All to play for and much to lose in War of the Weeklies

Make no mistake, January 2004 will be marked as a momentous month in magazine publishing. It heralds a unique event: two publishing leviathans staking serious money to go head-to-head in a new, as-yetunproved market.

It’s Rangers v Celtic, Spurs v Arsenal, City v United, Real Madrid v Barcelona all rolled into one. Nuts v Zoo Weekly. Emap v IPC.

As in all great clashes, there are reputations, as well as cash, on the line. Both teams have followed the Abramovich model, assembling expensive, talented squads of players from all corners of journalism. But can they be moulded into winners? In Emap’s dressing room, Paul Merrill captains the Zoo crew. To add extra spice, he transferred from the arch-rival IPC – much like Madrid’s Luis Figo – and so takes with him at least some of the secrets of the enemy. Likewise his lieutenant Ben Knowles, formerly the youngest editor of IPC’s NME, and Will Storr, Loaded’s young star.

Their game plan is likely to be an up-and-at-’em, getthetackles-in-early style based on sex, football and pub humour.

Nuts skipper Phil Hilton leads a gifted, slightly older line-up including veteran playmaker Derek Harbinson. Their formation suggests a more considered, even sophisticated, broader tactical approach with photography playing a vital role.

Both squads are heading for uncharted territory. The men’s weekly is a holy grail for magazine executives.

If women’s weeklies can shift upwards of eight million copies a week, the argument goes, surely there’s a supply out there of blokes willing to part with £1.50 or so. After all, two million of them already buy monthly magazines. Both Zoo Weekly and Nuts will be looking for circulations well into six figures to make the £8m they’re each spending on marketing alone worthwhile.

But the trouble with holy grails is that they’re, well, elusive. Remember, the original, unsuccessful, incarnation of Heat was targeted more at men than women.

There are other questions too. What effect will they have on the men’s monthly market? Who stands to lose most if it gets hit? Meanwhile, watching in the stands will be Richard Desmond. He’s acquired a reputation for spotting magazine successes and putting out successful, cheaper copy-cat versions based on the same formula.

And since his Daily Star has been the newspaper hit, in circulation terms, of the past 12 months, he has plenty of expertise on tap from people who know what makes young men tick.

Should be a cracking game, this one.

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