The joy of Which? no shareholders or ad hassle

Imagine being an editor and never having to endure another meeting with the advertising department. No more having the pagination cut because there aren't enough ads. No more kickings from the publisher for not fully co-operating with the ad manager.

Which?, the magazine that champions the consumer, has a policy of not taking ads and relies instead on the income from its 500,000 monthly subscribers.

Maybe that's why new editor Neil Fowler can say: "I think this is one of the best jobs in journalism, I really do. I think in journalistic terms it's as near to pure traditional journalism as there is. We don't take advertising, we are not for profit and we sell purely on the basis of how good the magazine is."

Fowler took over the editor's chair in February after a career in daily newspaper journalism which ranged from starting as a reporter on the Leicester Mercury to becoming CEO and publisher of the Toronto Sun. In the meantime he edited the Lincolnshire Echo, Derby Evening Telegraph, the Newcastle Journal and the Welsh national morning, the Western Mail.

Fowler went for the Which? job when he saw it advertised after he and the Toronto Sun parted company by "mutual consent" last year. Since then the magazine has been given a fresh and more consumer look by John Brown Citrus and is now the same size as the New Statesman and The Economist.

Fowler "inherited" the new look, planned before his arrival, but says it reflected his thinking about the title.

He is particularly pleased with the way the magazine now illustrates often complex articles with case studies, and that he has been able to push up pagination to 84 pages.

"I can't believe there are many editors of newspapers or magazines at the moment that are being told you can have more pages," he says.

Fowler wants to triple the number of products reviewed and add more case studies. Which? was launched by the Consumer Association in 1957. The CA has now changed its name to Which? and has a staff of 350. Fowler has an editorial team of 10, but can call on the expertise of the company's 70 researchers. Research is at the heart of Which?, according to Fowler.

"The nature of the research on Which? is immense. I have learnt a new meaning to the word thorough since I have been here. We research and we research and we research. We take on some pretty big people. Some of our tests rubbish products and say ‘don't buy', but we've never been successfully sued. We don't doorstep people, but we've so much research they will have the impression they have been doorstepped."

Given its new look and newsier feel, is Which? heading for the newsstand to compete with the various ‘what?' titles and Stuff? Fowler says: "The newsstand issue is one that is always looked at, but I don't think anyone's found the right answer to it yet. Which? has been pretty successful without the newsstand. At the moment what we print we sell, and there is no wastage. We can concentrate our resources on the magazine."

Which? also appears to have cracked the current Holy Grail of publishing by getting people to pay for its website content. Charges are £4.75 a month if you subscribe to the magazine, or £7.75 a month for the full online service. The magazine costs subscribers £75 a year.

Web traffic has not yet been fully audited, but Fowler says: "People have bought Which? since 1957, so the model is in place to buy the information. When it comes to moving that to the net, people think ‘well I've been buying this information, I'll carry on buying it.' So far it's working well. In newspapers no-one has the answer."

Which? has a strong record of campaigning for consumer rights, and is presently taking on Tesco about food labelling, and the airlines over properly compensating passengers hit by cancelled or delayed flights.

But Fowler says the nature of complaints is changing: "Fifty years ago you could buy a kettle that could kill you. There were a lot of dangerous things around. These days there are very few really poor consumer goods. It is just that some are better than others. We have to help people make the best decisions.

"Service is the big thing now. Poor service is the most frustrating thing in life. In the next 10 years that is where Which? could really make a difference in highlighting good service."

The editorial staff — based at Which?'s headquarters in a grand house along the Marylebone Road in London — are made up of ex-national and regional journalists, as well as some who have been home grown by the title.

"We have a highly intelligent team, some have PhDs. If you are taking on Tesco over food labelling you have to know the right questions. I see the editorial team as the readers' representatives. When you buy Which? you are a member of Which? and we have to campaign for people in general."

Editorially, Fowler looks on The Economist as a role model. "It is an intelligent magazine whose sales have doubled in 10 years, has great news editing, chooses the right stories and is written succinctly and well. I think what we are trying to do is make Which? as undaunting a read as possible. You can abuse your reader by giving them too much of the same subject."

Fowler notes that he is not the only daily editor to switch to magazines, and mentions Mike Lowe, Roger Borrell and Liz Page. They are all former editors of regional daily papers who are now working in magazines.

Looking at the latest gloomy ABC figures for the regionals and the newspaper war in London, Fowler concludes: "The future of daily newspapers in the regions may well be free".

Like many ex-regional editors, he has a feeling that the best days of the sector could be over.

As well as not having to worry about advertising, there is also something missing from Fowler's life, compared to his days in newspapers, which he welcomes.

"At this stage of my career, it is very nice not to have shareholders." But he adds quickly: "You cannot abuse that.

"We have hundreds of thousands of individuals who trust us. It is a different form of shareholding. They pay a premium subscription and in return you have to give them a fantastic product."

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