots of other news stories and then have access to a printing press, unlimited supplies of paper and fleets of lorries and a network of distributors and retailers. That was the old world. It was very slow and cumbersome but, in its defence, it provided a lot of people with work. Now you can send out any piece of information without the need to actually take your hands out of your pocket.

You can say all you like about the brand values of the recently-closed NME and you can speculate about whether it’s possible to bring them back in the digital realm. What there’s no getting away from is the fact that its key brand value was that it possessed knowledge that you didn’t. As such, it was the gatekeeper to an entire industry. We shall never see that kind of power again.

On screen, on paper

My colleague Shahriar Coupal got out his phone at an ASA function and excitedly (and slightly satirically) showed me that The Grocer had decided he was the ninth most important person in the UK when it came to steering the public’s mood about food. Shahriar is in charge of advertising policy at the regulator and so he deserved his exalted place, sandwiched between David Attenborough and the boss of Phillip Morris in the UK. They’d even done him a special illustration, which is always an appealing slice of immortality. When he showed it to me, it had already been published for over a month. “Haven’t you got it on paper?” I asked. “Surely this must have been in the magazine. You ought to get it framed.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.

How soon we forget.

Give with one hand…

I was lucky enough to be invited to talk at the International Journalism Festival. This took place in April in the beautiful surroundings of the ancient hill town of Perugia in Umbria. The sessions were hosted in over a dozen remarkable locations across the town. I was lucky enough to be in a theatre that can trace its history back to the 14th century.

The town was full of smart young things from all over the world; the kind of people who carry three smartphones and can speak a different language into each of them. Each session was being simultaneously translated into two languages. Each session was being streamed live on the internet and as soon as it finished, each session was edited and then posted on YouTube. When they said a bus would be there to pick you up, it was. When they said you could eat free in certain restaurants, you could. I’ve never been to anything better organised.

Of course, it costs money to do things this well. Who were the key sponsors? Google and Facebook, of course. What was the subject that session after session kept coming back to? The difficulty of making a living out of selling something that people get for free from Google and Facebook. You couldn’t make it up.

What’s in a name

I was encouraged to read that Meredith, the company who’ve swallowed up Time Inc in the United States, are launching a new print magazine called Hello Giggles based on the website started by Zooey Deschanel. I’ve no idea whether it will work or not but I like the idea of magazines having names that are slightly less standing on their dignity than they used to be in the past. Historically, magazine names like Time, Life and People always tended to sonorous self-importance. Nowadays, from Google to Peeky Blinders, from Twitter to Cardy B, it seems that while an essentially silly name won’t be the making of you, it won’t be the breaking of you any longer.

Thought for the day

Most memorable thing I heard this month came from James Williams, the former Google employee who won the $100,000 Nine Dots prize by answering the question “are digital technologies making politics impossible?” and has written a book called Stand Out Of Our Light. It goes as follows: “We used to think of advertising as the exception to the rule in the information delivery business ... now it has moved from underwriting the media to overwriting it. Ultimately, we have no conception of what advertising is for anymore because we have no coherent definition of what advertising is anymore.”