Can 'Smash Hits' survive the end of Take That?

Editor Kate Thornton, 23, must cope with falling sales, a shrinking market, and now a 'death'. By Andy Beckett
SMASH HITS had had a bad week. On Tuesday, the giggly pop magazine's favourite coverboys, a quartet of clean jaws called Take That, announced that they were splitting up. After five years publishing swooning interviews, fan letters, flattering pin-ups, and all the yards of free PR the band required, Smash Hits received no proper advance warning.

On Wednesday, everyone else had the story, from the Daily Telegraph (page 3) to the Sun (six pages, with poster). That day's new issue of Smash Hits, printed the week before, had Take That's Mark Owen in the corner of its cover, hugging a furry Valentine's Day heart as though he was in the teen-band business forever. The next issue would not be out for a fortnight.

In Smash Hits' cluttered box of an office above Oxford Street, a dozen men and women in their mid-twenties grappled with the Take That problem. The next issue had been planned and part-written before the split; most of this would have to be dumped and replaced by a "memorial special": the story of the split, the story of the band - from the magazine's Take That archives, now scattered inches deep on the floor - with a loving final cover, even stills from their last video ("Apparently they die, they drown," said the features editor).

Her boss was shut away in a corner room, away from the chatter and boom of the office stereo. Kate Thornton is 23, three years out of journalism school and the youngest-ever editor of Smash Hits; this will be her first issue. "It's writing itself," she said with a slightly fixed smile, between opening the door to shout for quotes and photos. "When things come to this, people turn back to Smash Hits."

Ms Thornton needs to hope so. A week before, Smash Hits' sales dropped to 245,000, down by a fifth on the same period last year, and down by three-quarters on 1989, when it outsold every other British magazine save Radio Times. Last year Smash Hits was "relaunched"; this year it will be "not relaunching but redesigning". Parts of it, said Ms Thornton, "do really need to be looked at".

She will be examining an institution. Smash Hits started in 1978, when an editor named Nick Logan grew tired of telling students which punk records to buy at the New Musical Express. He left with an idea for something less earnest: "There was a songwords magazine around. My sister-in-law, who was 17, used to read it. All it did was print song lyrics on bog paper. I thought I could take better layout, better photos from the contacts I had ..."

Logan put his idea to Emap, a fledgling publisher of angling magazines above a shopping centre in Peterborough. It said yes, but wanted to call it Disco Fever; he stood firm for The Hit. They settled on Smash Hits.

The first issue was patched together on Logan's kitchen table in Wanstead, east London. There were no other well-produced teenage pop magazines, and Smash Hits had a formula: glossy paper, properly printed lyrics, pull-outs and pin-ups, and a new, appealing attitude to pop stars. For every blue-eyed stare it printed, there was a star in a silly pose - recoiling before a biscuit tin full of readers' questions, say, or draped with onions on the front cover. There were nicknames - the saintly Cliff Richard became "Sir Clifford Richard" - and mocking classifications: the overly literary Morrissey was a "weirdo". Every sentence was kinked with puns and insider quips; the 13-year-old readers were made to feel like members of some irreverent backstage fanclub.

Sales rose quickly into six figures, then towards seven. Staff spoke in arch Smash Hits voices. Emap used the magazine as a training ground and profit-source to set up other publications.

But this power was fleeting. The magazine was really a slick twist on an old-fashioned idea about teenagers: that pop was still their single, overwhelming interest. By the Nineties it wasn't: spending on video games overtook music. Footballers, film stars, and supermodels jostled for space on bedroom walls. Smash Hits restyled itself as "Pop Music And Much More", but readers fell away in annual chunks of 100,000.

Other magazines copied it too. More directly sexual girls' publications such as More and Sugar (founded by a former Smash Hits editor) made it look innocent. The BBC's accompanying magazine to Top Of The Pops, begun last autumn, quickly drew a circulation of more than 100,000. All the time, this increasingly competitive market was shrinking: the number of teenagers has dropped by a quarter since 1983.

Newspapers, radio and television stole Smash Hits' style and staff. The short, celebrity-fixated attention span of programmessuch as The Big Breakfast appealed to viewers' memories of Smash Hits' cheeky pages. Those pages, meanwhile, were finding Nineties pop more difficult to cover: "Smash Hits can't present dance music," says Andy Blake, a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of East London. "How do you publish the lyrics?"

The Take That split could be seen as a further slip in the magazine's failing grasp - the end of an old-fashioned boy band, a type it championed but which is now increasingly rare. Ms Thornton, of course, saw it differently: their "obituary" would be an opportunity. She pointed to one of her reporters. Helen Lamont has written a university dissertation on how music magazines mediate between fans and bands. "Take That followers are looking to us, to be sympathetic to what they're feeling," Ms Lamont said. "I've had people crying down the phone to me."

There is not a hint of mockery in her eyes. But then she does have a giant Mickey Mouse soft toy on her desk.