Is it a newspaper supplement? Is it a magazine? No one seems to know

LIKE A SHOPLIFTER in a hoodie, Associated Newspapers whipped You magazine off the newsstands hours before the magazine ABCs came out last week, pleased no doubt — if anyone involved could be pleased with anything — that they had managed to scarper before recording a circulation that would have struggled to fill a lower league football ground.

So farewell then, we knew You well. Mainly because it came — and obviously still comes — free with The Mail on Sunday. And "free" is the operative word. The idea of putting a newspaper supplement on the shelf and selling it for hard cash was so strange a concept that some rivals thought it had passed through stupid and come out the other side. There must, they said, be a cunning plan.

Well, it now seems Associated's thinking was no more devilishly cunning than this — Emap has launched Grazia as the first weekly glossy to some success, You is a bit like it, so why not cash in? Let's change the paper and tweak the cover lines — although they rarely went beyond the kind of generic fluff: "Davina: my two private passions" — that might answer the art director's "add to fill" instructions on a supplement, but will never drive sales on the newsstand.

The idea that women would pay £1 for a magazine that had 2.5 million free copies in circulation just two days before was ludicrous.

So ludicrous that it was easy to believe it was all part of a marketing masterplan for the paper — perhaps non-newspaper readers would discover it and race to the racks to buy their Mail on Sunday simply to get the next copy of You for free? It seems not.

Only distributed in London and the Southeast, You promised 40,000 newsstand sales, yet struggled to get 20,000. And at some cost (£8 million). That Associated put such a huge marketing budget behind it proves — if proof were needed — that the adventure was not a glorified sampling campaign. It seems there was no more behind You's newsstand failure than good old-fashioned newspaper arrogance.

Culture clash In newspaper culture, you can sometimes detect a certain dismissive attitude towards magazines. They must be easy to do — you've got all week, sometimes a month, to produce the same number of pages a newspaper knocks out in a day? Call that difficult? Well, yes it is.

Unlike newspapers where time is of the essence, in magazines different priorities apply, like production values and having the time to do the sideways thinking necessary if you're not following a news agenda. This means you can't just whack a magazine out. Newsstand magazines take not just plenty of time, but more people than outsiders imagine to plan, edit, design and polish in production.

Of course, newspaper publishers produce supplements, but the point about supplements is that they are nothing like newsstand magazines.

They might have glossy covers and colour photography, but the similarities stop there. Most importantly, they don't have to persuade readers to pick them up, let alone pay for them.

News International is making a better fist of things with their new magazine division based in Chelsea (mind you, it wouldn't be hard to improve on Associated's moment of madness), but they have learned some hard lessons along the way. Twelve months ago, they hatched big plans for three major launches in 2006. With only two titles so far and mixed results, the feeling is that they too underestimated life on the newsstand — circulations, costs, staff, expertise, and the time it takes to launch. Not to mention what constituted a niche opportunity.

Inside Out, News Magazines' entry into the homes and interiors market last spring, seemed to be based more on wishful thinking than any real idea of entering arguably the worse performing sector in the business. In a business that divides by gender as strictly as a public convenience, Inside Out was going to break the mould and appeal to men and women.

Husbands would buy the magazine — for the DIY features, not the décor tips presumably — and not just wives. Features could be sourced from The Sunday Times to keep the costs down.

In short, the audience would be bigger, the costs cheaper.

All in all, News Magazines betrayed a staggering over-confidence, predicting sales of approximately 80,000. Whether that's achievable, we'll have to wait for the next ABCs to see, but I wouldn't put your Philippe Stark lemon squeezer on it. More to the point, where are the ads?

As for the real-life women's weekly Love It!, the magazine is clearly doing better than Inside Out, but the sector, while not a dog's dinner is certainly a dog fight, and the early issues of the magazine — heavily promoted in The Sun and the News of the World — were reported to be selling nearly 800,000. Which means, with an ABC of 405,000, some of the other issues won't have been doing so well. As an American would have it, you do the math.

Meanwhile the widely anticipated celebrity weekly, codenamed Project Dannii (another over-crowded sector — are we spotting a trend here?) has now been put back twice, this time to the new year. "We've hit the pause button," says the commercial director. Hit the brakes more like.

In fact, the only magazine likely to emerge from the Kings Road soon is the dummy of the Sky TV customer magazine that News Magazines is rumoured to be busily pitching for.

Hardly the glossy coffee table offering senior executives dreamt of when the division launched, although a sound business proposition if you've geared up a major magazine division and only have two titles to show for it. And also a perfect platform for further launches.

Newspapers have the equipment, the software, the resources, the expertise (in buying paper and distribution) and the massive brand vehicles in which to cross-promote, to produce genuinely groundbreaking magazines. But equally, they could enroll in the Richard Desmond school of publishing, where they bring all their newspaper resources to bear to produce low-price regurgitators of content following a "me too" format (and as the ABCs show, it has worked handsomely with New and Star).

Jumping on the bandwagon The background to all of this is that newspapers are having a torrid time in the advertising market, as well as long-term circulations being on a terminal slide. No wonder the Guardian Media Group and Andrew Neil's The Business are preparing to leap onto the magazine shelves.

For newspaper publishers, magazines may be an add-on, but they are an attractive add-on because (certainly compared with tabloids) the magazine market is large, stable, with growth prospects and newspaper publishers can enter it relatively easily and have realistic hopes of building a business. Look at Desmond, who has built a magazine arm from nothing (well, just OK!) in almost no time. It's no surprise newspapers want a bit of that, especially with relatively low start-up costs. In many ways, it's a steal.

So, diversification is called for — but with Associated Newspapers and News International heading for a very bloody war in the freesheet market in London, you have to wonder how much management time, effort and funds are about to be put into magazines.

Although it's easy for Associated to retreat quietly to High Street Kensington, News Magazines are publicly committed to a division that, to date, has just two titles. And with Project Dannii on hold again, you have to ask where the next launch is coming from?

Isleworth perhaps?

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