Getting close to the action

Jane Johnson's newspaper background has been the driving force behind Closer magazine's success. Ciar Byrne reports
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The Independent Online

When Jane Johnson quit newspapers to edit a new women's magazine, some of her former colleagues were sceptical, questioning whether she was forsaking hard-nosed journalism for a world of frocks and flowers.

When Jane Johnson quit newspapers to edit a new women's magazine, some of her former colleagues were sceptical, questioning whether she was forsaking hard-nosed journalism for a world of frocks and flowers.

They couldn't have been more wrong. Closer, the magazine in question, has proved itself as fierce as any red-top in pursuing celebrity and real-life stories since its launch two years ago. National newspapers are now following up stories that appear in the women's weekly - falling over one another last year to reprint extracts from the first press interview with Louise Woodward since her conviction for shaking a baby to death in the United States.

On the day we meet, the Daily Mail has devoted its entire page three to a Closer feature that has recreated the famous image of models Jilly Johnson and Nina Carter posing in leotards and knee-high silver boots - 27 years on they look just as good.

" Closer is the only glossy tabloid - it brings the newsiness of a tabloid to the magazine marketplace," says Louise Matthews, the managing director of Emap Entertainment, who oversees the women's weekly and its sister celebrity title Heat.

It is a formula that has paid off, resulting in a phenomenal circulation growth of 43.5 per cent over the past year, taking it to an average weekly sale of 480,000 between January and June.

Many of the magazine's senior staff hail from a newspaper background. Johnson herself was executive editor at the Sunday Mirror when she was poached to edit Closer, having worked her way up from women's editor at the Daily Mirror to assistant editor at the Daily Record and The Scotsman.

Her deputy, Louise Oswald, is best known as the former News of the World journalist who persuaded England rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio to brag about taking drugs and his exploits with prostitutes in a "sting" operation in 1999. The news editor, Vicky Grimshaw, worked at the Daily Mail before joining the magazine.

Johnson believes the team's understanding of how newspapers work has been "vitally important" to securing the exclusives that lead to increased sales. "We got Louise Woodward when all the newspapers had been chasing her. She decided to go with us because she liked our approach. That was won through hard work and determination," she says.

Other recent scoops include an interview with the wife of the Lotto rapist and pictures of their prison wedding, the first interview with Jason from Big Brother and an interview with a friend of the murdered schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson who was in the room when she died.

Matthews believes that the magazine's sympathetic tone is crucial to scooping its rivals. "These women - and most of them are women - feel that we will portray them in a non-judgmental way. If they go to the Mail they may well be ripped to shreds. Amy Crowhurst, who was a 13-year-old mum, didn't want to go to the papers because she knew she would be crucified. She came to Closer because she knew we would take a more rounded approach."

But like its newspaper cousins, Closer's keenness to stay ahead of the game has sometimes landed the title in hot water. In April, the Press Complaints Commission upheld a reader's complaint against the magazine for paying Louise Woodward's boyfriend for a photograph of the couple. "It was a minimal amount," says Johnson. "It wasn't life-changing money. We were very honest about Louise Woodward. It's a situation all newspapers and magazines get into. They were talking about their side of the issue for the first time, so it was an important story to run."

Then in June, Closer and Heat clashed with the Football Association when the magazines published paparazzi pictures of David Beckham standing on a hotel balcony in his under- wear, in defiance of a warning that the photographs constituted an invasion of the footballer's privacy. The FA complained to Emap, but has taken no further action.

"The FA aren't my readers. I'm here to create a magazine for the readers - something they will be interested in," says Johnson. "The pictures had already been in the public domain and there would have had to be a very justifiable reason not to publish them. Subsequently, with all that has happened with Sven and Faria, I think that blows it all out of the water anyway."

"We run ourselves more on newspaper lines, so along with that comes a certain amount of risk-taking. A good magazine will push the boundaries," she adds.

When Closer launched with a massive £11m marketing campaign in September 2001, its unique selling point was that it would offer a newsier twist on the real-life stories that are the trademark of traditional women's weeklies, while providing a more down-to-earth take on celebrities than the saccharine-sweet OK! and Hello!.

Emap has been careful to distinguish Closer from Heat to avoid cannibalising sales. " Heat is the ultimate cool bible for the twentysomething girl who is much more urban-based and totally obsessed with celebrity," says Matthews, "whereas Closer is a much broader church. It can appeal to women in their twenties and women in their fifties. The celebrity side is only one part of it."

There is little doubt, however, that the magazine has benefited from the increasing obsession with celebrity. "A lot of it is down to reality TV," says Johnson. "Programmes such as Big Brother and Wife Swap have created a whole new market, with phenomena like Jade Goody and Nadia, who our readers are fascinated by."

What marks out Closer readers is their desire to see celebrities as real people instead of simple voyeurism. "They want to see that someone such as Ulrika Jonsson has been through a difficult period and has come out the other end, because it relates back to their lives and the problems they have been through with boyfriends and babies," Johnson says.

Emap has now overtaken Richard Desmond's stable of magazines - OK!, New! and Star are "pale imitations", according to Matthews - as the bestselling publisher of celebrity titles at the newsstand, not including discounted and free copies.

The imminent launch of a new competitor from the National Magazine Company, provisionally titled Reveal, does not unduly concern Johnson. "We're ready to take on all comers," she says. "If they're bringing some magic USP, we might have a fight on our hands and that would be quite exciting, but if they're just going to imitate bits of other magazines, then I think they will struggle," adds Matthews.

Like the serious commercial players they are, Closer's bosses are not coy about their next ambition - by the end of the year they hope to achieve a circulation of more than 500,000 - and not a couture label or a vase of lilies in sight.