A real disappointment

I’m feeling rather like a divorcée who’s just heard that her exhusband, the one who abruptly dumped her years back, has suddenly died: sadness and warm memories combine with just the vaguest urge to dance on his grave.

H Bauer has this week announced that Real, the magazine I launched in 2001 and which fired me a year later, has gone into a “consultation period”.

Which is management-speak for “we want to get rid of everyone but we’re following legal protocol so we won’t have to pay a bean over the statutory minimum”.

That Real will surely close comes as no surprise since it never really soared. At its full price of £1.50 its circulation never exceeded 170,000 – heavily bulked at that. When the cover-price was slashed to £1, making it cheaper than some weeklies, it failed to put on even the third extra sales it needed just to stand still.

I set the magazine up, hired the (excellent) staff, established a template and style which wasn’t chucked out so much as watered down after I’d gone.

So, mea culpa. However, there were conceptual flaws.

Although it has titles across Europe and the US, H Bauer is essentially a German company where two of the most profitable women’s titles are Gruner & Jahr’s Brigitte (circulation 900,000) and Burda’s Freundin (600,000). Both are fortnightly. For Bauer, which likes a high turnover and is most confident publishing true life and TV listings weeklies, this was a much more attractive business proposition than a monthly.

Moreover in Britain there seemed to be wide open space between the weeklies and glossies. Traditional readers of Woman, Woman’s Own, Bella and Best were turning away in droves. A new generation of better-educated and more affluent working-class women, wanted something that reflected their higher aspirations. They didn’t want some bog-paper weekly their mum read, with tried and tested reports on brands of canned soups.

But a monthly was full of £450 designer frocks worn by women who obviously didn’t have children or mortgages. The weekly reader was pressing her nose to the window of an unattainable life.

Meanwhile, at the lower end of the monthly market was a large group who, once they’d passed 30, made babies and had less disposable income, stopped buying their favourite monthlies. They still liked lovely things, but were cynical about glossy promises and wanted to read features more engaged with their lives. Yet they wouldn’t be seen dead with a weekly.

So, let’s take the stuff people like best in the weeklies – stories about real people and relevant, helpful features – and combine it with the photography, presentation and design of a monthly. Let’s make a magazine which doesn’t try to dupe women with false promises, but is intelligent, attainable and truthful.

And let’s pitch it up the middle in terms of price, pagination, paper quality and frequency. That was my brief for Real.

But, for a start, publishing every fortnight is an unnatural rhythm, only attempted in Britain by Private Eye and More. If I couldn’t remember which Tuesday the new issue went on sale, what chance had the reader? And a question Bauer never properly addressed was where should Real go on the shelves? Put it with the weeklies and a £1.50 magazine looks overpriced, not as easy to chuck in your trolley as a 75p weekly.

Put it in with the monthlies and its 132 pages seem limp and anorexic compared to an ad-bloated 300-page Marie Claire.

And then, just a few weeks before we launched, Glamour came in and shook up the whole market. At £1.50 Real was intended to make the monthlies look expensive but here was a proper fat monthly for the same price – with a free CD! And with customary marketing genius, Condé Nast actually told the reader why Glamour had a dinky format (to fit in your handbag). Whereas deeply-conservative Bauer believes the clever strategies of modern marketing are new-fangled nonsense. And besides, they wouldn’t parade our USP that we were relevant and truthful because it might scare advertisers (of which more later).

Instead of reaping a rich middle ground, Real largely fell between two stools. Whilst the weekly buyer wants a quick, spicy read and a monthly buyer enjoys an indulgent treat, Real was too long and slow-paced for the former, too gritty for the latter.

What’s more it was an unwieldy and expensive title to produce: with 100 editorial pages filled with high quality photography and meaty, indepth reports: Real was like putting out a monthly every two weeks. It was a chief sub’s nervous break-down, perpetually off-schedule and requiring around 40 staff.

And costs were not being off-set by the quality and quantity of advertising.

The Publishing Consultancy, the separate company that sells space for Bauer mags Рjust as the Oxpecker bird feeds off the ticks on hippos Рis set up to pull in Franklin Mint novelty thimble adverts for Take a Break, not to schmooze the chilly princesses of Clinique and Lanc̫me.

But then the core values of Real were in conflict with advertisers’ desires for an uncontentious, blandly aspirational environment. The magazine was supposed to be, well, real: honest, frank and fearless. And the empires of beauty, fashion and fragrance are predicated on the unreal; on image and illusion. One client went nuts because their ad was placed amid a feature giving anthropological explanations for men’s behaviour: they felt tainted by the picture of a caveman holding a barbeque sausage.

Nine months after launch, with sales and advertising below target, Bauer switched Real from the monthly perfect-bound format to weekly-style saddle-stitching.

There were more up-market weekly readers than down-market monthly buyers, it was reasoned, but the glossy format was putting them off. I felt then it was the wrong decision, that Real might have had a chance to build if it had kept its format but become a hard-hitting monthly. But anyway three months later I was gone.

Looking back, I’m still proud of the journalism we produced. Real beat the papers to some excellent human interest scoops, commissioned leading writers and had funny, sexy and original ideas. Yet, with two years’ hindsight, I wonder how many women actually want a magazine which is “real”? Are glossies there to confront the world or even to help us understand it better? Or are they purely a means of escape?

Janice Turner is a columnist for The Times, janice.turner@thetimes.co.uk. She is a former editor of That’s Life and Real.

She’ll be back in four weeks.

by Janice Turner

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