Media: Time for out with the old, and in with the new

After 30 years of success, `Time Out', the Londoner's listings bible, is getting a revamped look and a different emphasis
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The Independent Culture
THE ACCUSATION periodically levelled at Tony Elliott, founder and publisher of Time Out, is that he has only ever had one good idea. If that is true, it was a better one than most of us will ever have.

Thirty years ago, Elliott invested in a single commodity called information, and his status as a millionaire international publisher is probably more a testament to its enduring value than the talents he has variously assembled on Tottenham Court Road.

The London listings weekly has just celebrated 30, mostly happy, years. It failed to spot the first year of punk and there was the strike over equal pay in 1981 which, like a bad dose of acne, kept the then teenager off the streets for a few months. However, for most of its history Time Out has been out there on its own, unchallenged, successful in a comfort zone of de facto monopoly.

But that is changing. There is a new editor, Vicky Mayer, talking about a fresh approach and there are nervous glances towards a quartet of thrusting young rival titles - the listings supplements that now come free every week with The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and the Evening Standard represent 1 million copies of competition. From a circulation high of 108,000 (special editions can sometimes top 130,000) four years ago, the last ABC saw Time Out slip to 98,000. The next return is expected to be lower.

The onset of middle age, and pulling power on the wane - time for a wholesale makeover, the magazine equivalent of a visit by Carol Smillie and the team from Changing Rooms? Elliott prefers to talk in terms of a "100,000- mile service" - change the plugs, clean the filter, new treads; oh yes, and a new driver too.

"I'm sort of happy with [Time Out]," he says. "But it needs a change, and the best way to do that is from outside. It just needs that fresh infusion of personality to wake everything up a little bit. Everyone interviewed said all the opening pages needed to be radically changed - we need to reflect more urgently what's happening in London."

Specifically, Elliott would like to see its news coverage expanded and infused with the campaigning zeal that the Standard under Max Hastings appears to have misplaced. Its consumer section needs sharpening ("We screwed up on this whole wallpaper, interior design boom"), its writing made more accessible ("for the benefit of the readers, rather than ourselves or other critics").

Above all, he says, Time Out London must learn from its younger sister in New York which, after just over three years, is selling 85,000 copies a week, and is close to breaking even. If there has been a criticism of the UK magazine in recent years it is that while it has been an excellent cultural handbook - often the first and most comprehensive word on what's new and where it can be seen - it has not necessarily reflected London life in the way that the American title smells of Manhattan. It may have been, in part, a media creation but it took two American publications (Newsweek and Vanity Fair) to realise that London was the centre of cool again.

News will help, but so will what he dubs "service journalism" - specials on specific areas of town, cheap eats, best bars and so on. "In my opinion a lot of editors care about it, but decide that somehow it's a bit boring for the reader, when in fact that's precisely what they want to keep."

A former features editor of TV Times and Options, Mayer, 34, launched Inside Soap magazine in 1992, took it from monthly to fortnightly, before going to Australia where she was editorial director of the antipodean equivalent of Sugar.

"Londoners don't all live in Notting Hill, work in advertising and earn 50 grand," she says. "Not everyone goes clubbing or to the cinema. They are eating, drinking and shopping. We need to reflect that without dumbing down. If there's a new gadget shop on Ken High Street, for instance, we need to write about it."

"There's also the reality that it's difficult to live in London, particularly for people in their early twenties. Rents are high and it's hard to get around, and that can put you off. We have to be writing about that, about transport, rents, unscrupulous landlords, how to get your deposit back. No other publication is campaigning on behalf of London at the moment."