'Red': Cookery, cushions, clothes – and current affairs
A decade after its launch, 'Red' magazine is enjoying rising sales. Editor Sam Baker tells Ciar Byrne the secret of its success
Monday 04 February 2008
The celebrity weeklies of this world might be good for a quick flick through on the bus or train, but reading Red magazine, according to its editor Sam Baker, is like taking a long hot bath. A year after quitting Cosmopolitan to edit Red, and as the magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary, Baker wants to inject a sense of urgency into the title.
"The thing I felt about a long hot bath was you can have a long hot bath today, or you can have a long hot bath tomorrow, I felt we needed to say 'you need this long hot bath now'," she explains.
When Baker left Cosmopolitan, some observers were surprised at her decision to exchange a publishing juggernaut for a respected, but smaller glossy. As a fan of Red since its launch, however, it was a challenge that she could not resist.
At Emap, where she edited the teen mag Just 17, Baker worked on the dummies for Red, which launched in 1998 targeting a newly identified group of women known as "middle youth" – thirtysomethings who still wanted to wear the latest fashions and drink cocktails with their girlfriends. Ten years on, the magazine's readership has evolved – ranging from women in their twenties who are dissatisfied with titles aimed at them, to older women.
"Plenty of our readers are in their forties and say they don't see any reason to stop being a Red reader, just because they've had a birthday," says Baker.
Next week, when the biannual ABC magazine circulation figures are published, they will show that sales of Red are up year on year, following 13 consecutive rises. That might have something to do with confidence. Easy Living, Eve and Grazia all occupy similar territory, but Baker makes it a rule never to dwell on the competition.
"I would never get one of our competitors in and tear a page out and put it on someone's desk and I know other editors do that all the time with Red."
Even before she accepted the editor's chair, Baker owned a copy of the very first edition of Red. The cover, featuring the American model Carré Otis, looks a lot plainer than today. But there is plenty of continuation, too. Yasmin Le Bon, who appeared in the debut issue, still regularly graces its pages. Justine Picardie, who worked on dummies of the magazine, has interviewed cover model Patsy Kensit for the 10th anniversary issue.
Who to put on the front is the eternal question. Red has found a stable of women, mainly Brits – "but they have to be the right Brits" – whom its readers love. As well as Kensit and Le Bon, Sadie Frost and Nigella Lawson have featured on recent covers.
To celebrate reaching a decade, Red commissioned a survey of its readers – updating a poll of "middle youth" it conducted 10 years ago – and found that Lawson was the woman most aspired to be.
"Nigella sells really well for us, the readers absolutely love her. I think it's partly to do with her physical image, but I think it's also to do with their perception of her work-life balance," says Baker, adding: "It probably is a perception rather than a reality – I'm sure she's as overworked as everybody else."
Thirty-nine per cent of over 2,500 women who took part in the survey said that they would vote for David Cameron at the next election, compared to just 24 per cent for Gordon Brown and only nine per cent for the Liberal Democrats.
In the latest issue, Baker has interviewed Conservative leader Cameron and she believes that his wife Samantha is an important part of his appeal to women. "I think they're attracted to them as a couple. She's a successful working woman; she has a demanding job and three children, one of whom is disabled. I think it's the whole package."
Baker adds: "I'm sure that these women are women like me who 10 years ago stayed up all night long to watch the dawn of New Labour."
Cameron cannot, however, rely on Baker's vote. "I'm not a natural Conservative voter. I've voted Labour my whole life and voted tactically to keep the Conservatives out in the constituency I live in, but he seems to speak their language." She has a word of warning, however: "A lot of them are worried there's a Tebbit in the closet; that the old guard will leap out."
The last big survey Red that carried out was on fertility. More than 3,000 women responded and the pick-up in the national press was huge.
"A lot of the women in their thirties and older who are attracted to Red probably invest a lot of time and energy in their career," says Baker. "They didn't have children when they were 26; they're trying now, whether they're 30, 35 or 45."
About 50 per cent of Red readers are mothers, but Baker is careful to restrict the number of features about children to one or two an issue. "The features we do about children tend to be more about getting them than having them."
At Cosmopolitan, Baker was known for instigating political campaigns such as the High Heel Vote, trying to persuade women to make their democratic voice heard. At Red, she is keen to find issues that matter to the reader: the February issue includes a feature on the hidden costs of cheap high street clothing, posing the question: "Would you buy this dress if your child had made it?"
Baker says: "The readers are smart. I'm really proud to have the readers I've got. Just because you care about cushions doesn't mean that you're not also interested in politics."
She has attempted to introduce meatier features: "One of the things I felt as a reader was there could be more to read, there could be more substance." She also wanted to "undo a button on the magazine visually".
Work-life balance is of major concern to today's readers. But it is something Baker herself sometimes finds hard to achieve. She is just about to set off for New York fashion week, which she described as "a privilege", but adds: "It's really hard work, it's absolutely exhausting. You are doing it from 8 o'clock in the morning until after you've had dinner – which probably makes me sound like a monster – and then you've got to go back to the room and read the proofs and approve the layouts. But I love my job, I can't complain."
The fashion world has at least provided her with the material for two novels, the second of which, This Year's Model, is published on 6 March and she has just started work on a third.
During the week, Baker lives in London, while her husband remains at home in Winchester.
"We try to have one night in the week where we go out for dinner together. Then we're together at weekends. It's not the big stuff, it's the little stuff. You know when you see someone every night and you go home and say 'she said this and he said that', the kind of nonsensical stuff that matters at 3 o'clock but won't matter by Friday.
"It's not easy, but I couldn't do this job and commute."
Returning to Winchester at the weekend keeps her grounded. "I think the Winchester Woman is a really important Red reader. Maybe the reasons she likes Red are very different to some very fashion-focused London woman, but she's crucial, she's the core reader and I get to see her every weekend."
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