Media Mayhem in England

Impish, sparky and innovative. The British print media, in all its shades and varieties, is nothing if not resilient. As the internet and computer games, mobile phones, and dozens upon dozens of digital TV channels draw young consumers away from words on the page, newspapers and magazines still hustle and bustle to find fresh ways of keeping readers engaged and advertisers on board.

The turn of the year has done nothing to alter the view that even as tabloids and broadsheets and the hundreds of glossy magazines that eye us from the news-stands broadly falter, publishers and editors — those latterday Citizen Kanes — continue to believe that a policy of chop and change, axe and launch, re-think, re-design and rally, is the best means to hold our attention.

Now, as someone who writes primarily for the web, there is a small irony here. I may be one of the shrinking few who loves the virtual fix of the electronic network but still cannot resist the lure of a perfect-bound, rock mag: one I can devour at my leisure, relish in my sitting room or on a plane, read on bus or a train, and store on the shelves of my study, providing instantly retrievable information and pages that change even more quickly than my broadband connection permits.

So the newspaper magnates and magazine giants must live on the prayer that there are enough freaks like me around that want to wallow in this marvellous, truly multimedia moment. For us the computer screen is not a substitute for the hard copy versions of the word, but merely an appealing complement.

At present, we Brits are witnessing the usual string of ups and downs, high hopes and belly flops, as The Independent — a serious newspaper which claims to have no political party allegiances but certainly enjoys declining sales — attempts to present its earnest visions in a new, slimmed down tabloid format. Meanwhile, the two major UK magazine houses go head-to-head in a bold bid to win male readers, and the pop culture press sees one of its number die a premature death, another commit voluntary suicide and still another cry “help!”

Tabloid is a highly charged word in circles over here: it doesn’t always mean “bad”, as The Mirror has been trying to prove for decades, but it does suggest that a paper of that smaller frame is likely to trivialise, at best, deliberately distort, at worst, the news agenda. Naturally, the stigma attached to the tag has, so far, prompted the upmarket players, the so-called quality nationals — The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph — to avoid dirtying themselves. But “The Indie”, as it supporters chummily dub it, has taken the tabloid test and seen its circulation revive.

Rupert Murdoch, never a man to miss a trick, is set, we understand, to follow suit and give his Times a try-out in the reduced format imminently, so the old division between broadsheet and tabloid may be about to evaporate on the wings of economic expediency. Such a strategy may also challenge the rise of the free Metro, now standard consumption for most rail commuters.

Meanwhile, Emap and IPC, the two leading magazine houses in the UK, are on the verge of a cut-throat contest; unveiling a new sub-genre of magazine in direct competition. The move arises out of two successful kinds of publication in recent times: the lads’ monthlies and the celebrity weeklies. By marrying the two notions, these great rivals believe they can squeeze further life and extra revenue out of an extra competitive sector. Thus, just as male-directed titles like Loaded and FHM have sold well since the early 1990s, and essentially women-aimed titles like Hello and Heat have bucked the circulations trends and held firm, a weekly hybrid of those two concepts has now been forged. IPC has just taken the wraps off its version, entitledNuts while Emap soon unveils its particular vision, called Zoo Weekly, in a daring bid to clinch a new generation of loyal readers.

Nuts has hit the racks first, a classic spoiler operation. Zoo Weekly has, it seems, been much longer in the gestation but will come slightly later than its retaliatory doppelganger, which appears, on the face of it, to be IPC’s hastily compiled counter-strike. But will either the usual formulas — cars, under-clad women, and sports — be appealing enough to prompt men to break habits of a lifetime and buy a highly ephemeral glossy every week rather than a lads’ mag every four weeks? A lot is hanging on the hope that they will.

Meanwhile, one of the liveliest and most volatile publishing areas — that which concentrates on rock music and street style — is experiencing a whole sequence of traumas as the chimes of 2004 fade in our memory. Bang, much-hailed as a new indie rock rag last spring, hit the buffers just before Christmas after only 10 issues while X-Ray, an offshoot of London’s independent music station Xfm, is appealing for fresh investment to save its skin, just a year after going monthly.

Rather less predictably, the deeply irreverent Sleazenation, a guttersnipe version of style bible The Face has, with some élan, trumpeted its own demise with the New Year edition eight years after its launch. But this RIP issue is a sleight of hand; not an obituary so much as a preamble to a feisty renaissance.

Sleazenation will re-emerge in slightly new clothes next time and with the abbreviated title “Sleaze“. This is a smart, promotional gambit by a smaller operation. When the market is so over-crowded it’s hard to keep your product’s profile above the publication parapet without such a creative piece of lateral thinking.

So, with a surprise tabloid tussle looming, a lads’ weekly punch-up on the horizon and very mixed results from the world of rock’n’roll, what are the prospects for prosperity for British editors in 2004? Well, rather like their cousins in the record industry that are reeling from crashing incomes and ascending downloads, newspapers and magazines must fear the potency of the internet challenge, too. Yet if the print world is bloodied it appears virtually unbowed. Fuelled by a mixture of dynamic self-belief and possibly myopic optimism, it stumbles from setback to recovery almost quarter by quarter.

But I have some predictions: The Independent may not survive its own tabloid experiment, but The Times and others will ultimately benefit from its radical blueprint. Lads’ weeklies will not hit the spot because the menu of babes, balls and Boxsters will be too stodgy even for the most dedicated bloke. And the rock sector will continue to be as adventurous and as foolhardy as it’s generally been over the last two decades.

Websites of interest
The Guardian
The Telegraph
The Independent
The Times
Sleaze Nation
Zoo Weekly