The New Statesman and Jack: New left, new look

This week, the 'New Statesman' will receive a colourful, glamorous make-over. But will it make any difference to a title struggling to recapture past glories? David Lister has a preview - and takes a look at the week's other big launch
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The Independent Online

As one leftish organ falls out of love with colour, so another discovers its garish joys. The Daily Mirror may have removed red from its masthead, but readers of the New Statesman this Friday are in for a garish shock. Its editor, Peter Wilby, has overseen a radical rethink of the weekly magazine's look, putting colour on every spread and giving the political journal a cleaner and more cogent design. It will be preceded by some eye-catching, if hardly political, posters.

Glam pictures of Bianca Jagger, Mariella Frostrup and Ann Widdecombe (all right, glam-ish) will have underneath them the words, "Expect The Unexpected." There are whispers that Frostrup was a late choice for the line-up, and the original idea for the posters had been to have just Bianca and Ann; but how long before someone remarked: "Beauty and the Beast!"

Be that as it may, redesigning the Statesman is about more than a dash of colour and some arbitrary glam celebs and a right-winger. It is probably about more than just Wilby. The touch of his deputy, Cristina Odone, is evident certainly in the posters, and also in the redesign, which brings an order to a magazine that had little logic in its layout. The Wilby-Odone partnership is an odd but surprisingly potent one. Male editor/female deputy on the magazine is hardly new; Ian Hargreaves and Jane Taylor most recently, and Bruce Page and Anna Coote in its most studiedly radical phase in the early Eighties spring to mind. But in those cases they were like-minded people with similar skills.

Wilby – very English, slightly magisterial but one of the few genuine socialists ever to have edited a national paper (wags might add "or the New Statesman") – and the extrovert American Odone – of flexible political bent but with a good eye for a story and how to maximise it – are a very different combination. To be precise, she knows lots of people and has an excellent news sense. She certainly helps him put the debates of left-wing policy into their most sellable form, and mothers him into the bargain.

The biggest controversies each has managed to generate offer insights into the flair each has developed for getting the magazine noticed, and the dangers inherent in this. Odone was behind the New Statesman cover of how New Labour views its women – which had a woman showing her knickers. The author, Jackie Ashley, is said to have been furious with Odone, who in turn accused her of lacking a sense of humour.

If that was borderline, Wilby's cover on British Jews' attitude to Israel went way over the border. It featured a Star of David piercing a Union flag, with the coverline: "A Kosher Conspiracy?" To his credit, Wilby apologised, although it was disingenuous of him to add in an article in The Journalist's Handbook last week that the piece in the NS had concluded that there was no such conspiracy. If this article posed the headline question: "Is Peter Wilby a child abuser?" and concluded in the 23rd paragraph that he was not, he would probably not be delighted.

Both those covers are relevant to the decision to redesign the magazine. For both illustrate Wilby's preoccupation – how to make a weekly political journal visible and attractive on the newsstands. The Statesman under Wilby has what every political magazine should have; some understated delights among the political and cultural think pieces and reviews. Paul Routledge's diary is informative and spiky; Andrew Martin is a much underrated comic writer. But reputations are hard to change; and the Statesman's reputation is "worthy left".

So, Wilby is gambling on a redesign to make the point to new readers that humour and human interest can sit alongside policy and politics. "The New Statesman is full of wonderful things," he says, "but we've still got the problem that people who have picked up the magazine only once think it's full of dreary lefties droning on – either dreary lefties or dreary New Labourites. Actually, we don't just have New Labour people writing. We have even, dare I say, glamorous people. But it's hard to shake off the reputation of the past.

"The main point of the redesign is to make it more accessible to people coming for the first time, more visually appealing, lighter, brighter. The old version had a daunting amount of material. It had a column, then a feature and an awful lot of words. So we've zoned it. The columns are together, the features are together."

The dummy I saw certainly appeared brighter and better signposted. A column by Odone called "Girl Talk" was another pointer to the new direction, as are Wilby's words, such as "zoning" and "glamorous".

As Wilby knows, the New Statesman will live or die by the force of its political argument and insights. Glamour, arts reviews and human interest are widely available elsewhere. But at the moment the New Statesman sells 25,000 copies a week, four-fifths of which are subscription. A 30,000 circulation could mean that it breaks even, and the demands on the pocket of its proprietor, Geoffrey Robinson, lessen. A splash of colour and fun might do the trick.

And what of the other magazine event of the week? James Brown writes below of the motivations for his new magazine, Jack. The cover also tells us quite a bit about the product; a pop-art-style picture of a glamorous girl in bikini top and short skirt, but holding an aeroplane (does that really make it a non-cheesecake cover, James?), and the promo line: "An orgy of war, animals, fashion, genius and cool".

Most important, perhaps, is its size; it's the handbag size (or whatever new lads put their mags in) that Glamour pioneered so effectively. Brown aims to redefine men's mags – not for the first time. Yes, they're interested in women, but also in warfare, animals, sitcoms, and the sort of material they used to find in National Geographic at school. They're not, Brown reckons, too interested in celebs. The two who make it into the first issue are Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, both cool and arty enough never to register on the 3am Girls' radar.

The layout is surprisingly bitty. Even the long read on bioterrorism is broken up by typefaces in different colours. The "new lad" clearly has a short attention span. And several pages on "motels" have a large number of girly pictures; one on all fours in undies and five-inch spiky heels is, I suppose, one way of covering the motel trade. Perhaps lads and their magazines haven't changed as much as Brown reckons.