No fun with the big boys

‘Do you want to play where the big boys play? Do you?” publisher Felix Dennis taunted a quivering group of British editors. His talk to the British Society of Magazine Editors was entitled “Making It In America”, and from the full turn-out, it was apparent how many UK journalists still hold on to the American dream.

The idea of a daily visit from a personal stylist, being whisked up Fifth Avenue in a limo, having designers, politicians and Hollywood stars fawn at your feet – well, it’s very appealing when you’re applying mascara on the Northern Line.

But Dennis, for all the millions he made in the States (particularly with Maxim, the “first beer truck in the desert” of the US men’s market), presented a highly mixed view of working in America.

US salaries are at least double their British counterparts – a US fashion editor can earn far more than a UK editor-in-chief. Anna Wintour at the US Vogue and Grayden Carter at Vanity Fair passed the $1m salary mark years ago.

But although US magazines sell more copies (Vogue – UK 202,000, US 1.25 million; GQ – UK 123,000, US 800,000; Maxim – UK 250,000, US 2.5 million), the high wages are not paid for by readers. In the US, 80 per cent of magazine revenue comes from advertisers, 20 per cent from sales – a precise inversion of the British ratio.

And the editor’s job is not to create brilliant, original, exciting editorial to make a buyer pick it off the news-stand (most US copies are sold through subscription anyway), but to create the perfect environment for advertisers.

When Felix Dennis said “I love my advertisers but I love my readers more” – an uncontroversial statement in Britain – it was the source of wild trade debate in the US.

Just compare British and US editions and see the stultifying blandness of advertising-driven titles.

This month’s British Vogue is an explosion of rock, fashion, retro cool and avant garde. The US Vogue is restrained and safe. The British GQ has several great reads, including Adrian Deevoy songwriting with Robbie Williams. In the US GQ, a magazine Dennis referred to as “a huge, great bloated pig”, it is hard to find anything to read at all.

Herein lies the difference between art and business.

“Do you think,” Dennis roared at us in his Allen Ginsberg-meets-Robert-Maxwell delivery, “these serious men and women of corporate America give a damn about your creative freedom?”

Sex on a US cover is banned for fear of offending the Christian Right. Jokes are too risky – “There is no national sense of humour,” says one British editor in New York. “A joke could alienate half your readership.”

And there are are other gripes from Brits working Stateside. You are expected to schmooze ad clients at so many corporate events that you have little free time.

US magazines are far more rigid and hierarchical. “In America there is no merry sense of irreverence, no fun in stirring up the establishment, no throwing bottles from the back,” says a returned ex-pat. “Americans think of English journalists as corrupt alcoholics, but because we are less enslaved to publicists and advertisers, we have more integrity.”

US magazines may have double the staff of British titles, but they are far less flexible. “There’s no such thing as multi-tasking,” says another Brit. “In the UK, the same person could do some beauty copy, interview a celebrity and edit a page. In the US, everyone has their job and they stick to it.”

More staff means an editor has to spend far more time managing them. “In Britain I had to deal with 30 people’s problems,” says the same Brit. “In the US I have 60 people to moan in my office.”

Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t believe money is a motivating force for a huge number of British journalists. We really do enjoy that much-maligned creative process.

So, playing with the big boys may be exciting, may offer huge prizes, but it doesn’t look a whole lot of fun.

Has there ever been a more masturbatory exercise in publishing than Dad, the Government-funded title to be handed out free to expectant fathers?

If the aim is to persuade a mass market of 22 million British men of fathering age to be more involved in their children’s lives, why has the Government chosen the medium of an up-market, style-centric men’s magazine?

How Dad publishers Show Media must have congratulated themselves on their £50,000 state wad. They could afford Tony Parsons to write his Father & Son shtick (again), secure advertising from Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Burberry, plus – thanks to your taxes – afford a better weight of paper than that used by Vogue.

How desirable the Bill Amberg babysling (£285) and Jane Powertrack buggy (£429) look shot by the best still-life photographers. How hunky yet sensitive are the “real-life” dads like Joe, the music producer, and company director Mike.

Of course there is a market for upscale men’s style magazines. But it is, by its very nature, a small and exclusive one. Esquire (which Dad editorial director Peter Howarth used to edit) sells only 68,000 copies. If the Government wants to address the mass of ordinary blokes on average wages, they shouldn’t present fatherhood as something they can’t afford or aspire to. Enjoying your children, moulding their lives for the better, is actually something that doesn’t come with a big price tag and a designer label.

The sort of high-income New Man who will relate to Dad doesn’t need a free magazine to appreciate the fruits of his Y-fronts. In my experience, he never shuts up about them.

Maybe I’ve missed something, what with the war and all. Last time I looked, Amanda Holden was tacky tabloid totty, most famous for cuckolding poor old Les Dennis with Bob the Builder. But now I gather she is a cross between J-Lo and Kate Moss, starring this month on the cover of not one, but two glossy magazines, New Woman and Red. And don’t forget her appearance in the line-up in Vogue’s television issue last year. Truly Ms Holden’s publicist deserves a medal.

Last week in The Guardian, GQ editor Dylan Jones demystified the cover process by saying that however hard you try to pull in the Brad Pitts, sometimes you just have to go with the “best thing you have in the drawer”.

Amanda Holden is testament to some pretty empty art chests. And she shows the flaw in the women’s monthlies’ celebrity addiction – Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz may enhance your brand, but dimbulb D-list Brits off the telly actually diminish it.

Is Ms Holden – who plays a hairdresser in Cutting It because, well, she looks like a hairdresser – really an aspirational role model? Or does she have all the news-stand appeal of the lovely Debbie McGee?

Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Janice Turner

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