Magazines: Can new 'Woman' take on the world?

The venerable women's weekly has so far avoided going down the celebrity route. But all that is about to change, reports Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Charlotte Church, being a 20-year-old pop singer known to gossip columnists as "The Crazy Chick", would appear to be an unlikely icon for a magazine launched shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War with a cover price of two shillings and the strapline "The National Home Weekly ".

Nevertheless, Church has been selected to grace the relaunch cover of Woman, the iconic weekly title that will hit the news stands tomorrow with a makeover that is intended as a response to the marked change in lifestyle of the modern British middle-aged female.

How this would be received by the magazine's original agony aunt, who wrote with her heart on her apron under the wonderful pen name Evelyn Home, we can only speculate.

But Woman's editor Jackie Hatton is in no doubt that her readers will lap up the latest adventures of Charlotte (who, incidentally, was chosen as woman of the year by upmarket men's style magazine GQ).

"She has had an interesting life journey. There have been problems with her parents' marriage and she has had weight issues and a negative press. But I think our readers will embrace the fact that she has moved to a new life phase where she is becoming the pivotal figure in her family." Church hasn't given Woman an interview but Hatton says, "We've spoken to a source close to the family. It's a very positive piece about Charlotte."

Woman is about to embrace celebrity in a big way. Its publisher, IPC, has done its research and found that knitting patterns, recipes and good old homely advice are no longer enough.

The women's weekly magazine has exploded in recent years and hundreds of thousands of young women under 24, who previously were not buying magazines, are snapping up celebrity-based titles. According to Woman's publishing director Oswin Grady: "Those younger women are passing the likes of Now, Pick Me Up and Closer to their mothers and they actually quite like them."

IPC's research among Woman readers, who responded "in no uncertain terms", found that the magazine needed to move with the times, says Grady. "They loved the magazine but really wanted us to become that bit more fresh and modern for them." That IPC needed to take action to revive the title is beyond question. Circulation - more than one million in the late 1980s - is down 13.5 per cent year on year to 458,000. Grady admits: "Woman has had an accelerated decline in a period where we have seen four recent launches into the real-life sector."

The average age of a Woman reader is 45 and Grady says that although the modern forty-something woman still keeps the family home together she is becoming "more self-indulgent and more self-focused".

Editor Jackie Hatton defines her reader as someone who is no longer tied to the kitchen sink but who likes to discuss soap and reality TV gossip with friends over coffee and splurge a little on weekend shopping sprees. "She strays into the Florence and Fred section in Tesco and buys herself a pair of designer rip-off shoes because she absolutely knows it's a bargain," says Hatton. "She's not a martyr and she's not totally self-sacrificing. She's totally switched on.

"We've all moved on and Woman readers feel 10 years younger. They don't consider themselves as solely the linchpin of their families. People have understood that in order to be productive in your family you have to have a life as well."

Asked about the way the magazine has previously responded to these social developments, Oswin Grady says: "Where we've been very good at the advice on life side we have got some work to do on the escapist and self-indulgent side."

Woman will now change, Hatton explains. "You will see more celebrity, more topicality and far more emphasis on what the buzz is that particular week."

During the heady times of the 1980s, Woman, operating in a market of fewer competitors, fed its readers a diet based on Princess Diana and Aussie soap operas. Hatton says: "The magazine relied heavily on soap-driven covers in a way that's not realistic going forward because there's so much more in terms of entertainment and interest that we have to reflect."

The modern "celebrity" (Charlotte Church, perhaps) is someone with a background that the Woman reader can more easily relate to. "In the 1980s celebrities were untouchable. It was a fantasy, because you were never going to Ramsay Street or to meet Lady Di. With the advent of reality TV the mystique has gone."

But the change in content will not mean a move to salacious tittle tattle, she says. "Woman readers are fundamentally decent people who invest not only in their families but in their communities and the wider world."

Grady says that gossipy coverage could damage the Woman brand. "There's an enormous amount of trust in the brand. It's believable in a way that some other titles on the newsstand are not."

Woman will relaunch at 50p for a promotional period. Chris Steele, the resident GP from ITV's This Morning, has been hired as a columnist.

Relaunch cover stories are bride Hannah Gillette's story of the break-up of her GMTV on-screen marriage and a profile of Britain's fattest boy, who has shed 13 stone of the 30 stone he weighed at the age of 13. Woman is anxious to help to tackle childhood obesity and is setting up a Fat Kids club to run throughout the summer.

That said, the magazine will not obsess over the waistlines of the readers themselves. The first of the fashion pages in the relaunch issue carries the line "Real Life Looks" and offers "The Dress That Loves Your Curves". Many of the models reflect this editorial policy.

Hatton says: "There's a whole wave of women now who realise you've got to celebrate yourself, embrace your body shape and learn to love yourself as you are. There will be a real drive to get readers to feel fantastic about themselves as they are."

Woman may be under intense pressure in a highly competitive market but its publishing director says that, in spite of falling circulation, closing the title down was never an option.

Instead a publication that is "among the top profit earners of all magazines" will be reconfigured in a move that will break down the notion that the women's weekly market splits naturally into three distinct segments: celebrity, real life and traditional. "Every media brand lives. It's not a static thing. You've always got the opportunity to move it on and serve your audience in a more compelling way and to neglect that you would not be doing your job."