GQ editor Dylan Jones: 'Lads' mags did an awful lot to denigrate and sully our market... I'm completely happy to be in a market of one'

It’s around 30 degrees Celcius in London – and a great deal hotter than that on the Central Line to Oxford Circus, which I take to meet GQ editor Dylan Jones. Dishevelled, flustered and sweaty as I step into the Conde Nast building, I feel my efforts to impress the editor of Britain’s trendiest men’s magazine – making sure my socks matched the colour of my red tie – may have been in vain. Jones, predictably, is well turned out, in a sharp suit to match his neat, air-conditioned office.

Jones, an OBE who has edited GQ for 15 years and this month collected an editor of the year title at the PPA Awards, invites me to sit in a black leather chair perpendicular to – and at a lower level than– his neat desk. The 54-year-old, previously an associate editor of magazines for The Observer and Sunday Times, has recently had his office redesigned. His walls are decorated with GQ covers, cuttings of newspaper front pages following up GQ exclusives, and pictures of himself with the rich and famous – including one outside No 10 Downing Street.

GQ recorded an average circulation of 114,867 in the second half of 2014, down 4.4 per cent year on year. Along with Men’s Health, which had a circulation of 203,053, it is the only paid-for men’s title with a six-figure circulation. It also recorded digital edition sales of 12,173 and claims to attract 1.15m unique website browsers. This print circulation is down around 15,000 on the title’s average 2008 circulation but, compared with other titles in the men’s magazine sector, it has fared well: Nuts, Maxim, Front and Arena have all closed in recent years, while the circulations of FHM, Zoo and Loaded have dropped dramatically over the past decade.

Why has GQ survived while so many other men's titles have gone to the wall?

Firstly, because we have always invested in editorial quality. When I arrived here… if GQ was renowned for anything, it was renowned for being a sort of yuppy bible. But what it really wasn’t renowned for was its journalism. And I thought, let’s go out and get the best journalists we can.

Secondly, we have always operated at the top end of the market. If you look at the huge growth in men’s magazines in the 90s, at the lads’ mags era, they were all down-market products, tabloid products.

And thirdly, we have had huge investment in digital. We certainly haven’t been the first… we didn’t want to launch a tablet app before we were ready, we didn’t want to launch a phone app before we were ready. It took a long time, a lot of energy, a lot of money, but we have finally arrived at a product that we were all very happy with.

Why do you think the popularity of lads’ mags has fallen so rapidly in recent years?

Quite simply because all of those magazines, the defining characteristic of them, was sex. And when circulations dipped… almost as one that market panicked by pressing their button. And the only button they had was the sex button, so consequently the product becomes more extreme, more pornographic, and it becomes rather tawdry.

Plus, they were moving into a period where there was a massive migration in digital. And – I assume – people don’t go into WH Smith and buy dirty magazines any more. They look at it online.

And the third reason is that I think the joke wore thin. I think for 18 months in the mid-90s ‘new lad’ culture was very funny – incredibly vibrant, it chimed with Brit Pop, it chimed with that whole sort of art movement. It was very exciting, but cultures change, people move on, and people grow up.

Did lads’ mags have a negative impact on the reputation of the men’s market as a whole?

I think about 15 years ago there was a problem, yeah – maybe even later. I think that lads’ mags did an awful lot to denigrate and sully our market. [But] they did bring a lot of [young men] into the market.

Are you personally glad to see the back of lads’ mags? And are other magazines, such as GQ, guilty of having too much nudity?

I think that in the grand scheme of things lads’ mags denigrated our culture. But, no, I think it is fundamental that any magazine has a libido, whether you are French Vogue or Vanity Fair. And if you look at our magazine there is nothing in there that couldn’t appear in either of those magazines.

What do you make of the state of the magazine industry as a whole?

It’s terrible what’s happened to our industry. However, there are lots of people running around like headless chickens complaining that the world is over. But there will be winners and losers. And you have to adapt. And if you don’t adapt, you die.

How many contributors does GQ have overall?

Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds – and they’re all over-paid.

How do you commission journalists to write articles for the magazine?

We approach them. Every month there will be something in the magazine that will have been pitched – or maybe once every two issues. But we tend to identify people and go after them rather than the other way around.

Considering the state our industry is in, you don’t get as many unsolicited approaches as you might expect. It’s sad. But if you don’t ask you don’t get.

Who do you see as your main competitors?

My publisher always belly aches about us being the last man standing, but I’m completely happy to be in a market of one. Men’s Health is a very vibrant title… but I don’t see much competition out there.

To be honest with you, I think a lot of the competition comes from newspapers, because newspapers have identified that the only growth in advertising sector is coming from the luxury goods area that we are in. And also there are a lot of online magazines and websites which are part of the sector.

But you can’t really worry about anyone else. I think you have to be totally aware of who your readers are but I think you have to edit by gut. You can’t start running around worrying about the competition… you have to be confident in what you are doing.

How is the magazine doing financially?

Brilliantly, thank you very much.

And compared to 15 years ago?

Better… I mean there are less people in our market, although as I say we are being attacked in these other areas. But business is good… business is very good.

And, having previously worked for newspaper magazines, what do you make of the current state of that market?

I worry about it. I worry about it a lot…

I think it’s vital, I think it’s fundamental, that people [adopt] the paywall. I think what The Times have done, they have been very brave. I think the Telegraph are doing [well]. I do not understand why The Guardian gives away thing for free. I have never understood that and I never will….

I fear for it [the newspaper industry]. I don’t have a magic wand, but I’m a keen advocate of charging for content… If you give people things for free they expect to keep getting it for free. It’s very simple – the psychology is not difficult to understand.

Will GQ’s website be going behind a paywall?

We are experimenting with various models now. Like everyone else we are scrambling around in the dark trying to find a model that works for us. It’s fundamental that every part of our offer is paid for.

The thing is, like you – or maybe you’re a genius and you know – I don’t know what the media landscape is going to look like in a few years. But the thing is no one else does… nobody knows anything. It makes it scary, but it also makes it kind of invigorating too.

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