One year on: the free mag that changed the rules of the game

What we do is magazines and it’s not very serious. We’re not heart surgeons who might have botched an operation during the day. So says Simon Caney, editor of Sport magazine, who can afford to sound relaxed about his first year in charge of a magazine that has the potential to turn the newsstand model on its head.

The concept was simple enough. Caney and his team gave away more than 300,000 copies of its weekly men’s glossy to ABC1 Londoners and success has duly followed. Caney bagged a British Society of Magazine Editors award for launch of the year and his magazine leapt to the top of the men’s lifestyle circulation table in the ABC figures in the first half of 2007.

Rewind 18 months to May 2006, and Caney found himself in the right place at the right time – having just returned from a six month stint in Sydney working on the launch of Emap’s lads’ weekly, Zoo. After almost 17 years at the publishing giant, a coffee date with former colleague Robin Miller, chairman of Sport’s advisory board and former chief executive of Emap, led to his current job.

Making its mark

Sport Media & Strategy first launched Sport in France in 2004, where it is now distributed in more than 50 cities and has a circulation of 550,000. Caney says he was initially hesitant, because traditionally general sport magazines had not had much success in the UK, but he changed tack after hearing that the new title would be free.

‘I thought: ‘What an absolutely great idea.’ I’d worked on special projects and new launch ideas in the sporting area before, and we hadn’t even entertained the idea that you could do something for free.’Sport, which launched in London in September 2006, is handed out every Friday at Tube stations, targeting the ABC1 men sought after by high-end advertisers. A year later saw the launch of Shortlist, a general interest men’s weekly handed out on Thursdays in cities across the UK.

The new free titles have had their critics, among them GQ editor Dylan Jones who recently said: ‘Anyone can hire a bunch of monobrows to thrust a free paper at you as you rush into a train station. It’s another thing to encourage a regular and growing readership to part with nearly £4 every month to belong to an exclusive club.”

But Caney says: ‘If people didn’t like them, they wouldn’t pick them up, and people wouldn’t advertise and then they’d fail.”

And he adds that the commercial realities mean those on paid-for titles in the men’s market could soon be forced to sit up and take notice.

‘If us and Shortlist in a couple of years time are taking a million pounds a month in advertising revenue, then that’s a million pounds a month that isn’t going into paid for.”

Sport has made its mark, bagging big name interviews with the likes of footballers Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham. But such names come at a price – which can mean dealing with the demands of overbearing management and pushy sponsors. He says: ‘My view is that copy approval is something we have to live with, particularly where footballers are concerned. With footballers it is almost unanimous, everybody wants to have copy approval.

‘A lot of them want to see the questions beforehand. But what we say is, you can approve the copy but if you change it and it detracts from the feature, we just won’t run it.”

One England football star failed to grace the pages of Sport after the player’s agent tried to dictate what advertising could run in the issue. While Caney does not criticise the footballers themselves, he says he would rather interview a rugby player any day.

In stark contrast to the world of football, during the Rugby World Cup, Sport secured interviews throughout the tournament with the key players. ‘We were given players’ phone numbers and just told to call them before 3pm. They’re expecting your call and give you honest, intelligent answers.”

Looking back to the start of his career, in local papers, he says: ‘It was all about who you’ve got in your contacts book and what phone numbers you’ve got. Now you need about six phone numbers. You need Charlie Brookes at Nike and John Deacon at Adidas… Sports journalism in the last 20 years has changed dramatically.”

Ink in the blood

Caney, now 37, opted for a career in journalism after being enthralled by the tales of his Fleet Street uncle, Peter Caney, who worked on the Mirror and Express. Following in his footsteps, Derby-born Caney started his newspaper career as junior reporter on the Wisbech Standard in 1988. The paper’s then deputy editor, Brian Aslin – who has recently retired after 43 years on the title – battered him into shape, he says.

‘He was fucking terrifying. He was really old school. I’ve got a lot to thank him for. We got paid bugger all, used to work until midnight on press night doing NIBs about fuck knows what that never got in the paper. I guess it instils a work ethic if nothing else.”

After a year, Caney was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The Lynn News in Kings Lynn was offering to swap the five and eight in his £5,800 a year salary to a whopping £8,500. Five years on, with the post of news editor under his belt, Caney made the switch to sports magazines and went to work on Emap’s golf magazines in 1995, becoming editor of Golf Weekly in 2000.

In 2001 he joined children’s football weekly Match!, and had the task of turning around a dwindling title, which Caney says had become too grown-up. ‘Match! was on its last legs when I started. We stripped it back down to what kids wanted to read and made it really fun. It had got to the stage where there was a 1,000-word feature on the redevelopment of Wembley. What 12-year-old really cares about that? They just want a big poster of their favourite player and a few words saying: ‘He’s brilliant’.’The revamp was like ‘flicking a switch”, and saw a complete turnaround in Match!’s circulation from 50,111 in 2001 to 117,844 in 2005 when he left.

Caney then moved on to Emap’s special projects and launches department. After six months on a weekly sport-related magazine that never saw the light of day, he was packed off to Australia to launch Zoo. ‘When they pulled the plug it was like I was a 19th century convict and I was packed off to Australia. What are we going to do with Caney? Lets send him over to Australia.’Although he was taken with the sunshine and laid-back Australian work ethic, he wasn’t tempted to stay.

As for the future, he hopes to expand Sport online but admits he isn’t quite sure how. ‘The magazine industry has to work out what to do online, and I don’t know what the answer is to that. A lot of time the companies get the magazine staff to do the website. You might as well get me to bloody plumb my toilet in.”

The French edition of Sport has a successful site, but does not have competition from the BBC and Sky Sports. ‘We have to do something completely different. Ideally once we nail down what our idea is we can make it start to work.”

But Caney doesn’t let it keep him awake at night. In fact, he tells me, nothing does.

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