Media: Second time rounders

Where do good articles go when they die? From now on, if they're lucky, they'll go into `Cover'. By Michael Leapman

For Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, life has begun to imitate the art of the glossy magazines they both write for. As I spoke to them about their forthcoming monthly Cover, a selection of the best in published feature writing, a series of headlines from magazine lifestyle sections kept flashing into my mind: "How We Met"; "My Big Break"; "Breakfast With..."

"How we met," said Lacey, author of Majesty and other best-sellers, "was when Danny came to interview me for the `Best of Times, Worst of Times' series he was doing for The Independent. We didn't get on. He said I was the most uptight person he'd ever met, and that I wasn't very revealing; so I didn't qualify for the column."

Danziger, who specialises in coaxing celebrities to bare their souls to him, confirmed that Lacey was initially unresponsive to his honeyed wiles. "He was giving nothing of himself away. Until his wife Sandi came into the room I thought he was a bit of a dead loss. But Sandi was so bubbly that I thought: `Well, at least he's made a good choice of wife,' and we became friends."

Their friendship crossed the Atlantic. Lacey, writing a biography of Meyer Lansky, a legend of the Florida underworld, bought a house in swish Palm Beach. Danziger, born in America, has friends and relatives there. He took up the narrative:

"We were having breakfast together at Chuck and Harold's in Royal Palm Way. It's a well known breakfast place, where you sit outside under the palms. We got to lamenting that such wonderful feature material appeared in all the newspapers and magazines and nobody had time to read it."

Lacey chimed in: "We talked about the idea of putting together a magazine. It sort of stemmed from our being writers and the feeling of tragedy that our brilliant words withered. The British broadsheets have wonderful writers but there's no time to read them all - they're out there and they die."

So why not start a magazine that, by reprinting those writers' best work, would render their prose truly deathless? The idea took shape as both men drifted back to London, where Lacey began a book about Sotheby's, the auctioneers, and Danziger, now berthed at the Sunday Times, continued his inquisitorial interviews.

They consulted Ian Denning, an experienced designer, who came up with ideas on how the magazine should look. Discarded page designs began to litter the kitchen of Danziger's house in Chelsea. "Sometimes Robert would come and stay with me. We'd go for runs in the morning ... or we'd have breakfast together in Mayfair..."

Lacey, sensing that it was beginning to sound like an interview for Hello! or Gourmet, swiftly put a stop to this bagels-and-brioche strand of reminiscence: "We don't need all that," he ruled, surprisingly brusquely.

We switched to less exotic ground: how did they raise the readies? "For a couple of years it was the two of us using our own money," said Lacey. "We employed Ian and paid for his materials. We produced a dummy; then we got stuck because neither of us had ever been in business before - and here you are talking to the chairman, that's Danny, and the managing director, me." I think I saw him blush for a moment.

They decided they needed pounds 80,000 seed money and asked eight friends to put up pounds 10,000 each. "It's a way to find out who your friends are," Lacey sighed. "Some people, the moment you ask them, put on this glazed look and say: `I never invest with a friend - it ruins friendship.' The richer they are the more prone they are to say that."

The target was eventually reached and Danziger approached Linda Sullivan, a friend who knew how to set up companies. She helped draw up a business plan. Now she is marketing director and a shareholder.

The investment company 3Is was impressed by the plan and stumped up pounds 500,000. That bought them a quarter of the equity. Other investors chipped in, bringing the pool up to pounds 1.2m. Experts on publishing and finance were recruited to form a management group that controls just over half the equity. Danziger and Lacey each own 17 per cent.

Although they would rather have trusted their own instincts than rely on market research, they employed the pollsters MORI to set up focus groups to determine the best size and title for the magazine. As a result it is called Cover (the working title had been Best of the Best) and comes in an easy-to-handle format, midway between Readers' Digest and Vanity Fair.

An immense amount of reading has to be done to find the material for republication. Danziger and Lacey have become compulsive rippers and clippers and have engaged 12 researchers, each assigned to a particular group of publications. Several are Lacey's former colleagues from the Sunday Times magazine and three are based overseas - in Sydney, New York and Paris.

At monthly meetings with researchers over a sandwich lunch at the magazine's Kensington office, nominated articles are graded from one to 10 and the final selections made. "We call it the Juke Box Jury," Danziger disclosed shyly. Republication rights are negotiated with the authors or publishers of the original material.

"We expect to pay more as we get more successful," said Lacey. "We see our function as recycling and if we can make money out of recycling material, then obviously we have to share our profits with the source."

Danziger bridled. "I sound like a real PR man here but I don't think of it as recycling - I think of it as enhancing."

Whatever the terminology, the preview issue looks good and reads well, with a judicious and wide-ranging mix of long and short articles, book extracts and picture essays covering gossip, sex and celebrity interviews, as well as the old-fashioned reportage that Lacey learned to relish long ago on the Sunday Times magazine.

The launch issue of Cover, dated October, will be published in a fortnight, costing pounds 2.50. There is a promotional budget of pounds 250,000. Starting today, advertisements for the magazine will be appearing on the London Underground and in the national press.

The initial print run is 85,000 and the pair will be happy if the circulation settles down at about half that, before starting to climb. Orders from WH Smith and other wholesalers are encouraging, and Tesco has agreed to sell it in its supermarkets. There are distant dreams of an American edition.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with the long-established Readers' Digest,as well as The Week, a recently-launched round-up of the week's news drawn from other papers. Lacey insists that Cover is a very different product from both.

"We're proud of the fact that we don't put it through a sausage machine and turn it into bland Identikit prose. Readers' Digest was created for an age which we think has passed, and now people want the real thing. This is for people who enjoy reading."

Success will depend on the two men's eye for a story. The preponderance of bankable writers in the preview issue - John Updike, Brian Patten, Matthew Parris, Angela Lambert, etc - is scarcely a fault in a new venture. The time for risks may come later.

Lacey is confident: "It's all going well. The advertising's coming in very nicely - yesterday we got BMW and Volkswagen and today we've got Veuve Clicquot and Piper Heidsieck. It's going to work. We don't have any doubt about it"n

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