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Why have the women’s weeklies become ladies of easy virtue?

The women’s weeklies market is suffering. Titles that once sold in their millions are now reduced to shadows of their former circulation glory. How has it come to this, asks Peter Jackson, and can anything be done to arrest the decline?

By Peter Jackson

Magazine publishers have long resigned themselves to life in “the age of the promiscuous reader”. With delivered copies a distant memory, they recognise that their circulations rise and fall from impulse decisions taken at point of sale – decisions that can change in bewildering fashion from each visit to a newsstand.

None more so than in the case of the more general (ie. pre-celebrity) women’s weeklies – the likes of Woman’s Weekly, Woman, Woman’s Own, My Weekly, Take A Break, Chat, Best, Bella, and Pick Me Up.

But if the readers are promiscuous, why have most of these titles seemingly chosen to become ladies of easy virtue, just lying back and waiting for a chance pick up? The message they project from a patchwork of jumbled covers on a crowded newsstand is: We’re anybody’s.

The mere 10 sq ft of shelving devoted to these magazines in my local supermarket presents a blur of red, pink, yellow and blue in accommodating nine of these titles, each cover squeezing in an average of seven different images and panels and 50 words of coverlines. Of the latter, the most visible tend to be such as MURDER, TERROR, RAPE, TORMENT, CHEAT – interspersed with a selection of terminal diseases.

These flag up the ‘True Life’ element which all but two titles feature to varying degrees. And although not claiming to be dedicated celebrity magazines, all but one can’t resist the temptation to sprinkle their pages with pictures of TV presenters, soap stars, talent show judges, actuality contestants and the former Kate Middleton (who has become a genre in herself).

Who could believe that a 76pp issue of Woman magazine, long the epitome of that genteel formula of Knit Yourself Your Own Royal Family, could pack in over 60 celebrity shots - including Simon Cowell four times over? Plus royal Kate, of course.

But the biggest difference between the times when Woman topped 3,000,000 a week in the 60s and now, when its circulation is less than a tenth of that, is the factor of reader loyalty.

No one would have ever dared to label my mother promiscuous. She was a lifelong reader of Woman. No other magazine would dare intrude upon her letter-box.

Equally devout was Mrs Wood who lived next door. Woman’s Own claimed her allegiance. For each woman, the magazine defined her identity. The idea of swapping copies never crossed their minds. They were as if Catholic and C of E, Tory and Labour.

The magic ingredient

There were plenty of other women’s magazines. So why did they stay with their choice, week after week, year after year? It was an ingredient dating back to the times of Charles Dickens – the fictional serial.

Dickens’ stories did not first appear as books but as magazine serials. Launching his own publication, Dickens’ Household Words, he soon realised that cliff-hanging endings to each instalment meant the customer had to come back for more.

The power of compulsive fiction was not lost on Arthur Conan Doyle who introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world by way of short stories and serials in magazines. Even Oscar Wilde was briefly editor of Woman’s World.

The pattern was established. Over the next century, the most famous writers of the day looked to women’s magazines to reach the mass audience. Up to the 50s and 60s, the mere announcement of a new serial by Agatha Christie gave an uplift in sales on the scale that we’d now expect of a peaktime TV advertising campaign.

It was television that was to shatter the reading habits of my mother, Mrs Wood and their like at the very moment when the circulations of the weeklies were at their peak. They were of the generation when women did not go out to work, the age of the lonely housewife with empty hours to fill, long-running fiction their daytime solace, the arrival of the magazine carrying the new instalment, the highlight of the week.

Suddenly, right there on the screen in the corner of the living room, were fictional stories brought to life, the characters moving and talking. And television quickly learned that serials were the most powerful way to grab and hold viewers. Hence the birth and subsequent proliferation of the apparently never-ending serial – the soap opera. Not to mention long-running drama series and in more recent times, the creation of weekly suspense across the nation in waiting to discover which celebrity is to be evicted from the jungle or the dance floor, which hapless competitor will disappear in tears from so-called talent shows.

TV shows the way

No one can deny that television does all that with stunning efficiency and continues to make enormous impact on reading traits. But why have the weeklies surrendered so completely? Why have they abandoned any serious attempt to turn those promiscuous customers into regular readers by making them want to get hold of the next issue?

“If you mean bring back the serials or series, we’ve tried that and it just doesn’t work,” one editor told me. “People who buy magazines in mid-serial are irritated that they’ve missed the previous instalments.”

Doesn’t that just confirm that the irregular reader is given priority over any effort to build on regular readers?

How well targeted, how powerful, how riveting were the series / serials from which it was decided they don’t work anymore? How compulsive were the cliff-hangers? How tantalising what lay in store next week? And did anybody notice how Sunday newspapers – which still spend big, big money on series – have the copy-writing skills to produce standfirsts for the second or thirds instalments which put the newcomer instantly in the picture and eager to read more.     

In any case, there are more ways to hold on to your audience than series. Over 12 hours of dipping in and out of Radios 1 and 2, BBC 1 and 2, ITV and Sky, I counted over 70 promotions for programmes on the way within the hour, within the day, within the week or coming shortly. Each time, the message was: “Don’t go away, stay tuned, the best is yet to come.”

Keep them hooked

Why can’t magazines apply the same method? Not just a single Next Week Page (usually composed by a junior sub) but short, sharp come-ons peppered throughout the issue.

Buy a book from Amazon and they supply a list of similar titles which you might also enjoy. Apply the same approach in magazines. Give each major feature its own distinctive trailer.

If a reader has enjoyed a true life story of “My bride has taken me hostage”, there is the chance to end the piece with:

Next Week The strange story of the bride-to-be who was told “Get fat or I won’t marry you.”

Try a similar approach with a showbiz spread describing ITV’s Dancing on Ice as an ailing show and questioning the future of its highly paid presenters:

Next Week Shock, Shame and Scandal as Dancing on Ice panel admit to open feuding.

Build on a 3pp beauty special listing 19 ways to look five years younger:

Next Week More incredible anti-ageing tips – including how just three hours of exercise a week can knock another four years off your looks.

These trailers can also re-assure as well as titivate. Woman’s Weekly regulars likely to be disturbed by a 4pp cookery special on tropical dishes (an exotic departure from its normal homely fare) would be relieved to see:

Next Week Back to Basics – five mouth-watering traditional puddings.

All the above have one aim of proclaiming: We know what you like and we’ll be bringing you more and more just like this every week. So why go away?

Isn’t that a better bet than just surrendering to magazine promiscuity?

But to hold your casual reader you first have to catch her and convince her that your magazine has a distinctive personality unchanging from week to week, that you are not just another bundle of newsprint but a brand. That starts with the cover and looking over the congested newsstand, only Take A Break, Women’s Weekly and My Weekly are seen to have a recognisable style; the rest are virtually interchangeable. Which only fosters the impression that it doesn’t really matter which one you buy because they’re all pretty much the same.

Missing a trick online

If the printed cover struggles to catch the eye amid so much competition, every magazine has another cover which can be displayed in glorious isolation. It’s the digital cover – the home page of its website.

Here’s the chance to get at a potential audience of millions, the chance to sell your latest print attractions, the chance to direct newcomers into the dazzling contents of the magazine itself.

I’m afraid these are chances which, by and large, are not being taken. Any marriage between print and online is hardly one of passion. The magazines show little enthusiasm for promoting the added dimension of immediacy that a website provides. In return, the website can be oddly detached and uncomfortable about going flat out as a recruitment agency for the parent title. That digital cover is often pre-occupied with promoting online bingo or selling subscriptions, with that week’s cover relegated towards the bottom of the page.

With the exception of Bella, even the better websites such as Take A Break, Woman’s Weekly and Woman can’t bring themselves to give a really hard sell to what’s in that week’s issue or trailer what excitement is due next week. Where advertising superlatives are called for, even the biggest feature will be listed in a single line of copy lifted from the Contents page.

Iris Burton, former editor-in-chief of the IPC weeklies in happier times, is sympathetic with the plight of this market – falling sales, falling revenue, falling paginations, falling budgets. Even so, women’s weeklies still generate £120 million of sales per annum.

“And they can be better than they think,” says Iris, “They should start believing in themselves again and stop listening to what readers tell them they want because all publishers are wedded to focus groups and all of them give the same answers to the same questions. No wonder the weeklies have lost identity.”

Which would suggest focus groups are the breeding ground of promiscuity.