'We can get under women's skins. The nationals can't compete'

The award-winning editor of 'Closer' magazine says public interest in celebrity will last as long as journalists can make it
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The Independent Online

It is eight o' clock in the evening when I call Closer magazine editor, Jane Johnson. Her staff have left, so there is nobody to console her when one of the mice that have taken up residence in Closer's offices pops out beside her desk. Johnson admits that she finds the rodent "a bit disconcerting", but she is glad to be alone. "It's good to get the team out having a life. There is a very long hours culture in newspapers and it distorts things. You can be in much better touch with your readers if you are out there talking to people. Someone is doing aqua aerobics tonight, which is a very exciting thing."

Johnson has not tried aqua aerobics. "Everyone else can have a life, I can't. But I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I've won a lovely award and I'm very happy." The award, from the British Society of Magazine Editors is for weekly women's magazine editor of the year. Johnson has just won for the second year in succession after taking Closer from launch to a circulation of 540,000 in two and a half years. Her success owes a great deal to the newspaper culture she criticises. Jane Johnson came from newspapers. She was assistant editor of The Scotsman and Daily Record and executive editor of the Sunday Mirror before moving to Emap's magazine division.

Closer's blend of celebrity, real-life stories, diets and fashion is a combination of popular newspaper journalism and traditional magazine values. Johnson says: "It is built on what magazines do really well, which is getting the emotion into a story and having very high production values, plus the newspaper values of getting the best story you possibly can and then writing it in a very engaging way. I make it look visually arresting and then I make it as newsy and addictive as possible."

The addictive bits include a weekly column by Colleen McLoughlin, girlfriend of England football star Wayne Rooney, and the Mr and Mrs Showbiz column, a direct challenge to the Daily Mirror's 3am girls. Last week Coleen's "Welcome to My World" - as opposed to Wayne's - revealed her excitement about a new split-screen television that lets couples sit together while watching separate shows. Apparently Rooney likes to watch football and Coleen prefers soaps. Mrs Showbiz, aka Catherine Woods, asks readers to guess: "Which celebrity shagger did his reputation no good when he bonked in the bath at a recent house party?" and hinted that: "He likes Loos women."

So, is Closer taking over from newspapers? Johnson says it can compete to break stories. She has recruited journalists from the Daily Mail and News of the World to make sure. She claims an advantage. "The female readership is the holy grail for newspapers, but we are always going to do it better in a magazine. We can think 100 per cent of the time about what women really want from a publication. Our readers never feel they are being catered for as an add-on.

"Closer tends to be sympathetic to the people we interview. We want the best story but we do tend to be sympathetic to women. Some papers, often because they are edited by a man, will take an unsympathetic approach. I get letters from readers saying: 'This is my magazine. You understand me. If I've got a relationship problem you're there for me.' They use Closer as guidance for their lives and to make them feel part of the world."

Johnson says some newspapers compete effectively for her readers - "The Mirror, from the perspective of being sympathetic, and the Mail from the perspective that it has some great sections for women." She is a big fan of Mail editor, Paul Dacre. "In terms of pure journalism Dacre is the best editor there is because his journalists have to be up to the highest standard and he never puts anything into the paper that he is not pleased with."

Last week The Observer announced the launch of a monthly magazine for women. The feminisation of titles including The Times, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph continues apace. But Johnson is unconvinced that any newspaper can really get under the skin of her readers. "Women need something that makes them feel included by the publication. That might mean campaigns, as well as great stories. But it is a moot point whether a newspaper can ever do that because it can't just be directed at women. Newspapers have to think of their male readers."

Jane Johnson read English at Brasenose College, Oxford, and started her degree the year that the Conservative leadership favourite David Cameron graduated. She says Closer would interview her fellow Brasenose graduate "if he would talk openly and honestly about his own family life, about the pressures of bringing up kids and the fact that he has a particularly difficult circumstance". But he would "make himself more interesting by getting some great celebrity connections, joining a boy band or going on The X-Factor. Most people are not finding the leadership contest the sexy story of the moment. Politics has become dull."

Johnson was never exactly excited by democracy. At Oxford she worked on the student newspaper Cherwell. "I had friends who teased me. They wanted to work for The Daily Telegraph or The Guardian. I wanted to work for the Daily Mail or the Mirror and to do stories everybody would talk about." Now she believes her perspective is mainstream. "I go to dinner parties with friends who work for The Guardian and they want to talk about what's happening on I'm a Celebrity. That is our world. When I went back to an Oxford reunion we were all saying: "Oh my God, Germaine Greer is on Big Brother. Can you believe it?"

Johnson does not rule out a return to newspapers. If the right job is offered she knows what skills she will take with her. "The thing magazines do better than newspapers is innovation. We have to think about the new trend before it happens. The market is extremely creative. Newspapers should not be so conservative. They have very talented journalists, but they do need to empower them a bit more. Newspapers are too hierarchical. There is more of a team spirit in magazines."

Can Closer continue the upward trajectory that has put it 7,000 sales ahead of OK! magazine and brought Johnson the recognition of her peers two years running? "Everyone keeps asking me when the celebrity bubble is going to burst. But it won't burst as long as we keep reinventing it." With that, the editor of Closer leaves her mice behind to join her partner, Sean, a hypnotherapist, and a nice bottle of wine.