Success will lie in the small print

PROFILE: Tony Elliott: The creator of Time Out has set himself one big challenge in New York, says Simon Garfield
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There is one cliche about Tony Elliott that riles him more than anything: the notion that he has had only one good idea in his life. That idea was Time Out, the extremely successful London listings magazine he founded 27 years ago, and the source of his considerable personal wealth. Last night he threw a party to launch another good idea: Time Out New York.

Elliott, 48, is a quiet, modest man, yet the launch has been anything but. He flew most of his London staff over for the occasion. All week he has claimed that he is offering something New Yorkers have been deprived of, and that they can do without no longer: "one-stop" information about what their city offers every minute of the day. Not surprisingly, in public he has played down the possibility that he may fail, that the venture may lose millions. But the fact is that his "second great idea" is also the biggest risk of his life.

Elliott has, in fact, had many good ideas over the years, but Time Out has been the only endlessly successful one. Some of the them - a Time Out Live exhibition, a monthly arts magazine called 20/20 - produced only debts. There have been smaller successes, including the Time Out film and food guides, and Time Out Amsterdam, but nothing has come close to the prestige and payback enjoyed by the capital's listings magazine, which sells around 110,000 copies each week.

The magazine is neither as radical nor as influential as it was, but it still breaks important news stories - and fringe drama and arthouse films continue to live or die by its judgements. It has spawned imitators from Southampton to Glasgow. Many national newspapers have attempted to duplicate the formula, but none has managed to capture so accurately the young beat of a city.

Despite this, some people seem to be rather disappointed in Elliott, and point to Richard Branson as an example of what he might have been. This may not be a disappointment he feels himself: global domination has never really been his thing. Elliott's problem is a simple one: the magazine works so well that there is not much for him to do any more. Several attempts to branch out into local radio and television have been thwarted, and probably just as well. For he has learnt from experience that his company does one thing better than anyone else: the packaging of information.

It has been fashionable over the years to suggest that the changes in Time Out have reflected the changing life of its owner. It is more the case that Tony Elliott has adapted his product to the mood of the times. A much publicised battle with his staff in 1981, ostensibly over his attempts to end pay parity (which meant that an editorial assistant was paid as much as the editor), was also about wider issues, notably the direction of the magazine at the dawn of a more consumerist decade.

The failure of the competitors, City Limits and Richard Branson's Event, both of which launched shortly after the staff dispute took Time Out off the streets, suggested he had gauged the mood right.

His most public battle of the Eighties concerned an attempt to wrest advance television listings from the monopoly of the television companies, and his eventual success freed up the supply of broadcast information not only for the back of his magazine, but for anyone who wanted it.

After some traumatic personal upheavals, including a heavy drinking problem and a failed marriage to Janet Street-Porter, Elliott's domestic life these days is ordered and happy. He is remarried with three sons, living in a large house in St John's Wood that took his architect friend Piers Gough almost a year to transform. He also has a holiday home in France. His tastes are seldom complex: he is most relaxed in jeans and uneasy in ties; he likes Elvis Costello and consumer gadgets and good functional design.

Recently he compiled a list of the changes he most welcomed over the past 25 years. World peace perhaps? The fall of the Wall? Actually, he applauded the arrival of the videocassette recorder, being able to buy tickets over the phone by credit card, bank cash machines, continental- style cafes and bars replacing pub culture, late-night supermarkets and residents' parking schemes - all advances tellingly close to the hearts of his readers.

He is fascinated by all forms of media and communication, and once spent half a lunchtime in rapture over his newly purchased tiny mobile phone. He creates the impression that the pace of technological progress never moves quite fast enough for him.

Although he has a very critical eye, his editors encounter no political interference, and he is not one to follow a party line. He appears to like clear direction and precise thinking. I think he'd go for Blair this time: he appreciates modernisation.

Two years ago, on the occasion of Time Out's 25th anniversary, Elliott wrote, without much explanation, that London was much "better" than New York. It is too early to say whether the London magazine is also better than the New York version, as so much depends on accuracy and tone. The first cover, a duplicate of a London stalwart, features a beautiful babe with breasts visible. The theme is All-Night New York. Apart from the front features, the design looks very like the issues produced from Tottenham Court Road. It has everything you want if you want to go out, but this still may not be enough to tempt readers away from the competition, most notably New York magazine and the Village Voice which also provide extensive, if not complete listings.

Elliott is in a big game now, fraught with competitors' ill-will, far from the climate in which he started with pounds 70 in 1968. If it fails, he will not be losing money on his own, for he has brought in two wealthy backers to spread the risk. Sales targets appear modest - a launch at 50,000 per week rising to 70,000 after two years - and it is clear Elliott is in it for the long haul. But if Time Out New York succeeds, Elliott will be a media player as never before, and his third, fourth and fifth great ideas might girdle the world. Next stop: Time Out Anchorage.

The writer edited 'Time Out' in London between 1988 and 1990.

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