Jane Johnson: 'Every week it's a treat'

If the Sunday red-tops are wondering where their readers have gone, they need look no further than the women-friendly weekly glossies. And none of them has made a bigger impact than 'Closer'. Its editor, Jane Johnson, talks to Ian Burrell

In the 21st-century battle to make a fortune from quenching the British public's great thirst for celebrity news there have been clear winners and clear losers, a fact that is no better illustrated than by the contrasting fortunes of two of the best-known publications on the news-stands: Closer magazine and The People newspaper.

It's not much of a fight. Though undoubted rivals, the two are like a couple of poorly matched boxers, one from a much heavier division and following a new set of rules; the strong young contender in the fancy tasselled shorts, highly popular with the ladies, against the confused old journeyman.

When Closer was launched by publishers Emap in September 2002, Tony Blair was issuing his dossier on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and The People, owned by Trinity Mirror and then better known as the Sunday People, was still selling 1,301,799 copies every weekend.

Four and a bit years later, the newspaper has haemorrhaged more than half-a-million sales, down more than 41 per cent to 761,595 in the official January circulation figures. Closer, meanwhile, having posted a sale of 334,542 in its first ABC in 2003, prompting Emap to herald its "most successful launch ever", has surged relentlessly onwards and will later this week announce that it has smashed through the 600,000 barrier. Before long, the glossy magazine, priced at £1.10, may have overhauled the 85p 126-year-old tabloid institution that made its name covering Jack the Ripper but has come to resemble one of his victims.

The success of Closer is also the success of Jane Johnson, 37, the editor at the magazine's launch and throughout its young history. Johnson came from newspapers, having been recruited by Emap from the Sunday Mirror, sister paper of The People. As much as anyone, she has been responsible for importing the press culture of scoop-getting, contact-building and early deadlines to the world of magazines. Her deputy, Lisa Burrow, formerly worked on The People, as did Closer's news editor, Caroline Barrett.

"My intention at launch was to make it as fast-paced as possible," says Johnson, perched on a sofa at the end of the Closer editorial office. "When I recruit for our news department I look for people who are used to the excitement and adrenaline of working on a newspaper and who enjoy breaking stories."

Such an approach has helped it reveal, among much else, Madonna's attempt to adopt a second Malawian child and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's fling with Robbie Williams.

Closer magazine has spawned a wave of rivals, creating a weekly avalanche of celebrity news and gossip that has represented an entirely new challenge to the tabloid press from that previously presented by the less intrusive monthlies Hello! and OK!. It's not just The People that has suffered. The Sunday red-top sector has lost 700,000 sales in the past year and the red-top dailies have been shorn of 300,000 in the same period.

To Johnson, her advantages are numerous. First, a sharper identity. " Magazines are doing very well because they can focus and specialise, whereas a newspaper has to cover a lot more bases. We can focus solely on women and what they want. We are largely staffed by women so everything is filtered through a female perspective."

Next, superior production values. "We want something a bit more glamorous and glossy. A celebrity picture in a newspaper is going to be a bit grainy but if you see it in Closer you see it in all its glory, the flaws, the Botox, the beautiful dresses are all there for everyone to see in minute detail, and women like poring over detail. It's a weekly treat to be able to sit down with your copy of Closer, have a glass of chardonnay and relax. It is a different experience to reading a newspaper, I think."

Then there is the relationship with the key content providers, the celebrities. "We have a huge advantage in that a lot of celebrities confide in us because they feel it's a safer environment. A lot of the newspapers, they feel, give them a much harder time on a day-to-day basis, whereas with Closer, although we obviously challenge them because we have a newspaper attitude, we are ultimately supportive because we are a female-friendly environment."

While Victoria Beckham is an enduring source of fascination to Closer readers and Kylie is admired for her strength in adversity, Jade Goody has suffered a colossal fall from favour in a key constituency. "We had a big reader backlash, lots of readers writing and e-mailing in, saying they were outraged by her behaviour [on Celebrity Big Brother]. We take on board the views of our readers," says Johnson, who, nevertheless, does not discount a future interview with Goody, provided "she is really sorry rather than just putting on a show in a PR-led counter attack".

Closer has a gateway to at least one section of the celebrity world - namely the footballers' wives and girlfriends - through having hired Coleen McLoughlin, Wayne Rooney's partner, as a columnist. "We talk to her on a weekly basis and would hope we are more likely to get a big story from her because she's our girl," says Johnson, who during the World Cup last summer sent McLoughlin a supply of Closers to distribute among the WAGs. "I imagine they were all reading them by the pool. It does help that they know you are the magazine that she trusts."

Johnson is a smart operator who started her career as crime reporter on the Southport Star before heading, via Chat and Bella magazines, to the Daily Mirror, where she was women's editor. After a spell in Scotland as assistant editor of The Scotsman and then of the Daily Record, she returned to London in 2000 as executive editor of the Sunday Mirror, before being lured to Closer.

Though she has dedicated her working life to the popular press, she graduated in English from Brasenose College, Oxford, and was a regular contributor to the university newspaper, Cherwell. "When I was at Oxford I always wanted to work on mass-market media whereas a lot of people wanted to work on broadsheets. I like the idea of the broader appeal, I also liked the content because it's never dull."

When she talks of Coleen, who has become a modern style icon in spite, or because, of her fondness for doner kebabs, Johnson says: "We are both from the north, which is nice, I understand her values, she's a very family-orientated girl and the readers do like that."

Genteel Southport is some way from McLoughlin's tough Liverpool neighbourhood of Croxteth, but unquestionably Johnson is a good communicator with a popular touch. "You are either down-to-earth or you're not really, and although I do have glamorous aspects to my life, a lot of it is hard work and I've still got my northern roots.

"I don't go to lots of premieres and champagne parties all the time. We have a lot of young girls who come in for work experience and they open the door and expect to see a Hollywood red carpet when a lot of the time it's quite hard work."

Though she complains that Closer is a "voracious beast" to be kept fed with stories and gossip, she is at pains to say that she wants her staff to enjoy themselves. She orders them off to lunches and parties ("The more contacts we have, the better the magazine") and encourages laughter in the workplace ("If there's humour in the office people tend to be more creative").

She says: "Maybe newspapers have suffered because they don't always look for what a person's talent or interest is. I spend a lot of time sitting down with my staff and saying 'What do you actually like doing?' because if they like what they're doing, they're probably going to be better at it."

For all her background in the press, when she convenes conference she encourages a mood quite different from that usually found in newspapers. "Whereas newspaper conferences are quite structured and you are meant to back the editor's views, whatever they are, I like people to have their own opinions. As an editor you have to sometimes take your cap off to people and say your idea is better than mine." She encourages "the weirdest, craziest" story suggestions because "out of the ridiculous comes a great idea".

In four years as editor she says she has grown in confidence, citing an occasion when she "collared" Nicole Kidman, who was having a business meeting in the Dorchester hotel in London, to have her picture taken with some Closer awards winners attending a ceremony in the same venue.

Not that she has ever been shy. A quick perusal of the Daily Mirror files shows a similar propensity to gain the attention of the stars, in the following extract on a day spent undercover as an Andre Agassi groupie.

"Do many of your fans ask you to sign their breasts?" I ask brazenly. "Sometimes, yes, I have signed them in the past," he replies. I look down at my chest and decide not to push my luck. Instead, balancing on tip-toe, I move closer and whisper in his ear: "Can I kiss you, Andre?"

These days, Johnson has little time for such encounters, having been assigned by Emap to oversee the revival of its latest weekly title, First, another daring attempt to import news journalism into a magazine format.

She will not admit that her new role is an indication that the magazine - due to post its first circulation figure this week - has gone off the rails. "In the early days of Closer it was the same - you had to try a few different things before you got it right. No launch is perfect from day one. What [First] needed was a more specific focus. The idea of a late-thirtysomething women's news magazine is an exceptionally good idea. I feel lucky that I've been able to put some of my attitude into it and my understanding of that market - being a 37-year-old woman myself."

The key change is "attitude", not just Johnson's but hard-hitting press columnists such as Jane Moore (The Sun), Deborah Orr (The Independent) and Miranda Sawyer (The Observer). "It's a thought-provoking magazine. That doesn't mean it's dry or heavy-going - I want it to create debate and spark, so I get lots of opinion writing in there."

Johnson's value to Emap is that she understands the distinct niches that its various women's weeklies, all heavy in celebrity content, hold in the market. Heat is younger and more urban, Grazia is fashion-based and aspirational, First is aimed at thirtysomethings who want analysis of the week's news, and Closer is a special mix of "fun and feisty and sexy", which Johnson knows intuitively.

Rivals, including IPC's new Look, will hope that Johnson's obligations with First will leave Closer vulnerable for the first time, though the editor praises her deputy as a more than capable stand-in.

Should Johnson want to go back to newspapers, she wouldn't be short of job offers. She still admires the Mail for its "in-depth, detailed analysis and opinion which brings a different perspective to the news". The News of the World is still unrivalled in putting resources into getting scoops, she says, claiming that the Clive Goodman royal bugging affair will force it to return to "good old-fashioned legwork" instead of relying on "tricks of the trade".

But such a return doesn't sound likely, especially with so many of her former colleagues calling her up for a job. "I'm certainly very challenged at the moment. Whilst I love newspapers and have lots of friends there, I'm really excited by what I'm doing and don't really see beyond that to be honest."

Though she was tipped as a possible editor of the Daily Mirror after Piers Morgan's hasty departure in 2004, no one at The People or its sister titles should anticipate Johnson's return to Canary Wharf any time soon.

REVEAL

Publisher: ACP Natmag Ltd

Editor: Michael Butcher

Last ABC: 342,245

Launched in 2005 as a rival to Closer, it sells for £1.10. Recent scoops include the revelation that Liam Gallagher is a fan of Channel 4's Countdown and that US Vogue editor Anna Wintour didn't recognise Victoria Beckham at a party.

NOW

Publisher: IPC Connect

Editor: Helen Johnston

Last ABC: 539,902

The recent departure of long-standing editor Jane Ennis will not help this big beast of the celebrity sector, which recently marked its 10th anniversary and sells at £1. Ennis's replacement, Helen Johnston, is the former editor of monthly New Woman.

NEW!

Publisher: Northern & Shell

Editor: Kirsty Mouatt

Circulation: 458,751

Richard Desmond launched this title in February 2003 to take market share from Now. Undercuts its main rival on price, selling for 70p. Big fan of Jordan. Benefits from cross-promotion from Desmond's Daily Star tabloid.

OK!

Publisher: Northern & Shell

Editor: Lisa Byrne

Circulation: 547,714

Set up by Richard Desmond as a rival to Hello!, it has made the buy-up of the celebrity wedding its stock-in-trade. Recent scoops include rights to photograph the nuptials of Ashley and Cheryl Cole, delivering a sales lift which will certainly help bolster the magazine's six-monthly ABC, released this week.

HELLO!

Publisher: Hello! Ltd

Editor: Ronnie Whelan

Circulation: 403,666

Founded in 1988 as a spin off from the Spanish institution Hola!. It famously gives celebrities a gentle ride but has been dogged by the so-called Curse of Hello!, said to jinx its interviewees. Was sued by Catherine Zeta-Jones after publishing pictures of her wedding in spite of an exclusive contract signed with rival OK!.

LOOK

Publisher: IPC Connect

Editor: Ali Hall

Circulation: only launched last week

The UK's first high-street fashion and celebrity weekly. Aimed at women of 18-30 who religiously head to Topshop and Zara every Saturday. Hopes for sales of 250,000 within a year. Sells at £1.30.

GRAZIA

Publisher: Emap Consumer Media

Editor: Jane Bruton

Circulation: 175,218

Very fashion-orientated and more upscale, it nevertheless obsesses over the lives of such celebrities as Kate Moss and Jennifer Aniston. Launched in 2005 as the first weekly glossy, it is a British-version of an iconic Italian title launched in 1938.

HEAT

Publisher: Emap Consumer Media

Editor: Mark Frith

Circulation: 579,883

Smarter and more sassy than most of its rivals, Heat has transformed celebrity coverage and is the title most likely to be name-checked by the stars themselves when they refer to the sector, and is still piling on sales. Aimed at urban, twentysomething women.

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