The demise of the lads' mag: The news that 'Nuts' may fold and the rise of more thoughtful reading show that young men have increased respect for themselves


One magazine has five large-breasted women on the cover and proudly declares that it offers "BUXOM NEW PICS!" of "ULTRA CURVY CUTIES!", imploring that we "Give those bras a pay rise!" Sophie Reade, whose picture dominates the layout, is halfway through taking her bra off; her mouth is half open in an expression intended to signify her absolute up-for-it-ness. The other magazine features Richard Ayoade, an actor and director probably still best known for playing the world's geekiest man in The IT Crowd; his new film is a riff on Dostoevsky, and he is presented off-centre, with his hands covering half his face.

The first magazine has a circulation of 52,000, and last week its publishers announced their plans to close it. The second has a circulation of more than half a million.

Nuts, you will not be surprised to learn, was not the one with the nerd on the front. And when it hit its circulation peak of 306,000 nine years ago, its publishers would have scoffed at this scenario. Although the golden days of the lads' mag were numbered, it wasn't obvious at the time. Nuts was locked in a titanic circulation war with its rival Zoo in a confrontation that seemed as sharp a summary of the age as Blur vs Oasis had a decade earlier. (Meanwhile, FHM, doing the same sort of thing on a monthly basis, was still selling a staggering 580,000 copies of each issue.)

The formula for the new weeklies was simple: football, cars, and very large breasts, accompanied by very short articles. The owners of these breasts were always presented as available girls-next-door with experimental sexual proclivities and a strong interest in getting off with you should you bump into them on a night out. None of these features seemed likely to go out of fashion; it was plausible to suppose that the juggernaut would roll along for ever.

The popular face of masculinity in 2014 is, as it turns out, rather different. FHM is a significantly more sophisticated read than it used to be, and the paid-for market is led by Men's Health, whose underwear clad models definitely couldn't be called "curvy cuties".

At the top of the pile, ShortList might be free, but its 534,000 readers are enormously attractive to advertisers. And its editor didn't put Richard Ayoade on the front without thinking hard about it.

Since Martin Robinson was appointed to that job three years ago, he has only used a remotely racy cover image twice. One featured Lily Allen, introducing a selection of advice to men from women, none of which was helpful to those hoping to persuade their girlfriends to participate in a threesome. The other was of an enormous pair of breasts – but explained in the coverline that these were really a very awkward thing to look at these days. "Blokes just really, really don't want that sort of thing," says Robinson. "We showed a focus group a mocked-up cover with a sexy picture of Jennifer Lawrence on it, and the response was: 'No way. I wouldn't be seen dead with that.' They were deeply uncomfortable. They thought it was saying the wrong thing about them."

The ShortList office is a long way from the lads' mag legends of old. The industrial quantities of drugs familiar from every reminiscence of Loaded's glory days are not on show. "We haven't got time for all that," says Robinson. "There's too much to bloody do." As he speaks, banks of tidy-looking young professionals tap diligently away at their iMac keyboards behind him. The story ideas batted around in an editorial meeting include how to deal with break-ups, men-only sewing classes, and a drinking tour of Wales to mark Dylan Thomas's centenary.

As a journalist, I can't celebrate the death of Nuts. Too many people will be losing their jobs, and too many of the downward pressures that brought about its demise apply across the rest of the industry as well. All the same, it is worth asking whether the circumstances of its decline, when viewed alongside the rise of ShortList, tell us anything optimistic about modern masculinity. A lot of people have last week suggested not – arguing, instead, that this news can mostly be attributed to the ubiquity of online porn. But this can't be right: porn was widely available on the internet when Nuts was in its heyday, and while the rest of the world might be talking about it more today, the young men who read Nuts and Zoo certainly knew their way around their browsers' "delete history" function.

In any case, both magazines would make a very poor substitute for pornography. Indeed, this is part of why they have been such an insidious cultural influence: pornography is not without huge problems of its own, but it does create a parallel universe, remaining at least for most people distinguishable from ordinary life. Nuts and Zoo, on the other hand, insist that the women you know need only be understood as sex objects. Nuts has its own dating service, called "Nuts Hook-Ups"; last week's edition runs an ad with a testimonial from Rachel, 28, who says: "Needless to say, it was a great spontaneous night. And no hassle afterwards!" On the next spread, "real girl" Daisy, 22, from Birmingham, answers "10 rude questions" in predictable style. On the next, you can read four "racy revelations from our female readers". The trouble with Nuts is that it packages a fantasy as a reasonable expectation.

Phil Hilton, ShortList Media's editorial director, has another explanation for the magazine's demise, and as launch editor of Nuts, he should know. When Nuts and Zoo appeared, he says, "it was a national cultural moment that had a lot to do with reality TV. Big Brother was quite fresh, and it was gigantic. A lot of new people were thrust into the public eye. We were kind of surfing that wave."

These days, in contrast, our most popular "reality" programming – Made In Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex – is essentially fictional, its protagonists buffed to a high sheen. The novelty of the famous-for-not-being-famous girl in her pants has worn off. And even if they might still like the content, no one wants to be seen looking at pictures of "curvy cuties" on the Tube any more: the laddishness that once held cultural sway is now facing hearteningly vocal challenges from people who detest it.

The magazines we read tell us a lot about ourselves because they reveal how we wish to be perceived. "We launched ShortList because we felt men had become sated with all that," says Hilton. "They were reacting almost squeamishly to those covers. They wanted something that presented a new view of them – they wanted a new mirror."

Is this simply a trend? Will the cycle begin again in a few years' time? It's hard to say. But it is at least worth hoping that a more expansive popular version of masculinity – perhaps even incorporating emotional intelligence, arts and crafts, and the poetry of Dylan Thomas – will be as difficult to kill as it was slow to arrive. "Men have discovered that a lot of things that would have been considered really unmanly are actually really exciting," says Hilton. "And they're not going to let them go."

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