John Dale: Popular journalism does not have to be trash

John Dale may be about to step down after 20 years at the helm of the country's biggest selling women's magazine but don't let that fool you into thinking he's about to retire.

'I just want to regain control of my schedule and my hours. As editor you can't really do that,'he told Press Gazette last night.

'I'm 64 and I want to set up an editorial business in Chiswick. I intend to do almost anything, I love journalism and I love being involved but I want to do it nearer my home and control my hours a little better."

H Bauer, the publisher of Take A Break, announced yesterday that in May next year Dale intended leave the magazine he helped establish.

His departure will be a significant moment for popular journalism in the UK as it will draw to a close one of the longest and most noteworthy national magazine editorships.

After starting his career on the Lincolnshire Times, Dale went on to work as a district reporter for the Daily Mail in Leeds in the 1960s/70s, then to The Observer before working as a roving reporter in Afghanistan, China, Iran and Iraq and as a freelance investigative reporter.

After helping H Bauer establish Bella magazine in the late eighties, Dale told Press Gazette he happened 'just by chance'to end up working, in 1990, on Bauer's latest magazine launch – Take A Break. Little over a year later he was editor.

'When I became editor I saw that a lot of magazines were out of sync with women, particularly women in the north. Women at that time were not just interested in Princess Diana or Jackie Collins; they were also interested in real life."

Dale says his idea was always to ape the style of the popular journalism he read in the Daily Mirror while growing up in the 1950s – that modus operandi has proved wildly successful.

A billion magazine sales

Over the course of his reign, Dale has won ten BSME Awards for his work on Take A Break - he is nominated again this year. Two years ago the magazine passed sales of a billion under his editorship, he said.

'The success of Take A Break came as it reinvented the women's weekly around true life coverage,'he said.

'I was able to build up a close relationship with the readers. A lot of the magazine is basically written by the readers, they contact us with their stories and we add a little editorial tidying."

Editorial tidying is the modest way of saying that the magazine quickly tapped into a desire to read about the real life concerns, loves and fears felt by women across the country.

Despite seeming to remain relatively low-key, Dale's Take a Break has become the fourth biggest selling magazine in the UK - and the biggest selling women's magazine - by eschewing celebrities in favour of offering its readers a winning mix of real life stories and smart grassroots campaigns. The magazine has established more than 70 campaigns on Facebook on topics as diverse as glamour modelling, coping with Chemotherapy and losing a spouse.

The real life formula for Take A Break has been much replicated but never bettered and Dale points Press Gazette to two notable campaigns run under his tenure.

Mum's Army, Dale said, was started at a time when the government wasn't taking seriously how anti-social behaviour was blighting the lives of his readers. He says the campaign helped keep anti-social behaviour on the political agenda despite politicians' attempts to downplay its affects.

In addition, Chums 4 Mums started as a magazine campaign about post natal depression that spawned a website that was eventually taken over by the NHS.

'I like to deal in serious subjects. I don't believe that popular journalism has to be trash – and I think that readers like that we write just as good a story about someone's life as we do about X Factor."

The editorial strategy helped the magazine consistently outsell its nearest rival – often selling double their circulation - without having to resort to price-slashing or offering the title at a discount, he said.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations it averaged a weekly sale of 848,843 during the first half of the year, down 7.1 per cent on the same period the previous year but more than 300,000 copies a week ahead of New! - its nearest rival in the woman's weeklies sector.

'I really am just dedicated to popular journalism. It has got a real role to play in helping ordinary people understand the world and their lives better,'Dale said.

'I like to get as high a standard as I can and I like a bond of trust with the readers.

'I think trust is often more important than it is given credit for. It makes the readers want to come back week after week. It's more effective [at bringing readers back] that your latest big money buy-up."

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