Magazines emerge unbruised from London free paper street fight

Time Out

A lunch meeting for Gordon Thomson must come with added social pressure. As editor of London listings bible Time Out, you can’t just blame bad service or a dodgy sandwich for a disappointing meal. You are expected to know the best places in the capital, bar none.

In an interview at a little Italian tucked away off Tottenham Court Road, Thomson says he tends to defer to the Time Out critics when asked about all things London. And if there is pressure to be the walking, talking embodiment of the magazine, it’s pressure Thomson would appear to relish. So much so that he says he is about to break his own rule of never staying in a job beyond four years.

Thomson marks his fourth year at the magazine in the same year the company celebrates its 40th anniversary. For its London editor, there is plenty to celebrate. There’s no doubt that Time Out under Thomson has found its mojo, putting London at the centre of everything it does. Former editor Dominic Wells, writing in the British Journalism Review, called Thomson’s appointment ‘a great success”. The idea of putting the city back at the heart of the magazine has since been replicated at other editions globally.

When Thomson joined the title in 2004 from his deputy editor role at Observer Sports Monthly, he says that the magazine had wandered from its London focus into the competitive celebrity circuit. Instead, he went about refocusing the title on London issues and life. ‘You should be the city,’says Thomson. ‘That’s the old cliché. The city is the star.”

The freesheets, London Lite and thelondonpaper landed in autumn 2006. If anything, it was these dailies with their free listings that looked like they might give the title a run for its money.

There has been plenty of fighting talk from Time Out in its editorial, criticising the freesheets for what it claims are inadequate and sometimes apparently copied listings and remonstrating with them for the litter problem they created. In person, Thomson is not interested in a slanging match. He says the advent of the freesheets did not affect sales.

What he will say is that the freesheets make Time Out look good. ‘Those products are about killing time, we are about filling time. Without criticising them too heavily, you get what you pay for.”

On the face of its ABC figures, Time Out sales are down – but these hide the fact that the title has been stripping out bulks. In the last ABCs, from June to December 2007, Time Out had a circulation of 86,951, down 6.1 per cent year on year, but bulks only represented 2,568 of the sales, down from previous years. Subscription sales were up to 44,142 and the title has doubled its yield online in the past year, according to the editor. Although he declines to go into revenue figures, Thomson predicts the site will double again in the next year.

As a listings magazine now competing with weekend supplements such as The Guardian Guide and online listings available elsewhere at the click of a mouse, Time Out’s online strategy is one to watch. Most features, previews and all listings are available online and the company is working towards putting the magazine’s editorial team in charge of what’s happening online, something Thomson expects to complete by the end of this year.

Ideally, Thomson would like to see more original content online and not to just replicate the magazine. He has also introduced more features to what is, at its core, a listings magazine. Currently, the magazine and its listings remain the revenue driver for the business, so there is no question of taking out the listings to make room for more features. But this won’t necessarily always be the case, he says.

‘We have to be very careful in how we deal with the future of listings,’he says. ‘My hunch is that online is the perfect platform for listings.”

The Big Issue

If Time Out has been fighting the freesheets on the listings front, The Big Issue has been battling it out with them on the ground itself.

The Big Issue has agreements with local authorities on codes of conduct for its vendors. Vendors are instructed to stay on their designated pitch and not get in people’s way, put the magazine in front of people or harangue them. Exactly the opposite, some claim, of what some freesheet distributors get up to.

‘I think it’s unfair the hoops we have had to jump through over the past 17 years,’says The Big Issue editor Charles Howgego. ‘Some councils just banned the magazine and we have to work with police and with councils.”

Now, he says, with the advent of the freesheets, another problem has emerged: ‘A big company comes in, chucks a lot of money around, puts people everywhere and a little homeless guy is left just sitting there.”

Not that this is a tale of woe, though you might have imagined it at the freesheets’ launch in 2006. At the time, one newspaper claimed the magazine was in decline because of the freesheets. ‘It was particularly galling,’says Howgego, ‘because at the time sales were unbelievably good. We have not noticed a difference, frankly.’In fact, the reverse is now true: sales are up. ‘But we can’t credit the freesheets for that either,’he smiles.

One thing Howgego can point to in its success is the organisation’s work in getting the title into the hands of potential vendors. The Big Issue was founded in 1991 by John Bird and Gordon Roddick as a way for homeless people to earn a living. They buy the magazine from the Big Issue Foundation for 70p and sell it on for £1.50, keeping 80p. But the organisation found potential vendors have always been put off by having to come to a central location to collect copies.

Now a number of support vendors pick up the magazine and distribute it to local vendors. The vendor saves time and money by not travelling into central London and the magazine gets copies out to places it hadn’t been able to reach before.

The magazine is also benefiting, somewhat ironically, from the rise of the self-centred greed of the Eighties. Howgego believes a yuppie ethos has gone mainstream and that, in the backlash, people are looking for an alternative voice. ‘I think there’s people out there who are thinking: ‘What can I do?’ and one way to express that is to buy The Big Issue.”

The London Big Issue’s latest circulation figures stand at 87,750 actively purchased copies for the six months to December 2007, up 27.4 per cent year on year. National sales rose by 21 per cent year on year to 174,770. The magazine underwent a redesign this spring with a new look news and comment section, and a clearly defined diet of news, politics, campaigning, arts and culture.

But Howgego says challenges remain. The weekly title gets by on limited editorial resources. It has three reporters, an editor, two subs and three people on its production desk. The biggest challenge of all can often be the simplest: the Great British weather. A really hot week can be bad for sales; a particularly wet week can deter buyers and vendors from being on the streets.

Another challenge is that a new generation is growing up for whom the concept of The Big Issue doesn’t have the same impact it had 17 years ago. But Howgego isn’t looking for quick sales spikes by putting soap stars and reality TV winners on its covers.

The Big Issue editorial must work for both its readership and its seller.

‘If you get a fickle readership, you’ll have sales figures going up and down and have instability and the one thing our vendors need is stability,’Howgego says, neatly summarising the uniqueness of the project.

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