Stephen Glover On The Press: A periodical reminder of why the press needs to get more serious

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:29

Thirty or so years ago there was a widely held belief among journalists that the weekly magazine was doomed. The reason given was that the Sunday colour supplements, which then contained serious articles, were largely fulfilling the function of the weeklies, while costing a lot less.

Like many pieces of conventional wisdom, this one has turned out to be wrong. It is true that the BBC-owned Listener closed in 1991, and the New Statesman, though in recent years it has rallied a bit, sells fewer copies than it did in the 1970s. But the sales of The Spectator and The Economist have soared over the past quarter century. Private Eye, a fortnightly, has held steady. The Week and The Oldie (a monthly) have been launched, and serious monthly magazines such as Prospect and, more recently, Standpoint have appeared.

Remarkably, at a time when nearly all newspapers are losing sales, and celebrity and men's magazines are reporting significant circulation losses, the cerebral weeklies and monthlies continue to grow. In the first half of this year the circulation of The Oldie climbed 15.5 per cent, to 28,862, compared with the same period last year. The Spectator rose 5.1 per cent, to 76,952; the UK sale of The Economist grew by 5.6 per cent year on year to 182,539. The Week was up 4.5 per cent, at 150,099, and Prospect's circulation rose 10.7 per cent to 27,552. The New Statesman, which has been without an editor for much of the period, did not release figures.

These increases have occurred at a time of belt-tightening, and despite these titles commonly costing between £3 and £4 an issue. To attribute their success to more professional marketing is to miss the point. The vast marketing budgets of newspapers have not prevented their slide. These magazines are evidently providing what many readers want, albeit in a smaller market than the newspaper one, and their success shows that the negative trend against the printed word on newsprint is not a universal one.

Admittedly, weekly, fortnightly and monthly magazines have not been undermined by the internet in a way that daily papers have, though some of them do have a presence on the web. They are more ruminative, and less time-sensitive, than newspapers, and there is no advantage in reading The Economist or The Week on-line. On the contrary, there are few greater innocent pleasures in this life than curling up on a sofa, or on a rug in the garden, or even on the train, with a decent magazine in one's hands.

But to bang on too much about the internet as the distinguishing factor between newspapers and magazines seems to me rather dangerous. If weeklies and monthlies are putting on sales while so-called quality newspapers are losing them, it is partly because they are doing something better. When pundits said 30 years ago that Sunday colour supplements threatened the weeklies, they were right, as in those days such supplements carried articles that might be found in weeklies. That is hardly any longer true. Which of us now looks forward to picking up a Sunday supplement as one might have done 25 years ago?

These cerebral magazines provide more considered, and sometimes longer, articles, than are available in most quality newspaper supplements. Some are wittier, others simply more authoritative. They tend also to have a better sense of their readers. The Oldie (which I am sure has a long way to go; I can say that, no longer being a shareholder in the magazine) speaks more directly to its over-50 readers than The Daily Telegraph, whose glossy Saturday magazine is aimed at thirtysomething metropolitan creatures who do not form the nucleus of the newspaper's readership.

Perhaps we should not complain. Perhaps, indeed, we should rejoice that these grown-up magazines are flourishing, and have not been driven to the wall by newspapers. Who can doubt, though, that the multi-sectioned quality weekend titles that land on our doormats with a thud are missing a trick?

Is this another Sarajevo moment?

The bizarre agreement between The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail that neither should ever write about the other was broken last week, whether deliberately or inadvertently I cannot say. On Wednesday the Telegraph's Mandrake column (which, incidentally, is dingily laid out and should be re-designed) reported that 'the newspaper columnist Allison Pearson is being sued by Miramax for the recovery of a £350,000 advance for a novel she has allegedly not yet delivered. This newspaper's Pandora column ran a similar item. What Mandrake did not mention is that Allison Pearson is a Daily Mail columnist. Its item was therefore a serious infraction of an agreement that has hitherto been religiously observed by both the Mail and the Telegraph.

History teaches us that a rogue sniper can start a war. The Mail may overlook this particular bullet, but, if Mandrake should fire off another, it will surely retaliate, and the sacred concordat will be dust.

On-board gas smells of deliberate fuel leak

A piece on the front page of The Sunday Times eight days ago will have given No 10 a fillip. That is no doubt because the story, under the byline of the often brilliant Jonathan Oliver, came directly from the Prime Minister's aides, beautifully wrapped in a ribbon. "Brown's £150 fuel gift to parents" was the headline. The piece, which sometimes sounded like a Government hand-out, described how Gordon Brown is planning to make a one-off payment to help assuage soaring fuel bills (and doubtless save his bacon).

What was so odd about this seemingly impeccably sourced story was the lengths to which it went to conceal its No 10 origins. Readers were asked to swallow a long-winded and improbable yarn about how Sir Brian Bender, a senior civil servant, had been overheard talking to a colleague on 25 July on the 3.05pm GNER train service from Leeds to London.

His lengthy quotes, many of them favourable to Mr Brown, had miraculously been inscribed by a passenger in the same first-class carriage "who holds a senior position in the media" and just happened to have quick-fire short-hand. I am not sure I can remember so elaborate – and implausible – a smokescreen.

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