The Week: Readers' digest

As The Week celebrates its 10th anniversary, Ian Burrell asks founder Jon Connell how he came up with the idea and why he thinks his concept - once condemned as 'parasitic' - is still successful a decade on
Click to follow

Critics of the press like to think of it as a fly-by-night industry, where newspapers produced this morning will by tomorrow have little value. As newspapers expand and readers' lives become busier, fine journalism is more vulnerable than ever to being dashed unread into the waste bin or the recycling.

Critics of the press like to think of it as a fly-by-night industry, where newspapers produced this morning will by tomorrow have little value. As newspapers expand and readers' lives become busier, fine journalism is more vulnerable than ever to being dashed unread into the waste bin or the recycling.

Jon Connell spotted the trend and recognised a business opportunity. From a shabby London garage he began a magazine dedicated to showcasing some of the most interesting stories and best writing of the previous seven days. In doing so, he also offered readers a briefing note culled from an extraordinarily diverse range of sources.

By lifting excerpts of articles from different papers on the same story and linking them together to give a broad overview, Connell also avoided having to pay the authors and their employers. The approach provoked accusations that he was involved in "a parasitical form of journalism". Yet readers have embraced a product that gives them a flavour of Fleet Street's finest columnists, a peek into the latest tabloid gossip - without having to buy the red-tops - and a synopsis of what's been going on in The Archers.

As the staff of The Week hold a party this week to celebrate their 10th birthday, they do so in the knowledge that the magazine now sells 100,000 copies per issue, having increased circulation by around 10,000 each year and exceeded all its founder's original expectations.

Circulation growth at The Week is driven by "word of mouth", says Connell, especially among women. "I have always thought that this magazine would suit women more than men. Women, on the whole, are much busier than men and have much more interrupted lives. They have fewer periods of sitting on trains or in offices where they can cope with newspapers. Also, women proselytise about these things; they talk to each other about them and tell their friends."

Connell, a former deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph and Washington correspondent of The Sunday Times, came up with the idea for The Week when, as a newspaper executive, he was obliged to read all the papers every day. It set him thinking: "There's too much of all this stuff; maybe there's another way of doing it." In January 1994 he went to see then Sunday Telegraph editor Charles Moore and said: "I'm going to resign. I've got a project I want to do."

The Week, he says, is a "short-cut" for people too busy to read all the papers. Daily Telegraph readers are offered a flavour of The Independent and vice versa. (Connell says his readership is largely "conservative with a small c", so he tries to give a flavour of what the liberal press is doing.)

It was Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian editor, who directed the "parasitical" accusation at The Week, after launching his own supplement of "compilation" journalism The Editor. Connell, who says Rusbridger is an old friend, admits: "I don't really think I can argue with that although I wouldn't put it in that disparaging way."

The Week, he argues, is "quite creative" and is more than just a digest of the papers. "Flat, straight digest would never have worked. Magazines work only if they have a heart and a personality of their own. The Week has a point of view," he says. "We are taking material and writing essays based on that material but they are pieces in their own right. Unlike newspapers we are always attributing things to our sources."

But what about the journalists whose work is pilfered? Are they miffed or flattered? "Almost overwhelmingly the second. We got the odd letter [of complaint] but literally you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Mostly it's the other way; they see it as a shop window," he says, pointing out that the magazine pays for cartoons and longer pieces.

Before starting The Week, Connell spent three months "trailing round the City having depressing meetings with venture capitalists" who "had no real idea what I was going on about". City investors are always wary of small magazine start-ups, prone as they are to failure. But the £1m that Connell was seeking was more than he could find from friends, family and savings.

He then received some important advice: to avoid making a glossy magazine for newsstands and aim for subscriptions. "If you do magazines on news-stand you never know how many to print. It's a battle to get distributors to take it and you have to advertise to get your presence known. They only pay you half your money - the other half goes to trade - and they pay you late," he explains. "Do things on subscription and you get a year's money up front."

Connell drew up a revised business plan based on an investment of £200,000, which "amazingly" saw the venture through its first six months operating from a garage in a mews close to Paddington railway station. During that period a postcard arrived. It was from the publisher Felix Dennis, who said he had been impressed with the publication and was interested in investing. But despite Dennis's fame for working on the notorious 60's magazine Oz before setting up a global publishing empire, no one at The Week had heard of him.

So the offer rested on file until the office manager, one Brigadier Clendon Daukes ("he ran it like a military operation"), announced one day that money was running out, blown largely on the vast number of newspapers needed forThe Week's source material.

Connell went to see his would-be benefactor and, after a meeting under a tree in the garden of Dennis's home outside Stratford-upon-Avon, the publisher agreed to "cough up". He is now the majority shareholder.

A critical role has also been played by original editor Jeremy O'Grady, whose "lightness of touch" in writing style has set the tone of the The Week. Connell says there is very little difference between the current edition and the first dummy. "On the whole our readers are quite conservative and find it a relief that they can find things in the same places each week," he says.

He explains: "There is something ever so slightly amateurish about The Week and that's deliberate. This is a bunch of like-minded people putting together a magazine they like. They read the papers and say 'Hey, that's really interesting; let's put that in'. If it became too scientific, the magazine could lose its sparkle."

He admits that he has been fortunate with the timing of his venture. "People are getting busier, not just in their professional lives but taking up gardening and fishing and wanting to read more books," observes Connell happily. "At the same time newspapers are getting fatter. We have been fantastically lucky."