Ian Burrell: Tailor-made and looking the part: is this the future of journalism?

Media Studies: Langmead’s hybrid role means he works with the buyers who decide which clothes go on the website

Ian Burrell
Monday 14 January 2013 02:16

You might think a publisher whose idea of technological innovation is based on tying a dickie bow in the correct manner had little to teach you about the future of media.

But you would probably think differently after visiting the headquarters of Net-a-Porter, the fast expanding online fashion retailer that is increasingly a home for feature writers, photographers, page designers and film-makers.

The company's reception, with its white sofas and jet black furniture, is like the lobby of a five-star hotel. And in its central workplace, beneath a large chandelier, endless rows of young staff sit at computer monitors, each lit with stylish white lamps to protect their eyesight.

It is a hive of activity at the top of the giant Westfield shopping mall in West London, next to BBC Television Centre. As the BBC starts to leave this neighbourhood, a new media employer is growing up.

Jeremy Langmead, the former editor of Wallpaper* and Esquire, is central to this operation and the journey he has travelled is indicative of wider changes in the future funding of media and what exactly constitutes "journalism".

For a little over two years, Langmead has been editor-in-chief of Mr Porter, the men's fashion division of Net-a-Porter. It now produces a weekly online magazine, The Journal, in addition to a 40-page print edition called The Mr Porter Post (soon to grow to 80 pages), an electronic missive that goes out three times a week, an annual paperback and an iPad app called The Tux (featuring an interactive guide to knotting a bow tie).

The project has been deemed so successful by Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet that she has hired Lucy Yeomans, the former editor of Harper's Bazaar, to create an editorial offering for the more important women's side of the business.

Customer publishing has largely been the preserve of specialist businesses – such as Redwood and John Brown Media Group – which produce media for corporate clients. Net-a-Porter is an example of how such an operation can be developed in-house.

As traditional media fractures and news organisations downsize, more factual storytellers – whether they work with words or images – will be obliged to follow the money to the new commissioners of content.

Langmead has quickly seen his editorial team grow to 33. But, immersed in a retail business, can he really still consider himself a journalist at all? It's a question he has already asked himself. "I ponder over that. I sometimes think 'Am I a journalist or a former journalist?' I suppose I would say I am a multiplatform content director – and journalism is definitely part of that."

His hybrid role means he works closely with the buyers who decide which clothes go on the website and accompanies them on trips to meet designers. But he argues that this means Mr Porter speaks with a more authentic voice than some advertiser-dependent magazines. "Everything we sell we have chosen, so we are writing about brands we like. I'm selling less I don't like here than on a magazine."

Essentially, the content in Mr Porter's multiple publications performs the role of a personal valet, offering style advice that gives readers confidence to make a purchase on the website. "Men tend to want more advice and confirmation about what they are going to buy," says Langmead.

Despite his past career in magazines and on The Sunday Times, he wanted an iPad app with "hardly any words". All the stories are narrated (some by Terence Stamp), so you can listen to the app without looking at it. The visuals exploit interactivity to allow a user to see their reflection in a Junghans watch or change the nap of a material with a stroke of the iPad.

The Tux is intended to sell tuxedos online. "We've discovered that if you put a black tie on you are much better looking, you are in a party mood and the girls like it – what's not to like?" says the editor-in-chief.

The Journal is updated with eight or nine features a week and has hosted lifestyle columns from a "Grumpy Groom" preparing for a wedding and a dad who wants his son to grow up with style. Despite its anglicised tone, Mr Porter has a large customer constituency in the United States and the site will soon be translated into French, German and Chinese.

For this reason, Langmead is reluctant to run heavy features or edgy comedy which might cost the site money. "You can be more wicked in a print magazine. If you annoy someone here you have lost a customer."

But American celebrity publicists have warmed to the site. Hollywood's Elijah Wood was a recent interviewee. "One shoot goes global and on that interview we can also run a trailer or a video if it's a musician. It just gels for them."

The seven times a year newspaper edition is easy to produce – content is repurposed from the website for a tactile format that is distributed in hotels and airport lounges. The paperback too is a cleverly presented reprise of the The Journal's best work from the year. Each format helps widen the demographic of Mr Porter's shopping clientele.

Langmead admits it was a "really stressful" learning curve when he first left magazines. This week he will be in Paris and then Milan looking for new product to buy, to write about and to film. The advantage to his employer in taking editorial in-house is clear. "It's so much easier to create the story rather than rely on someone else to translate what you are saying."

It's not journalism as we have known it. But these new publishers will create career opportunities. And as editorial bleaches into advertising and public relations then perhaps genuine news sites will become more distinct and users will be more willing to pay subscriptions for them.

The buzzwords that can easily backfire

PR professional Hamish Thompson, of Twelve Thirty Eight, has ingratiated himself with journalists by compiling a "Buzzwords 2013" report identifying the most annoying expressions used by his peers.

Hacks hate it when PRs offer to "reach out" to a journalist. They resent emails that talk of "collateral" , "end-users" and "going forward", when publicists mean content, customers, and in the future.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the PRs who mostly cold call or cold email journalists are younger than those they are addressing and more likely to have adopted the West Coast lexicon that is the lingua franca of the digital sector.

Thompson's report has caused alarm among top PR firms who apparently pay top dollar for recruits who speak fluent Silicon Valley.

"The report seems to have become a bit of a training manual at some of the biggest and most expensive consultancies," says Thompson.

"Which suggests the market rate for 'reaching out' and 'circling back' is higher than the rate for just 'phoning up'."

If the weekend starts here, then where will it all end?

Hugh Grant stars in a supposedly "satirical" new film for Guardian News & Media called Own the Weekend.

The film – shown online and in cinemas but not on expensive television – jokes that people will soon become so busy reading GNM's newspapers that they will refer to Saturday and Sunday as "The Guardian and Observer weekend".

It does not have the multimedia message of GNM's award-winning Three Little Pigs campaign last year and seems primarily concerned with disguising the fact that The Guardian is now more expensive than any of its competitors, having just raised its price by 20p to £1.40 on weekdays and £2.30 on Saturdays.

The company's precarious financial position, with annual losses of £44m, is the talk of Fleet Street and the Saturday sale (around 350,000 and propping up a weekday circulation of around 165,000) is critical. Rather than "owning" the weekend, it is more likely to be abandoning the rest of the week.

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