If you want to read 3,000 to 5,000-word reportage pieces exposing the terrible conditions in UN camps in Darfur, the plight of Iranian Kurds or refugees fleeing South Korea you might not expect to go to a Mail on Sunday supplement. Yet in the paper’s men’s magazine, Live, its Reportage section is publishing original journalism of the type these days associated with The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
It is journalism that is also winning awards – in June, a feature by Jonathan Green into the exploitation of young African men falsely promised Premier League fame, won the Newspaper Supplement category in Amnesty International’s Media Awards.
And the popular features prize at the 2007 One World Media Awards was won by Damien Lewis for his piece from Darfur. He exposed the terrible conditions in the UN camps that meant people would rather walk thousands of miles to the mountains than go to them.
There was also a nomination in the 2008 OWMAs in the environment category for Jonathan Green’s investigation into the impact of biofuels. The magazine also became the first non-American title to win an American Society of Journalists and Authors award when Green, a British journalist working in the US who also won the feature prize in Press Gazette’s Magazine Design and Journalism Awards 2007, was given the prestigious outstanding article of the year for a piece uncovering British exploitation of Ghanaians in the gold mining industry.
The awards – not those usually associated with The Mail on Sunday – show that Live magazine is hitting the mark set for it by the paper’s editor Peter Wright. When Gerard Greaves was appointed
editor, two weeks after Live was launched out of the Night and Day magazine in October 2005, Wright told him he was looking for the equivalent of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.
‘You can’t confuse that message,’says Greaves, who was the New York and foreign correspondent for the Daily Express before leaving in 2000.
‘It’s a brief to tell people about issues of which they are simply not aware.’
With investigative journalism that also looks at the increase in CCTV surveillance and Apple’s trading practices, the magazine is following a tradition that once distinguished the tabloid newspapers, but has largely been abandoned.
Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, recognised this when he presented the Amnesty award, saying, ‘In a market where you would not necessarily expect to find that sort of writing, Live demonstrates great journalism.”
It is rewarding to be able to inform the magazine’s readership ‘in a very thorough, accessible and diligent way”, says Greaves.
‘I don’t for one minute denigrate what The Guardian, The Sunday Times or The Independent do. They are our inspiration,’he adds. ‘But one could argue that their readership is well-used to this kind of long-read journalism. Our readership is not always going to come across this depth.”
The idea for the magazine was to have more of a male focus to complement the Mail’s women’s magazine You. Amid the traditional mix of interviews, glamour, gadgets, motors, drinks, clubs and fashion, the Reportage section was to provide a ‘heavy bottom note”.
This is in line with the trend among high-end men’s magazines for more quality journalism, says Andrew Davies, Live’s deputy editor.
‘We realised that while people like celebrity and lighter stuff there is a huge appetite for serious, in-depth reads,’he says. ‘At the bottom end the market is dropping off and everyone else is trying to be more intelligent: Esquire and Arena relaunched last year and are priding themselves on bigger, better writers, ie more intelligent reads for their audience. There has definitely been a bigger push across the board.”
Winning the 2008 British Press Awards’ Supplement of the Year jointly with its sister title You helped Live’s profile within the Daily Mail group as well as, says Greaves, with quality advertisers which are beginning to understand the magazine more. As a result, revenues have increased by 30 per cent year-on-year – an achievement he describes as remarkable in the current climate but which he also tempers with an acknowledgement that the initial baseline was low.
But while he is aware of the pressures of the business, what excites Greaves and his team, including commissioning editors Rachel Oldroyd and Andrew Preston, is the journalism they produce.
‘There’s been so much talk about declining standards and churnalism and a crunch in newspaper resources,’says Greaves. ‘This is the opposite.”
When Press Gazette met the team the talk was of how much they enjoy having time to ensure that stories are thoroughly investigated and writers given enough time to develop the idea and write a piece to the standard required.
‘It’s all about finding that unique angle,’says Oldroyd. ‘We commissioned one reporter, Kamin Mohammadi, principally because as an Iranian national she can work there without having government minders trailing behind her.’
Oldroyd says only Kamin knew about the story that, just over the border with Iraq, literally hundreds of Iranian Kurds are slowly dying of chemical poisoning.
‘Nothing has been written about them over here,’she adds. ‘None have been helped, mainly because Iran as a society generally only recognises military victims. The country doesn’t believe there were any civilian victims, so they are accused of lying. We sent Kamin in there and she filed a brilliant, evocative, authoritative account that proved otherwise. Now she is now regularly invited to give talks to NGOs and government agencies to enlighten them. She’s been able to make a real difference.”
Greaves says the team steers clear of anything it considers ‘rather hackneyed or well-covered”.
‘I don’t really have a huge amount of time for mafia gangs unless there’s a brilliant new access point to cocaine cartels in Colombia,’he says. ‘It’s not that we don’t care, but we have read it many times before. So given a choice I’d rather a whole new subject that’s of real international significance and importance.”
Greaves admits that it can get ‘nerve-wracking’when a reporter goes to a very obscure place which is hard to work in, and after eight or nine days they haven’t got what they need for the story.
‘But there’s no point bringing them back if we know the story is likely to happen. So we invariably say, stick with it, and do what you have to do,’he says. ‘And that’s a wonderful back-up for the reporter on the ground to have – to know he hasn’t got to get quick and rather unsatisfactory and inconclusive results and spin them out or flam them up.”
There is an element of risk, reflected in what Greaves says is a kill rate of 10-20 per cent of the stories they commission. ‘We don’t have to chuck in something because we’ve commissioned 52 Reportage pieces for the year and therefore they have to all go in.
‘If it’s not going to pan out, you aren’t going to be nailed to your computer and made to write something that simply isn’t there. And besides, it may be that it could be the basis of something in the future.”
Not surprisingly, increasing numbers of freelances are approaching the Live team attracted by the chance to write long pieces of journalism and by the involvement of the team, which also produces its own ideas and commissions them out to the right person.
But while some editors might think they too could win awards with the budget of £5,000 per project that The Mail on Sunday team enjoys, Greaves insists it’s not a case of simply having money to throw at projects.
‘It’s all about priorities,’he says. ‘Yes, we have got resources. But the philosophy of the Mail group as a whole has always been to invest in its journalism. You have a choice – to chase the short-term profits or invest long term and get what you always wanted in the first place, which is to be a good journalist and do a good job.”
It’s also a question of choice aboutwhere they allocate their resources insists Davies: ‘We could spend the money on David LaChapelle shoots, or keep a significant amount aside for these projects.”