Can you turn around a liner on course with an iceberg? Harder even than launching a new magazine is saving a once mighty title whose circulation kerchunks down with every passing ABC.
This has been the plight of the classic women’s weeklies over the past seven years. The main four titles, Woman, Woman’s Own, Bella and Best, have all shown consistent decline for so long that it is hard to remember their heydays.
Yet once IPC’s Woman and Woman’s Own bestrode the Earth – a Seventies double act as powerful as Morecambe & Wise, Heath & Wilson – selling four million copies each. At their peak in the early Nineties, H Bauer’s Bella and Best (launched by Gruner + Jahr, now owned by The National Magazine Company) both reached a million.
But now how they languish. Woman’s latest ABC was 631,000,ÃŠWoman’s Own 519,000, Best 430,000 and Bella 444,000. Indeed the market for the classic women’s weeklies – the non-celebrity, non-puzzle titles -shrinks steadily year by year.
In part, outside forces are to blame. Once the weeklies were the sole voice of working class women.
But now daytime TV and newspaper supplements such as Femail and the Daily Mirror’s excellent M magazine all speak to potential weekly readers, but with greater verve and topicality.
But it is also the weeklies’ own fault. Success bred complacency. They are cosier places than most of journalism: the subs have pot-plants, the knitting editor has been there 40 years. If it worked five years ago, why shouldn’t it work now?
The readers lives may have moved on, the design may look garish and outmoded, the fashion, homes and beauty may have sunk well beneath the aspirations of modern women, yet nothing changes.
The Black Spot for a women’s magazine is “My Mum read that”. It means, no matter what you do, a reader will not want to be seen with that title in their hand.
In its terminal stage, Woman’s Realm tested a new look but without showing focus group participants the cover. They loved it. But when the title was unveiled there was a collective groan: “My Granny read that!” Game over.
So how are the weeklies saving themselves? The most dynamic efforts are at IPC: insiders say there is a new buzz at the Ministry of Magazines since AOL Time Warner took over, a new journalistic culture filtering through the layers of bureaucracy.
Both Woman and Woman’s Own are receiving investment for extra pages, staff and specials. And inÃŠElsa McAlonan the latter now has a formidable and confident editor.
A lesser journalist would have felt crushed by heading Woman’s Journal when it closed, another victim of “Mum read that” unrelaunchability. But without breaking stride, McAlonan took her team of monthly designers and writers and set up camp at Woman’s Own.
Steely enough to defy the dinosaurs and bring in new talent, McAlonan’s resulting redesign looks cooler and more aspirational but without being inaccessible to mass market readers. It may even produce a boost in the next round of ABCs.
Meanwhile, Woman’s editor of seven years, Carole Russell, is relishing the competition. Of all the weeklies, Woman under Russell was least guilty of losing the plot.
Because she is a single mother with identical concerns to her reader, but also because she – like McAlonan – has the rigour of a tabloid background, Woman’s ideas always felt fresh and timely.
There are even indications that Woman has started to appeal once more to a new generation of younger women with gentle, family-based values who want a magazine about their lives rather than those of celebrities.
Yet whether either title can buck their downward trend is not just about executing the expected things well, but about discovering that ingredient X which makes magazines grow. Celebrity is, of course, the current media Viagra, whereas for titles like Take a Break, That’s life! and Chat, puzzles and prizes keep their end up.
But what is the catnip factor to transform a Mum’s-buy into a must-buy?
Woman and Woman’s Own have both decided that the panacea is – stifles yawn – diet. “Sex helped me lose 15st,” says Woman. “New slimming section,” echoes Woman’s Own.
Meanwhile at Best, the well-regarded Louise Court has kept her last four ABCs steady with a new showbiz section.
But the weekly in deepest trouble is Bella, which on Friday lost it’s second editor in six months, Jo Sollis, and the publisher who brought her in, Cathy Day. Sollis took over from the long-standing Jackie Highe who had survived despite sales slipping around 8 per cent every year she was editor.
Highe, who departed Bauer Tower with the words: “I’m going to the hairdresser and may be some time,” left an appalling legacy. Bella wasn’t just boring, irrelevant, confusing and dismally-designed but, with unforgivable subbing errors, was sloppy too.
It was expected that Sollis, a former deputy editor of What’s on TV, would bring in better celebrity coverage besides shaking up a title ripe for redevelopment. But there was little evidence of new talent or big ideas.
A leading Bauer publisher has a saying: “If you have a bad meal at a restaurant you don’t go back, even if they change the chef.” Bella wanted new customers – and needed to keep the old ones – yet didn’t even try clearing the tables.
Sacking editors looks hard-ball. It buys a little extra time from an impatient proprietor.
But unless a publisher has an alternative vision and strategy, it doesn’t buy results. Unless Bella takes action soon, the iceberg will just get closer.
It seems unfair that Dylan Jones, the best-dressed straight man in London, should be castigated for digitally manipulating our Kate into a bambi-legged Å¸berbabe for GQ.
Look at the women’s glossies to see the true power of Photoshop. The demand for a celebrity cover must leave the sow’s-ear-to-silk-purse operatives weeping into their iMacs.
Catherine Z-J or Jennifer or even Sophie E-B aren’t available every month. So with a deafening barrel-scrape, here come Mel from Big Brother, the Appleton sisters or Davina McCall. Elle had a cover of Martine McCutcheon so airbrushed and stretched and trimmed that they might as well have used an illustration.
And this month Marie Claire has an image manipulation of Pamela Anderson of a far stranger kind. Yes, it’s the multi-boob-jobbed one who hasn’t starred in anything since she left Baywatch, unless you count the internet porn film of her and Tommy Lee. But here she is, softened features demurely peeking through corn-blonde hair.
“Reinventing Pammy,” says the cover and you ain’t kidding, because inside she relates her manifesto against domestic violence.
This is a confection far more artificial than giving Kate Winslet a wash-board stomach: Pamela Anderson morphed into Erin Pizzey meets the Timotei girl. n
Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks
lNext week: Alison Hastings