Do girls just wanna have... news stories?

By Janice Turner

WOMEN’S MAGAZINES over the past 10 years have been governed by the Lauper Principle: girls just wanna have fun.

Serious, it is said, doesn’t sell. Grazia claims to run on the twin principles of "shoes & news". But we’re not talking Iran’s nuclear capability here, just the latest on Angelina and Brad, or Kate’s coke bust. Or even news about shoes.

Entertainment — whether predicated upon real or famous lives — is king. Beyond health advice, agony aunts and the occasional anorexia fact-panel down the side of a "I was five stone and nearly died" confessional, information is in short supply. Which poses the question: Where does the young weekly reader — better educated and more likely to be employed than ever before — go when she’s grown up a bit, had her fill of fun and wants to know about the world, at least in so far as it affects her family?

In June, Emap’s Project Jackie aims to fill the news void in women’s publishing. As deputy editor of Heat, filleting the daily papers for entertainment gossip, it struck Julian Linley how few relevant and pressing stories had a place in his, or indeed any, magazine.

And yet television is so adept at processing complex or dull world events into a light, female-friendly package. Emap says Project Jackie is inspired by GMTV’s chatty take on current affairs. But recently, watching daytime TV — only at the gym, honest — I’ve been struck by how much sneered-at programmes such as Richard & Judy, This Morning or the ribald and ranty Loose Women, address serious issues of the day with great warmth and wit. These shows get huge ratings.

So could info-tainment not work in magazines?

Project Jackie is scheduled for launch next month and was expected to be called First, although the unveiling this week of First News, Piers Morgan’s newspaper for children — another group, incidentally, considered too air-headed to enjoy serious reading matter — may cause too much newsstand confusion.

The Emap title is aimed at women in their 30s, who have emerged from all-consuming early motherhood when the only available me-time is 10 minutes flicking through Closer.

With kids in school, they are ready to get their groove back: Rediscovering old interests, while newly concerned with education, health, crime and even foreign news if — as with the tsunami, bird flu or global terrorism — it might penetrate their living rooms.

Two decades ago, it was to the classic weeklies — Woman and Woman’s Own — that readers turned for that most unfashionable concept in women’s mags, ‘issues’. But the poor old classics, (the IPC duo plus Bella and Best) have been squeezed on one side by the celeb titles, and on the other by the lurid true-life launches. While women’s weekly sales overall have expanded from six million to nine million, the classic sector declined by around 9 per cent last year alone.

These are mags which struggle to do anything very well.

Their celeb coverage is dated by long lead times; their practicals don’t look aspirational enough for the modern reader; and their real-life stories seem to be just stuff the snappier, bigger-budgeted real-life weeklies didn’t want.

Their readers are getting older and they are not turning on younger women, who see them as the mags that their own mothers bought.

For the moment, however, these titles turn healthy profits as they manage their decline. But with Woman, which lost a staggering 72,000 readers in 2005, IPC is keen to see if an ailing title can be not so much relaunched, as regenerated like a Time Lord. Reveal editor Sarah Edwards was brought in last year but departed quickly after her vision of Woman as a kind of weekly Good Housekeeping was rejected as too upmarket and dull by IPC editorial director, Mike Soutar.

Now Woman awaits the arrival of Jackie Hatton, deputy editor of Woman’s Own, but perhaps clues are emerging of what IPC has in mind. Last week’s Woman had a long report on missing persons and the coverline: "Bird flu: What it really means to you and your family".

Could it be that IPC shares Emap’s view that women have a thirst for news? And it should be noted that Britain’s leading weekly, the 1.1 million-selling Take a Break, has long featured hard-hitting issue-based reports, cunningly disguised as true-life stories. Mothers taking on drug dealers and yobs who have terrorised their estates have lately received much coverage, culminating in the three "Mums’ Army" candidates standing in the local elections. TaB never seems worthy because it understands precisely which issues are real and vivid to its readers.

So why are women not getting the information they need from newspapers? They are, after all, bombarding women with girlie sections, from You to Stella. These reflect the fact that the majority of weekend papers are purchased by women, browsing round supermarkets. Yet these supplements, particularly in the broadsheets, are primarily luxury advertising vehicles. The news pages, which many women newspaper readers turn to last, if at all, are still pitched firmly at men.

Besides, many women do not read a daily paper. Their news needs are served by radio and TV. What they do read — and trust — are magazines. So can they sell news to women?

And how is "women’s news" different? Emap publishing director Sophie Wybrew-Bond tells me that Project Jackie could even explain the intricacies of Israeli foreign policy, which would be fascinating to see.

And although Emap likens its new venture to The Week, it will not be a digest of material published elsewhere, but will generate its own stories. That necessitates very tight deadlines and an office staffed by reporters and run like a fullblooded newsroom. With News International launching magazines and now Emap bringing out a weekly women’s newspaper, what a crazy, mixed-up media future awaits us.

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