I've been called to a meeting with my new employers. They are "excited". In media, everyone is always "excited". Terrifyingly ruthless executives pack the trade press every week claiming to be "excited" about their new job/redesign/website/mass-redundancy programme. Now my own much-loved colleagues Mike Soutar and Tim Ewington are also "excited" about an idea they've been working on for seven or eight months. I take my seat planning to listen carefully and nod frequently before slowly kicking this "exciting new idea" to death.
Like all editors, I'm inclined to dislike any idea that isn't my own. They give me the big pitch: a free, weekly upmarket men's magazine. It's handed to commuters – they're going to work so they have money and jobs. They're easy to find at the railway stations they move through every day. We'll be able to deliver a desirable and elusive audience to advertisers in big numbers. Like someone inspecting a second-hand car I walk round the idea looking for dangling exhaust and bald tires. I'm quiet. It's good. I think it through properly. It's still good.
I've just left lads' mag Nuts. I've been locked in a ferocious newsstand battle for three years in which the biggest single factor in winning readers was women, without clothes, on the cover, every week. "If it was free," I say, thinking aloud, "we could put all kinds of things in it ...we could ...[I'm nodding and looking into the middle distance] put men on the cover!" Mike and Tim are smiling now – it took me a while but I got there in the end. Not having to appeal to the teens and very young men who drive the paid-for men's market would enable us to produce a title that appeals to the best instincts of all those prosperous grown-ups who don't even browse the newsstand anymore. I'm excited.
The three of us quickly become obsessed. The project extends beyond office hours and we are soon sending each other reams of features well into the night. We operate under a cloak of total confidentiality, we have a single focus, there's even a code name Bulldozer (which soon changes to Alpha One). We are a magazine SAS cell (I like to think). I've started talking in terms of "our idea".
The challenge at this stage is to focus our thoughts. The complete freedom to try anything isn't helpful. We could call the magazine "Sandi Toksvig" and imagine it printed on Tupperware if we wished (it is, for a brief period, called Reporter). We need something to hang our thoughts on. Someone on the team needs the breakthrough moment, the flash of inspiration that will take us into covers we can test on consumers. It turns out not to be me. Gallingly, it is Mike. He realises that men love lists – they compile, they rank, they argue over rankings. As brilliantly observed by Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, there is no moment too large or small, too moving or painful not to placed in a Top 10 chart. Mature, educated professionals spend time heatedly debating the finest song inspired by the motorway network ('Route 66', 'Autobahn', '2468 Motorway' a distant third). Which non-Cheddar British cheese reigns supreme (Cheshire then Red Leicester, obviously).The magazine should be called ShortList and it should feature lots of entertaining and informative lists.
Our design guru Matt Phare starts making material to take into focus groups. He and I work late into the night and eat a lot of microwave curry. Together we discover which cover images best sum up the concept, and that a mouse lives in our office.
We all travel to a suburban house in Croydon and sit down with two groups of six randomly chosen target men and show them our work. It is the first time "our" big idea is exposed to people who aren't our friends and family. We pretend to be researchers so that the focus groups feel free to be honest. It's clear we're on to something. These suit-wearing men-about-town are let down by the lads' mags, which they see as peddling smut for adolescents.
They feel pretty strongly about it. I try to look scientific and detached and not like the former editor of Nuts. The surprise is their appetite for meaty, heavy subject matter. They really warm to covers with a current-affairs theme.
With only a selection of covers and features to help them, investors are already taking a keen interest. Tim works up an elaborate and detailed business plan that I find strangely compelling in much the same way a caveman would be fascinated by an air-traffic control room. We produce a full dummy issue (Osama bin Laden on the front) that is, frankly, a huge hit in the research groups. More groups and yet more ideas and potential pieces of regular content are made and tested. We are searching for the hot subjects that excite the audience most. Each of us throws ideas at the respondents in the form of dummy pages. The most popular ideas: property (these men are very interested in owning and selling flats and houses) and fashionable new bars (they need to be the first to know what's going on). The least popular concept (my idea): a weekly round-up of the newspapers of continental Europe (laughably dull and earnest).
I see my two employers on the other side of the office shake hands and smile. The first of the investors is on board – the money is coming, we're good to go. There has always been only one window for launch in 2007: after the summer break and before the Christmas carnage. We have 12 weeks to staff up and make this thing a reality. I'm delighted and slightly panicky. If I were a delight/panic cocktail I'd say I was one part delight to five parts panic with a twist of disbelief.
My brief is to staff up in a matter of weeks, finding talented, keen people willing to join us knowing virtually nothing about the magazine. Not one of the team is shown a single page as part of the recruitment process. Amazingly an incredible squad of journalists emerge from my frenzied round of interviews. Hampered only by the absence of space, desks and telephones (while we scout for a location) they start to make ShortList a reality. I arrange the final appointments while on my last holiday before D-Day. I learn it's hard to sound professional while wearing camouflage Capri pants.
We make two full test issues and start to develop a 10-issue forward plan. Planning is the only sane way to produce a weekly magazine. I discovered the hard way in the early days of Nuts that to lurch from week to week inventing each cover as you go quickly exhausts everyone, leaving the team living in Stalinist-style permanent terror.
The first issue is finally closed having been debated, examined and re-examined with rather more enthusiasm than the European Treaty. I finally emerge blinking from the office in which I've virtually lived for the last month into an extraordinary launch party attended by the likes of Claudia Schiffer and Christian Slater. Everyone asks, "So, you're the editor, but who had the idea for ShortList?"
"Group effort," I tell them and smile modestly in a way which suggests that, from start to finish, it was all entirely me.Reuse content