Take A Break: Who needs celebs? Not this editor
'Take a Break' is a phenomenon - a best-selling real-life magazine that's also a political force. Presiding spirit John Dale tells Clare Goff how it all began with Hugh Cudlipp's 'Mirror'
Monday 06 March 2006
Editing Heat or OK! would be John Dale's idea of hell. "It hurts just to think about having to pretend to be fascinated by Chantelle's thoughts," he says.
The editor of the UK's best-selling women's weekly, Take a Break, has eschewed celebrity tittle-tattle in favour of political campaigning. With sales of 1.2 million, almost double those of its closest rival, IPC's Chat, he's shown that it takes more than the insights of a C-list celeb to claim the top weekly slot.
Leaving others to fight over Big Brother exclusives, Take a Break has recently been busy recruiting readers to Mum's Army, the UK's newest and fastest-growing political party.
It began as a campaign called Reclaim the Streets, after readers' complaints about antisocial behaviour in their neighbourhoods. "They said their lives were being ruined by gangs, drug dealers, kids who stayed out all night," Dale says. "It evolved, and in the end we wanted to turn readers' frustration into something more concrete."
A total of 10,000 women replied to a questionnaire in the magazine about the impact of yob culture. Mum's Army was registered as a political party and 160 people, mostly women, intend to stand in upcoming local elections. One is Donna Still, who will stand for election in Gillingham, Kent next year. She's witnessed the rise of yob culture on the estate where she has lived for 20 years, and is disillusioned about politicians.
"Mr Blair has the right idea, but he appoints a minister for respect and then you hear nothing about it," she says. One aim of her campaign is to bring politics down to street level by encouraging the 75 per cent of people in her neighbourhood who didn't vote in the last election to take a stand on local issues.
"The local mums say they don't understand politics," she says. "I want to make it understandable to people like me." On 26 March, Mothering Sunday, Mum's Army will present a petition to 10 Downing Street.
To critics, this campaign from the H Bauer-published weekly is a publicity-seeking venture to shore up readership in the face of extra competition in the "real-life" weekly market. Take a Break invented the real-life genre when it launched in the UK in 1990, but after the arrival of IPC's Pick Me Up last year and recent offerings from Natmags and News International, the sector looks crowded.
Dale says Mum's Army will operate distinctly from the magazine and will find its own momentum. "Mum's Army is not run by Take a Break; I'm merely facilitating it. It will be as successful as the readers want it to be and at the moment they've got a real appetite for it."
He says that the scale of the response to the issues shows that there is a genuine need, and - no matter what happens in local elections - he claims Mum's Army has already been a success by pushing the issue up the agenda and engaging people not normally interested in politics.
His current campaign follows the pattern of his 15-year editorship, during which he has built Take a Break into a trusted platform, turning the spotlight on an audience whose needs, he says, are often dismissed. "We're serving readers either patronised or ignored by the metropolitan elite - you know, the housewife in Wigan."
Alongside Mum's Army, Take a Break is in the second year of its Kitchen Table Tycoon competition, which helps women set up their own businesses, and its Women's Orgasm Liberation campaign, to help the 25 per cent of the female population who don't have them. Previous campaigns include Mums on Drugs, which encouraged kids to take pictures of their mothers doing crack. "Imagine if Oliver Twist had been given a Nikon," Dale says.
He relishes the journalistic impact of such campaigns ("Did we use those pictures big? You bet!"), and the magazine is far from being merely worthy, as this week's headlines attest. In between "Ray's trial by big knickers" and "My husband's secret wish to murder me", it's hard to detect a political bent. "We still dish up prurience and scandal and armies of love rats," Dale says.
But it is the campaigning edge of the magazine that has helped him to pick up nine British Society of Magazine Editors awards over the years, including seven for Editor of the Year, and had politicians pleading for space on his pages. He dismisses his gongs as "doorstops" and has allowed Tony Blair only one photo in Take a Break.
His campaigning urge is the result, he says, of prejudices formed during his "idealised" 1950s childhood in a close working-class community in Grimsby, when Hugh Cudlipp's Mirror was the trusted media outlet. "In those halcyon days, the Daily Mirror was our window on the world. We always felt it was speaking up for us. I hope I've made Take a Break a version of that, but for women in 2006."
Cudlipp was the inspiration for Dale's entry into journalism, which began on the Lincolnshire Times, aged 18. By 21, he was regional reporter on the Daily Mail, later becoming investigative reporter, before moving to The Observer. Stints on James Goldsmith's Now magazine took him around the world, but with characteristic humility he claims to remember little of those days.
After a period at the Sunday Standard he turned freelance and wrote a book about Prince Charles's eccentric views, called The Prince and the Paranormal. He joined the launch team of Take a Break in 1990, becoming editor in 1991. "I realised that magazines offered something Fleet Street didn't - relative autonomy. This isn't always true, but it's been true in my case. If I'd tried to launch Mum's Army anywhere else, they'd have fired me as a madman."
Dale, who is 59, does not give face-to-face interviews (he did this one via an exchange of e-mails) and eschews the metropolitan media scene. "In person," he says, "my journalistic boldness fades into craven humility." But his joy in journalism is far from fading. "I've skipped into the office for 42 years."
Visiting the North of England now, he finds communities radically changed since his youth by the effects of family breakdown, low-status jobs and cheap heroin and alcohol.
"Something's gone wrong," he says. "Mum's Army is a response. The decent majority - I choose my words deliberately - want to restore values. It's about community and self-help and mutual respect. The best role model is the woman down the street, not Jordan."
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