Jill Churchill, the editor who launched award-winning magazines during the 70s, 80s and 90s — Home & Freezer Digest, Practical Parenting, BBC Homes and Antiques — has died aged 74. She also masterminded the 80s re-launch of Family Circle — doubling sales in a year.
“Jill was a shining star,” said Audrey Eyton, Slimming Magazine founder and author of international bestseller The FPlan Diet, who first met Churchill at Woman in the 50s.
“Nothing about Jill was ordinary. She was way ahead of the rest in creativity and journalistic skills, and she was swiftly recognised by that great guru of women’s magazines, Mary Grieve.” Award-winning journalist Felicity Green said: “All her working life, Jill was a powerhouse of ideas and a shining example of that vital ‘can do’ journalistic spirit.
“She knew how to get things done by generating energy and enthusiasm in those working alongside her and by getting them to pull together as a team, without which nothing much can happen.” Yours editor Valery McConnell, who worked with Churchill at Family Circle, recalls: “Jill would sweep into a room with as much flair and hauteur as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. She was awe-inspiring.” Churchill began her magazine career in 1958 as a fiction sub-editor at Woman (then the world’s biggest-selling weekly).
She wanted to be a novelist and saw it “as a way to learn how to create bestselling romances, which I would pen from a villa in the south of France”.
Woman’s down-to-earth editor Mary Grieve decided otherwise and switched Churchill first to beauty editor, then to promotions editor. As the youngest senior executive, she was tasked with bringing the magazine into the swinging sixties.
This job took her to Paris, Scandinavia, Germany and New York — mainly in search of cover girls. It also led to interviewing President Lyndon B Johnson and his wife ‘Ladybird’ at their Texas ranch following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and to innovative projects as diverse as getting readers to write a pop song, masterminding the sale of 60,000 Beatle-style wigs and inventing annual ‘magic’ diets that ranged from Slim by Computer to Slim by the Stars.
In the 70s, the deep-freeze became one of the hottest things on the market and on a tiny budget, Churchill launched Home & Freezer Digest in 1974. It became a huge success — rapidly outselling Good Housekeeping and earning her the 1976 editor of the year award from the British Society of Magazine Editors.
Churchill’s next move was to Family Circle. Cakes came off the cover (for the first time) in favour of celebrities, and she introduced triumph-over-tragedy real-life stories. Circulation doubled within a year and awards followed: re-launch of the year and the editors’ editor.
Churchill went to New York to share her success secrets with Family Circle editors from around the world.
Yet more awards followed the 1987 launch of Family Circle spin-off magazine Practical Parenting — one of a series Churchill conceived and developed.
Her then boss, managing director Michael Bird, recalls: “When Thomson’s Practical Magazines was launched, the budget was tiny and the new offices needed to be furnished.
“I was delighted to find that Jill and her staff had been staging dawn raids on builders’ skips in the area and had acquired some quite respectable chairs and other useful items for nothing.” After seven years at Family Circle, Churchill began travelling as a consultant with the BBC TV Antiques Roadshow, which in ’93 led to yet another award-winner: BBC Homes and Antiques magazine.
“Jill was inspirational to work with — tough but fun,” said Nicholas Brett, deputy managing director and group editorial director of BBC Magazines.
“She was one of the first to master the secret of making successful BBC maga- zines — bonding with the public service programme makers. Jill won the trust and affection of the makers and presenters of Antiques Roadshow and replicated its qualities and strengths on paper.” When she retired, Churchill received many letters saying, “I owe my start to you”.
Dena Vane, retired Bauer Publishing USA editor-in-chief and Churchill’s number two at H&FD, said: “Jill knew how to spot and nurture those with potential, and bring out the best in experienced journalists. She was an instinctive editorial genius who got into the hearts and minds of readers and turned them into regular buyers.”
When Churchill was in the hospice, knowing she was dying and on strong painkillers, she still answered the phone with a chirpy “Jill Churchill” — sounding, as one friend put it, as if she was still at the helm and ready to ask the caller one of her favourite questions: so, what’s in it for the reader, then?
Jill is survived by a son and daughter.
A memorial service will be held at 11.30am on Wednesday 23 May at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London.