Magazines: Celebs, yes. But news too

Emap thinks it has spotted a gap in a crowded market for an accessible, picture-led, topical women's weekly. So does 'First' add up to a winning formula? Ciar Byrne reports
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What do avid readers of celebrity weeklies do when they grow up? The answer - or Emap hopes, as it puts the finishing touches to its latest £12m launch - is that they turn to a magazine that delivers news in the same accessible style as the breakfast TV show GMTV.

When it launches on 17 May, First will break new ground. Nothing of its kind has been attempted before - delivering picture-led news stories to thirtysomething mums.

The concept is based on a gut feeling in Emap that traditional print media are not delivering news in a female-friendly format. "We felt that news in terms of newspaper coverage wasn't very feminine in its approach," says the managing director of Emap Entertainment, Louise Matthews. "The broadsheets were a bit too arch and assumed too much full knowledge of the subject for some women, and the tabloids were too trashy, too sport-dominated and too male-dominated. We found the GMTV approach to news is striking a chord with women. There's no magazine that is producing news content with this light and shade."

Isn't it patronising to repackage news in an easily digestible form for women? Matthews insists not: "With the rise in citizen journalism, the internet and video phones, big world events unfold before our eyes in a very different way to a few years ago."

The idea came to the editor, Julian Linley, when the tsunami struck in Asia in 2004. He was fascinated by the now-familiar image of the wave hitting the palm-lined shore. "I wanted to watch it over and over because I couldn't understand the impact of what was happening. I felt if I could sit down with a magazine and study all the images, it might help me to get my head around the story a bit better than just watching it on television."

Linley fell into magazine journalism after taking a drama degree. He was driving a van in London when he saw an advert for a celebrity editor on the teen title Sugar. The editor, Jo Elvin, was so impressed at his confidence in applying with no relevant experience that she offered him a paid work placement. After two months she created a job for him.

Linley does not fit the profile of his target market - he's single and has no children - but he believes there is "a good tradition of men editing women's magazines". Five years as deputy to the Heat editor Mark Frith and a stint as features editor of the young women's title More! have given him a deep understanding of the women's market.

So how does "news for mums" translate on to the page? First is the same size - with the same glossy production values - as Heat, the original Emap celebrity title, which shifts 575,000 copies a week. The first third of the 100-page magazine is devoted to compelling photographs of the week's news events. In a dummy, these include a mother clutching her son in the aftermath of the Egypt bombing, flooded homes in Eastern Europe and shots of Tom Cruise.

All are chosen to appeal to the typical First reader, who is "34 and a modern thinking woman who wants more out of life". She is suburban and settled, with her kids, marriage and mortgage under control. She worries about the world, but has little time to keep up to date with the news.

The magazine does not eschew celebrities entirely. Recognising that its readers still need their weekly fix and that it must feature well-known faces on its cover to sell, First seeks newsy angles. Dummy covers include "Stars' fertility crisis", addressing the motherhood prospects of Jennifer Aniston, Nicole Kidman and Kylie Minogue; and "Why they forgave their cheating men", linking Belinda Oaten, Pauline Prescott and Charlotte Church's mum Maria.

Wildlife is an important element; in the dummy, a colourful picture of pink flamingos illustrates bird flu hitting Spain. A news round-up focuses on issues important to family life, which could range from an item on the grief of murdered Lucie Blackman's family to research on dealing with troublesome teens.

"Eyewitness" will develop the trend for citizen journalism by encouraging readers to send in photographs, be they of a news event, a celebrity sighting or a strange-looking animal.

Campaigns will be integral to the title, ensuring that readers do not feel powerless in the face of negative stories. Each week there will be a picture-led special report on a global issue, from what families consume around the world to climate change. The GMTV presenter Penny Smith is one of a band of four or five rotating columnists.

Fashion is given a newsy twist by picking out key trends, but no item of clothing priced at over £100 will appear the magazine. Other features include a seven-day weather report, a guide to seasonal dress and eating, and a nostalgia page revisiting one week from the past 35 years. A teacher sets a "Can you do your kids' homework?" test each week.

In what the publishers call "the back of the book", there will be a round-up of daft news stories and a column in which children offer opinions on various topics.

Linley has a team of 25, including several journalists poached from Mirror Group. Maggie O'Riordan, executive features writer at the Sunday Mirror, will be First's associate editor (features); Caroline Jones, former women's editor at the Daily Mirror, will be associate editor (news); and Stephanie Bussari, a Daily Mirror staffer, will join. They will work to criteria that include addressing all the big, relevant news stories, avoiding sensationalism, only printing irrefutable facts and telling stories from a human perspective, with warmth and emotion.

Emap will be promoting the weekly around the daytime TV magazine shows. Ahead of the launch, it will give away samples.

At a time when newspapers are striving to attract more female readers, is there really a gap in the market for First? "I don't think for a minute we're saying this is an alternative to newspapers," Matthews says. "What we're saying is that this information doesn't exist in this picture-driven, colourful magazine format for women. This is an alternative that reflects where they are at a life stage."

She admits, however, that persuading women to read a magazine so different will take time. With a cover price of £1.20, Emap is hoping to sell between 150,000 and 200,000 copies a week after one year on the newsstands. "It's not going to be an instant hit. It will be a slower-build approach. We're confident that we can grow significant volumes, but it's going to take us two or three years."