Media analysis: The original lads' magazine is in need of reloading

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The Independent Culture
YOU HAVE to feel sorry for Derek Harbinson, who was the editor of Loaded until last week when he was replaced by one of the founders of the magazine.

There he was, quietly editing a magazine which, since his high-profile predecessor James Brown left last year, has increased sales by 20 per cent. A 20-per-cent sale increase in a year should be anybody's idea of success, and enough to safeguard your job, but it seems not. Harbinson put on a brave face last week and maintained that: "There are other things I want to do with my career and it's true to the Loaded spirit to go out on a high."

But it is beyond doubt that the magazine's owner, IPC, and his replacement, former deputy editor and founder Tim Southwell, seem to see things slightly differently.

"I feel the magazine has been treading water for the last year-and- a- half," says Southwell. "It has been lacking urgency and lacking any sense of surprise. I want to put that back. I want to get back to the core editorial principles - which is that just about anything can happen in the pages of Loaded."

What has happened to Loaded in the last two years is, that despite revolutionising the men's magazine market, it has been overtaken and left looking stale. The copycats at Emap's FHM now sell 775,000 magazines a month, compared with Loaded's 456,373. And Loaded's original fantastic growth has slowed, even when compared with the poorest of the imitators. Even Dennis Publishing's Maxim put on 63 per cent growth last year. So rapidly growing is the men's market that 20 per cent growth just does not cut it.

Southwell says that the magazine has been putting "nobodies" on its cover and has started to look increasingly like an also-ran. "We have been letting the readers down and I want to put the Loaded ethos back into every single page. I am under pressure to increase circulation, but I haven't been given any specific targets."

Southwell should be the man to do it, but it is a sign of how desperate IPC is for a change that they have brought him back after he had a serious falling out with the company. Southwell was with James Brown in Barcelona watching Leeds United when the idea for Loaded was developed. That is to say it developed straight out of a night's drinking, watching football and chatting up women.

He became deputy editor before the launch in 1993, and by the time he left in November 1996, he was editing more and more of the magazine during Brown's increasing absences from the magazine.

"Tim has never had the credit for what he put into Loaded," says the editorial director of a rival magazine group. "He was there right at the beginning and there an awful lot more at the end."

According to his book on Loaded - Getting Away With It - Southwell was getting increasingly disenchanted with IPC's management of the magazine. He felt advertising was squeezing his good ideas and the company was refusing to expand the title into new countries. He was also falling out more and more with James Brown.

He eventually left and six months later James Brown departed to edit Conde Nast's GQ. Southwell, meanwhile, was working on a dummy magazine with the working title of The Player, which was to be a title for wannabe high-rollers; a kind of Fortune magazine with attitude. After much work, IPC decided not to go with it and Southwell left the company looking for someone else to back the idea. His dissatisfaction with IPC increased when the company refused to sell him the rights to the idea he had developed. He wrote his book about the magazine, which is less than flattering about IPC management.

"Well, they approached me," says Southwell, indicating that he and IPC have made up. "They gave me time to think about it - the more I thought about it, the more excited I got." Southwell, it seems, is the true Loaded believer and could not turn down the opportunity of rescuing his baby: "I just want to get the staff back to thinking for themselves - to give it more bite and more attitude. It was always driven by madcap ideas - a combination of the Double Deckers and Carry On Publishing - and I just want it to have more extreme ideas."

Southwell is known to want to make the magazine more sophisticated - perhaps more like his work on The Player. This would be the direct opposite of what Derek Harbinson was doing, and might also be the direct opposite of what the rest of the market is doing.

The problem for Southwell is that when Loaded was at its editorial peak, nothing much was expected of it. IPC's management left it well alone and the editorial team could spend all day in the pub coming up with a feature as inspired as "The Crisp Olympics" - which was a kind of taste play-off between different salty snacks.

But since then, IPC has been bought out from its parent, Reed-Elsevier, and Loaded is a very large money-maker for the company. Southwell might just find that "madcap" and "crucial revenue earner" are not phrases to trip happily from his finance director's tongue.