Tony Elliott: Time Lord

'Time Out' is the London institution that took over the world. Except that on the way it managed to miss out Manchester and Liverpool. The listings magazine's founding father tells Ian Burrell about his plans to make good the omission
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The Independent Online

More than 38 years after he used a £75 21st birthday gift from an aunt to found a magazine named after a Dave Brubeck record, Tony Elliott, the founder of Time Out, has made a discovery that he is especially excited about.

The revelation has come to him after a lifetime dedicated to taking Time Out from a listings sheet sold on the King's Road in Chelsea to one of the best-known names in global publishing, a £30m business with a foothold in America and franchises from Tel Aviv to Shanghai.

The discovery is this: that there are other cities here in the United Kingdom with the vibrancy and culture to justify a weekly Time Out magazine of their own. Next February, Elliott plans to launch simultaneously in Manchester and Liverpool.

"We have actively started looking at Liverpool and Manchester," he says. "I'm rather embarrassed but I've only really been to both in the last six months and in both cases I knew as soon as I stepped out of the railway station that there was a lot going on. Both cities are significantly smaller than London but the general infrastructures have become much more like it."

There were two trigger points for Elliott's decision to take Time Out north. The first was Liverpool being named as the European Capital of Culture for 2008. "At first we suggested to Liverpool city council that Time Out should do a guide," he says. "We started going to Liverpool and we've had dinners with important people who run things up there."

His interest in Manchester took off last year after the Guardian Media Group took the decision to close down the city's much-loved and well-established listings magazine City Life. "That was a wake-up call about Manchester to say the least. We've been to Manchester and it's fantastic. There's a lot of people of the right age and background flooding back to both cities. People up there keep talking about the 'returnees'. Lots of apartment blocks are being built, there's lots of new bars and restaurants. They've become very vibrant cities and we are incredibly enthusiastic about doing this."

There's one potential hitch to the venture. "Frankly, we need to raise about a million pounds to make sure it's got proper finance and can happily have at least a three-year window to make it work. We would like to find somebody who wanted to be our financial partner."

As he sits drinking a glass of black tea and looking out of his London office window, with its views of the copper dome of the British Museum's reading room, Elliott muses on a long-standing check on his publishing ambitions. "It's no secret that we've not had quite enough working capital to develop quite as quickly as we know we'd like to and our doors are open for someone who wants to get involved as a financial partner."

Elliott is no pauper. He was ranked at equal 644th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2006 with a personal wealth of £91m. He is fiercely proud of Time Out's reputation for independence and has always resisted the temptation to float or sell his business.

He may, however, be prepared to loosen his grip just a little if the offer is right. "We've been discussing internally the pros and cons of considering some kind of IPO [initial public offering] down the line. It would be absolutely wrong to say that is exactly what we are going to do but that is clearly an option. There's a lot of implicit danger in all of that, things get distorted by ramping a company up. If one could do it in a balanced way that was also very successful, that would be very good."

That doesn't mean Elliott will do anything hasty, and certainly he won't be walking away. "It's not like a million pounds [that he's looking for] but it's a meaningful cheque. In return for that somebody would have a stake in the company. The key word there is partner. The truth is that it's not my intention to stop doing anything in the short term. I care passionately about the whole business remaining independent. I don't think anybody involved in the staff, or even the advertisers and some people who are listed would be ecstatic that Time Out was just a subsidiary of Emap or News International or Google or whatever.

"The trouble at the moment is that there is an awful lot of these private equity funds around, all of whose strategy is to grab anything that moves, fatten it up as quickly as possible and sell it on for as much money as possible. In and around there are people who take a longer-term view. If you create value and a flow of dividends then everybody is happy."

Elliott is clearly a little disappointed that some of the big global media players haven't already availed themselves of opportunities to partner Time Out, at least in areas of content. "One of the things that's slightly frustrating is that we have fantastic resources and some of the bigger networks like the BBC, Google and Yahoo! ought to be partnering with us. We've got something which fits in with what they supply and that they don't really do. It is probably an era to come..." he says, tailing off.

Elliott has spoken about this with BBC director-general Mark Thompson, and has held talks with other corporation executives. Links between Time Out's website and BBC Online, which Elliott admires for its "genuine international reach", would certainly appeal to the publisher.

But progress has stalled, partly because of the BBC's unusual relationship with the world of commerce. "I think if the BBC was a full-blown commercial business we'd be in a relationship with them. But then again if they were a full-blown commercial business they wouldn't be where they are today."

With numerous websites offering free and detailed information on the London entertainment scene, Elliott has been more vulnerable than most publishers to the rise of the internet. During the past month, he has taken the daring step of putting all the listings from the London magazine online. Although the move has not been backed by promotion, it has led to a discernible rise in activity on TimeOut.com. But not everyone in the Time Out family is convinced it is the right way forward. "The people who run New York are very worried about putting all the information online because it might affect their subscriptions. There's a nervousness."

The New York edition relies heavily on subscriptions, which account for around 90 per cent of sales. In London, the proportion is less but has risen to 38,000 and is being "consciously driven up all the time".

Nevertheless, Elliott is convinced that putting content online for free will bring long-term benefit. "We can significantly increase the readership of Time Out by going online. My argument to the editor of the magazine would be that you currently have 450,000 readers of the printed magazine. By putting the whole magazine online you could be creating a readership of a million and a half, maybe two million over two years. That means we can hook into the Time Out world people who are unlikely to be regular readers of the magazine."

Three years ago Elliott told this newspaper that he could see no reason why people wouldn't be willing to hand over £1 for each time they viewed Time Out listings on the internet. "The casual purchaser who wants to use the Time Out service has to go to the newsagent and pay £2.20," he said. "What's the difference between them coming to our site and being asked to pay £1?" The magazine cover price has since gone up to £2.50 but Elliott now accepts that he is not going to get his pound.

"At one stage I was very adamant that it was better to have 150,000 customers paying subscription than tons of people getting the service for free. That clearly is an era that's gone. I don't know a single person that's happy to go to a website and sign up and pay. We are not unfortunately going to have weekly or annual subscriptions but maybe that's not appropriate anyway because you are not really offering them the same sort of service. It's a database that you dip in and out of, whereas with a magazine you get a whole package. That also goes to the heart of why I don't think sales of the magazine will drop dramatically."

Instead, the website must be made to deliver revenue through advertising. "We are in an incredibly strong position to grow advertising online because the core of Time Out is a series of mini magazines - film, theatre, gay, kids. You have section-based advertisers and we can get those people to expand their advertising with us into the online sectors, such as theatre online, where we have a real reputation."

He has set himself the target that by 2012, the year of the London Olympics, Time Out will be "absolutely recognised as the leading source for information on what's going on around the world in cities".

Elliott, who appears much younger than his 59 years, also has a reputation as the power hippie who fell out with his right-on staff, leading to them founding a rival magazine, City Limits, which was run on co-operative lines but folded in 1992.

He accepts that Time Out is less political than it was but argues that times have changed. "One of the background issues which we must never lose sight of is that in the era 1968-81 the media was less sophisticated. The Independent wasn't around, there were less sections and there were only two commercial radio stations. I built the magazine out of the alternative culture. A lot of the issues in the magazine were the things we cared about in the early Seventies: racial equality, non-discrimination against gays, police harassment, housing. There weren't a lot of voices flying the flag for all those issues. Time Out, like others in the alternative press, flew all those flags."

At the time Mick Jagger observed that getting through the political material to check out the theatre listings in Time Out was like "crossing a picket line".

Three years after Time Out launched, Elliott himself said: "Profit could change Time Out and that would be bad." But by 1977 he was complaining about the "politically enthusiastic people" who "believe in a rather pathetic way in workers' control".

After Time Out was closed, temporarily, by a strike in 1981, Elliott reconfigured the magazine. These days it carries very little news at all. Elliott claims that some of the key political issues of the Seventies have "gone away" and that readers do not complain at the lack of current affairs coverage. "If you're a young investigative reporter now you'll find a slot on The Guardian, The Independent or The Observer. We don't need to do all that. We don't have the resources."

Elliott believes that the latest editor, Gordon Thomson, is delivering the product that Londoners want. "Gordon has seriously changed what we do. He had a very clear idea that was in a way quite old-fashioned, he cared about good writing and photography and he was very pragmatic.

"There was a period when we found ourselves chasing - I don't want to say celebrity covers because it gives the wrong impression - but there was an era when we were not creating stories to the extent we do now. If a new movie was coming out we would be trying to get Keira Knightley for the cover."

Elliott has described his family background as "very middle-class, Daily Mail". It was also troubled. His father was an occasional but rather intimidating presence who walked out on the family when Tony was 18.

The person he most admires in the media is Rupert Murdoch because, in spite of his vast empire, "he seems to know everything that's going on". Elliott too, it is said, shows great attention to detail and takes an intense interest in his own publications. He makes his own coffee and is perplexed at the notion that he might delegate the organisation of his diary.

He was previously married to Janet Street-Porter, with whom he remained such good friends after their divorce that she gave him away when he remarried. He now lives with his second wife, Jane, and their three boys in St John's Wood, north-west London.

Elliott's close friend, the architect Piers Gough, says he admires the publisher because "we share a love of having a really relaxed time and doing bugger all." Elliott is softly spoken, very polite, and doesn't appear to be wholly enthusiastic about his sons' obsession with urban music. Elvis Costello is more his glass of black tea.

It is hard to imagine him taking his pen and circling the most raucous of nights out featured in his own magazine but he fizzes with energy when discussing he business and he does appear to still genuinely love London life. He coughed up £1,000 for Ken Livingstone's first election campaign, even though Red Ken once helped set up the rival City Limits.

Time Out London will, he says, unveil an increased circulation of just over 90,000 in the autumn ABCs. That's some way short of the 107,000 it managed in 1993 in the wake of Elliott's legal battle to carry TV listings. But in these times of fierce competition it is a vindication of Gordon Thomson's policy of themed issues with a London flavour.

When Elliott launched Time Out New York in 1995 it was the realisation of a dream that he had been talking of publicly since at least 1976. Rivals said it was a "crazy notion" and mocked its "extremely ambitious" sales target of 50,000. Today Elliott can describe Time Out New York (of which his group owns 44 per cent and which has a circulation of 138,000) as "hugely successful to a point where a lot of New Yorkers don't realise it was invented in London".

Last year he helped launch a new edition in Chicago (in which Time Out Group has a 22 per cent share) and his next target is the West Coast. "I believe we can establish a business in Los Angeles and will do it in about 18 months, two years' time. The big question in LA is the relation between online and print. It's very spread out and is maybe a good place for us to explore a slightly different model, with online leading and print being a supplement to online."

Elliott is heartened by the growing interest in the Time Out brand in continental Europe, with franchises being considered in Berlin and Lisbon, in spite of established local competition. Editions of Time Out are published under licence in 35 cities around the world, in languages that include Spanish, Russian, Hebrew and Chinese.

The most recent addition to the portfolio was Time Out Almaty (which, in case you didn't know, is the cultural capital of Kazakhstan). Launches will take place next year in Kiev, Delhi and Barcelona as well as Liverpool and Manchester. Ultimately Elliott's intention is to link the Time Out magazines through the website, creating a vast international resource. Time Out Group has also published 27 guide books. It is not a bad record for a man who, to his annoyance, has been described as someone with "only one good idea in his life" and criticised for being overcautious.

"I never wanted to do anything that was going to risk the business but I think if you look at what we've done in the last 10 years, it's pretty significant," Elliott counters. You'd think someone similarly wealthy might want to join him on the adventure.

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