Can born-again She pull off the hardest trick?

DUNCAN EDWARDS looked like a man who’d pulled off an elaborate magic trick last week.

Take
two monthly magazines: a dowdy and stumbling old one and a gorgeous,
upmarket, zeitgeisty glossy. Cover with a velvet cloth, or rather a
zippy PowerPoint presentation and some effortful NatMags spin. Tap with
a magic wand and – voilà! – the rubbish old mag has miraculously
transformed into the new one.

The decision to close down She
magazine and then, in October, give the same name to a completely
different publication, run by a whole new team, is a nifty bit of
management lateral thinking. Something clearly had to be done about
She. With a circulation bumping along at about 150,000, its mix of
real-life stories and easy-peasy practicals is now done just as well by
weeklies such as Closer and Now, but with the added salsa of topical
celeb gossip.

Yet folding a magazine is awful corporate juju. It
looks defeatist and is bad for share prices and staff morale. So, apart
from She 1 editor Terry Tavner – who must have made a fortune in
pay-offs from failed projects over the years – the staff can be quietly
absorbed into other NatMag titles, or even re-recruited by She 2, with
no blood on the carpet.

The other key benefit of this strategy is
to give NatMags a launch in a year when it must be feeling very left
out, what with Condé Nast, IPC, Emap, Burda, Hachette and even Mr
Desmond pulling new toys from their wrappers. But in such a year, when
newsagents are boss-eyed trying to remember where to stack yet another
unfamiliar brand, NatMags gains all the benefits of a launch (a frisson
among advertisers, potential new readers) but with all the pluspoints
of an old title (recognition, a loyal fanbase and retail compliance).

Of
course, that is Edwards’ plan. But there are many who say the magazine
to be edited by Matthew Line will not be She 2, so much as She 6: yet
another refit for a title that stubbornly refuses to work.

True,
it is barely a year since Tavner’s real-life relaunch. Previously under
Eve Cameron, She was a bible of health hypes and psycho-blather.

Back
in 1990 under Linda Kelsey, She – very successfully – tapped into an
emerging stratum of career-minded older mothers, inventing that
now-famous term “women who juggle lives”.

Indeed, since it was
launched 50 years ago as a breezy, modern magazine, boldly covering
subjects then considered beyond the female domain, She has had many
faces.

But
can readers be persuaded to reconsider a title they once chucked
furiously across the room? Does the She brand carry too many negative
associations? Will promoting the new She be, as one publisher put it,
“like wading through the sea with a rusty iron ship tied to your back”?
Did NatMags initially intend to launch a new title but fail to secure
enough money from Hearst?

Some £2m is pledged to promote She next year, whereas Easy Living cost £13m. Few magazines have been reinvented successfully.

FHM (fey For Him turned muscular lads’ mag)
and Heat (Nick Hornby-esque listings title into girlie goss-fest) are
rare exceptions. But it is precisely because She has had so many
incarnations that it doesn’t emit a distinct readerrepelling vibe. And
the name itself is helpfully generic.

The more important question
is whether the project Line and his team worked on for 18 months before
NatMags renamed it She will grab those picky and curmudgeonly 35+ women.

Particularly
as Line’s vision is of a modern practicals magazine – domestic science
repackaged as emotional therapy. In research, women have told them that
making a birthday card or even stitching a quilt “connects them with
their female core nature”, and “gives stability in a complex world”.

While
the thought of Desperate Housewife Bree as 21st century role model
sticks in the feminist craw, it cannot be denied that in the US,
practicals titles such as Real Simple (1.4 million) and Martha Stewart
Living (2.4 million) do huge business.

And, judging from NatMags’
visual presentation last week, Line is hoping to replicate that
astonishing US art direction and photography.

Apart from the
doughty and dependable Good Housekeeping, the old British practicals
titles are in severe decline. Prima was down to 317,000 in its last
ABC. Meanwhile, Essentials (129,000), like a frump who wants one last
blast before she dies, has undergone an extreme makeover, going Glamour
size and funky with a headless cover model on the July issue which iD
might dismiss as too outré.

Not that these so-called practicals
magazines feature “makes” any more. Prima and Essentials no longer
carry sewing patterns. Crafts, apart from cooking, have recently been
seen as oldfashioned, time-consuming, even pitifully evocative of that
famous Woman’s Realm coverline “Knit your own Royal Family”.

But
NatMags makes the crucial point that women who get pleasure from the
domestic arts are those with time and choice. They are Yummy Mummies
whose children have started school. The less wealthy Prima or
Essentials woman is too busy scrabbling to pay her mortgage to dabble
in cross stitch.

The new She sounds rather like Easy Living was
expected to look but didn’t. Condé Nast has been keeping rather quiet
about this title which, along with heavy sampling activity and the fact
it has kept the price at £1.90, suggests the launch has been no tea
party. Its first ABC is expected to be about 180,000.

Easy Living editor Susie Forbes has decided her readers’ domestic competence is very low for her age.

The
cookery is very unchallenging: many women over 35 would scoff at the
headline “Don’t be afraid to make meringues”. Easy Living woman is
invited to solve her household problems by buying new stuff rather than
encouraged to be resourceful with tips and ideas, which she might
consider off-puttingly tryhard and uncool. And she is never asked to do
projects as taxing as make her own curtains or hollow out a pumpkin and
fill it with green jelly for a kids’ Halloween party. So perhaps She 2
might appeal to a reader too hip for Good Housekeeping yet requiring
more challenge than is offered by Easy Living.

Line is a creative
and well-connected editor whose tenure at Homes & Gardens is
recalled with admiration. His mission is to make She helpful and
inspiring without lurching into the bossy prescriptiveness of dear
Martha who, in her list of things to do in June, includes “vacuum
wallpaper”.

But like the US titles, he must create images so
devastatingly lovely that even a craft klutz like me will feel
admiration rather than abject despair. And this high-wire balancing act
is the hardest trick of all. ■

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

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