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Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

Off The Page

There but for the grace of God…

It says a lot about this year's silly season that the story about Cycling Weekly mistakenly publishing a picture captioned “Token attractive woman” was briefly the lead story on Media Guardian in late August.

Inevitably, Cycling Weekly's editor had to rush to apologise, smoothly switching into the more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone of straight-faced repentance that’s increasingly called for in cases like these.

“The caption is neither funny nor representative of the way we feel or approach our work,” he intoned like an Edwardian schoolmaster. Actually, it is quite funny and it is representative of the way magazines approach their work. The message that it’s really important that your title be seen to reflect gender equality has now been taken on board to such an extent that the team joke about it behind their hands. It’s not that long ago that nobody would even think about it.

The bit of the editor’s statement that caught my attention was what came next: "In the rush to get the magazine finished, it was missed by other members of the team.”

Now, like anyone who’s done time as a galley slave in the production department of a magazine, I’ve known some very close calls in my time. Many’s the pull-quote saying, “some old bollocks here” that was only spotted at the last moment. It is axiomatic that the tone editorial professionals employ with each other will not be the same as that they would use to address the readers with. I’ve seen captions on pictures of lambs in healthy eating magazines that read “yum!” and left-to-rights that have been done with incomplete information where one of the figures is referred to as, “fat bloke – ask Terry”.

I can take all that. That’s the rough and tumble of production. What I can’t take is the editor blaming "other members of the team" for this particular cock-up. You simply can’t do that.

I learned everything I know about editing from Nick Logan at Smash Hits. When I joined in 1979, he said, “be at King’s Cross first thing tomorrow morning. Bring a biro and a toothbrush.” The following day I did as I was told. Nick and I went to Peterborough where we spent two days in a room from which every last piece of stimulus and entertainment had been removed and there we all checked every single last word of the new issue. I learned that there’s a kind of cabinet responsibility with magazines. We rise and fall together. If there’s a cock-up, it’s just as much the editor’s as everybody else’s. Hence the word ‘editor’.

Uniformly liberal

I was recently asked to sit in on the preliminary interview stage for an appointment to a public body. It would be misleading to say the candidates came from a wide variety of backgrounds – they had all been to university and achieved some eminence in the professions – but they certainly came from different ethnicities, different parts of the country and may well have had different sexual orientations.

What was interesting was that the things that divided them were nothing like as powerful as the things that united them: things such as an unquestioned acceptance of liberal values, such as the belief that Brexit was a bad idea and, for all I know, the belief that David Bowie was better than Phil Collins.

It struck me that this may have been the main achievement of the baby boomers who once marched in defence of minority opinion. Now that they have their hands on the handles of power, they’ve imposed their version of diversity on everybody else.

Picture perfect

We took our holiday in Brittany. Oh, very nice, thanks, though you don’t go there for the weather.

One evening on the beach, I decided to take a picture of the one last surfer in the shallows. The picture looked pretty good, as most pictures tend to on the small screen of an iPhone.

I posted it on Instagram and tagged it with the location of the beach where we were staying. Then I hit the link of the tag. This of course took me to a bunch of pictures which other people staying in the same place had already posted.

Here were kids digging in the sand, teenagers drinking beer, dogs making sport, the occasional horse rider in the shallows, items of food looking as delicious as they always do when kissed by the sun.

Arrayed like that in front of me, these images were a powerful reminder that everybody nowadays carries in their pocket the means of making their own life look fabulous. Everybody’s holiday snaps now look as edgy and seductive as only magazine lifestyle spreads used to look.

I can’t help but think that the travails of celebrity magazines are connected with the fact that people can nowadays make their own lives appear as attractive as only the lives of stars appeared in the past.

Chalk another achievement up to the mobile phone. The democratisation of glamour.

Brilliant people: two a penny

Mark Twain said you should never use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word would do. Publishing companies nowadays use five-dollar words as though there wasn’t a choice, particularly in making their corporate announcements. No longer are people said to be looking forward to working with somebody who has just joined the company. Nowadays they have to be excited, if not super-excited. Few people are said to enjoy their work. Everybody is passionate about the brand. Everywhere you look, there are apparently brilliant creative people. I’ve worked with some highly competent individuals in my time but I tend to use the word brilliant once a year.

One organisation that has got this disease more seriously than most is the BBC where executives now commonly talk about their “creative people”. I can’t square this with my experience of those people who are genuinely involved in doing such not notably creative tasks as making sure the programme ends on time, frantically ringing around to get somebody to talk for two minutes about some recently deceased rock star or booking a camera crew for the day after tomorrow. Very few of the big names whose salaries were published earlier in the year are either brilliant or creative. Most of them have the knack of being able to read autocue without looking mad which is no small thing but it doesn’t make them Dickens.

And, anyway, how many brilliant creative people does it take to change even the biggest light bulb? I realise this may be flying in the face of the accepted wisdom but it ought to be possible to run a major broadcaster without having brilliant creative people. You simply have to have the management skills to hire in the brilliant creative people from outside.

Trump lessons

When this Donald Trump business is finally over, we will have learned a number of lessons that could be easily applied to contemporary media.

The first is that popularity is overrated. People don’t have to like you to link to you. In fact, the loudly expressed disapproval of one section of the population may be the most powerful way to promoting a product to another section of the population.

The second is that the media no longer make news; they just respond to the news that is made by individuals.

The third is that in a world where people calculate the impact of every word they utter, the person who commands most attention is the one who says the first thing that comes into his head.