Time Lord looks to future

The new editor of London's top listings magazine tells Lucy Aitken he's going to shake things up
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The Independent Online

A collection of Time Out covers from a bygone era decorates the walls at the magazine's HQ on London's Tottenham Court Road. One shows an old lady walking past a billboard. It features the magazine's old masthead and the sell: "Free in this week's issue. The secrets of the advertising industry". It's one of 50 striking covers that were included on a celebratory gatefold produced for Time Out's 30th anniversary. The arresting images include a swastika, the letters "VD" in large red text, and - gasp - a girl wearing a T-shirt saying "north London sucks".

A collection of Time Out covers from a bygone era decorates the walls at the magazine's HQ on London's Tottenham Court Road. One shows an old lady walking past a billboard. It features the magazine's old masthead and the sell: "Free in this week's issue. The secrets of the advertising industry". It's one of 50 striking covers that were included on a celebratory gatefold produced for Time Out's 30th anniversary. The arresting images include a swastika, the letters "VD" in large red text, and - gasp - a girl wearing a T-shirt saying "north London sucks".

Today, like most magazines in the UK, Time Out shows an insatiable thirst for celebrity cover-stars: only two of the nine most recent covers - a travel special and a food special - have not featured personalities.

Time Out has always opened up London, revealing where Londoners can enjoy fine food or browse for bargains, and its thorough listings reflect this. But now that listings are a standard feature in newspaper supplements how can it compete? The magazine's new editor, Gordon Thomson, believes a return to Time Out's provocative past is the answer. He is determined to push up circulation from 88,589 to more than 100,000.

"I hope to give readers a dynamic and vibrant entertainment magazine," he says. "Almost 40 per cent of our readers are subscribers, but we don't have enough people buying Time Out on the news-stand. I firmly believe people will buy if we give them an entertaining and unpredictable editorial mix. The magazine is a world brand now, so many international cities have editions so it's vital we get the template right."

The fair-haired, blue-eyed Thomson, 32, is an outspoken Scot and a somewhat surprising choice for Time Out: the magazine's last editor, Laura Lee-Davies, started out on music listings and rose all the way through the ranks. Tony Elliott, Time Out's founder and chairman says, the magazine wanted "fresh blood. Internal people start off with one hand tied behind their back. We wanted a change."

Thomson comes from Falkirk and has lived in London for seven years. He currently resides in Nunhead, south-east London, with his wife and their three young children. He started at Goal magazine and, after a short stint as an assistant producer at Sky Sports News, moved onto Maxim, where he was a commissioning editor for three years, and then became deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly.

Despite Thomson's strong journalistic pedigree, this is a risky hiring for Time Out. First, he is making the leap from a monthly to a weekly. Second, his background is in sports journalism and men's magazines. Third, he is being catapulted from a deputy's position into managing a 50-strong editorial team.

Elliott defends him: "He is the perfect age and he has a strong professionalism about him which is very attractive. I think one of the good ways to recruit is to look for bright deputies who are ready to move up, and that's effectively what we've got."

He is believed to have won the job against very serious competition from both sides of the Atlantic. Thomson's no-nonsense confidence certainly lets you believe that he is up to the challenge. "I have ideas, a clear vision and youth on my side. I got the feeling that Time Out was looking for someone who was just on the cusp and I convinced them that I had a real passion and a fresh perspective."

Thomson thinks that Time Out needs to become broader and include more international coverage. His first proper issue with him in the hot-seat included an A-Z of the American election by comedian Rich Hall. Thomson is championing this kind of editorial. "Londoners are ambitious and they deserve an ambitious magazine. It's crucial that we get the balance between a considered and provocative read on London issues and great international pieces that cover celebrities from America, with profiles and think pieces."

As testament to his vision, Thomson has already commissioned former Time Out favourite Jon Ronson to cover gambling. And has also enlisted, former Jack editor, Michael Hodges as a new columnist.

When asked to describe his editorial style, he says he is "very hands on. I like working with words and getting involved in all the pages. I also like working with art directors choosing cover images.

"I want to edit from the coal-face. My first big challenge is to find a new Art Director, so if there's any out there who fancy it. Historically we've had some of the best magazine covers ever so it's a big challenge."

Thomson will be expected to involve himself in how to market Time Out: his appointment coincides with that of a new marketing director, John Luck, who joins from Coca-Cola.

There's no room on Time Out to lure readers with cover-mounts. But Thomson isn't the kind of editor who'd be interested in taking that route: "The way to get people talking about Time Out is to have good ideas and strong opinions. We have to have people on the magazine who are prepared to say provocative things and put their necks on the line."

His opinionated leadership style is likely to be a wake-up call for Time Out's tight-knit team, where section editors tend to stay: between five and ten years is the average. Sarah Kent, the editor of the art section, has worked there since 1975, according to Elliott. He comments: "Staff stay a long time because it's a nice place to work and people get on with each other."

So how will Thomson reconcile his energetic vision with ensuring he doesn't upset the magazine's status quo? Says Thomson: "My responsibility is to energise the staff and make them feel part of something new and exciting. When I look at the Guardian Guide I see more cynics than critics. We have some of the best critics in the business who are professional, well-respected and incredibly knowledgeable."

He adds: " Time Out has been treading water for a wee while and this is a huge opportunity to make it one of the most exciting magazines in the country. Time Out at its best should be a cross between The New Yorker and Heat."

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