In The Know? More like out of the loop

IAN Huntley or Saddam Hussein would have been more grotesque celebrity endorsers than Jeffrey Archer, but at least they are villains of our age. The big question about In The Know's launch TV commercial — in which the preening perjurer is shown keeping abreast of world events through Bauer's latest women's weekly — is why choose such a dated and irrelevant figure?

Likewise, a later ad in the £10m campaign, in which a foreign potentate is briefed by an In The Know reader before tea with the Queen, is reminiscent of '70s sitcom Mind Your Language. Decked out in cartoon uppity darkie regalia, all he's missing is a bone through his nose.

Whether this curiously old-fashioned campaign repelled readers (or "got the magazine talked about", as Bauer maintains), In The Know (ITK) is working hard to maintain its sales guarantee to advertisers. Media Week recently reported that figures were dipping below 100,000, a claim Bauer refuted in Retail Newsagent, saying it was easily keeping its 150,000 promise.

But ITK is not alone. Although the time seemed right for a revival of substance amid a women's market obsessed with frivolity, fashion and fame, the abstract concept of "news" — as opposed to an actual great exclusive — is very hard to sell. A TV ad for Emap's own female-orientated news mag, First, featured a woman being chatted up in a bar. Bored of his do-you-come-here-often lines, the woman retorts: "Why can't you ask me proper questions… like about global warming?" And who doesn't get hot when a guy whispers "carbon emissions" in her ear?

Emap admits that First is selling below 100,000 when not promoted and between 120,000 and 200,000 when cut-price or on TV. But no company has bigger cojones when a launch fails to go straight into orbit. Emap recalls the disastrous birth of Heat and just keeps spending and evolving editorial until the damn thing sputters into life.

Quickly after launch, Jane Johnson, editor of Closer (likewise no instant hit, but now selling 590,000) was brought in to mentor First's editor, Julian Linley. She has souped up the magazine's pace — the opening double-page photo spreads, which made First seem so empty, have moved further back.

The arcane foreign stories have been replaced by more down-to-earth British content. The special reports are no longer worthy, but expensively shot photo essays on British women's lives, jobs or bodies. A bunch of high-profile columnists have been hired — Caitlin Moran of The Times, Miranda Sawyer as agony aunt and Ruth Badger from The Apprentice to dish out business advice.

But First's major problem is that it seems to be yet another mouth feeding at the already over-crowded celebrity table. It sits besides Closer (celebs plus real life) and Heat (celebs plus pop culture), not far from Grazia (celebs plus fashion). And celebs plus news is the least sexy proposition.

ITK, meanwhile, has taken the radical decision to ignore celebrity altogether and feature only "pure news". But these days, broadsheet newspapers and BBC news cover the Wags or Madonna's adoption. Serious topics are refracted off celebrity to render them interesting — Jamie Oliver makes us read about school nutrition, the McCartneys provoke reflections on divorce law.

But ITK says its target readership — 30- to 45-year-old former readers of classic weeklies such as Woman's Own — are weary of Branjelina et al. In fact, the magazine disavows all current magazine fads.

It shoots "mature" cover models against dark backgrounds in frumpy clothes. It rejects the modern weekly design palette — screaming cyans and magentas — for sedate primaries. This, it believes, makes it different, rather than like Woman's Realm circa 1986.

Is it logical to make your magazine resemble the very titles readers fled in their thousands for the funkier new generation of real-life and celeb magazines? Anyway, what of the content? For a news magazine with late deadlines, the ITK cover hardly screams urgency. In the current issue, only the Amish story happened vaguely recently and, instead of seeking new information, ITK diverts into a tired discussion about safety in British schools.

First meanwhile has a talk with a relative of the victims. Perhaps ITK is under-resourced — editor Keith Kendrick has a hard-news background, yet his magazine is an entirely exclusive-free zone. First, under news editor Maggie O'Riordan from the Daily Mirror, has, in recent months, gained interviews with Josie Russell, Bob Geldof and Jamie Oliver, and puffed these great gets on TV.

In the packed women's marketplace, you need something to sell and a so-called news magazine needs a juicy slice of now to turn readers' heads. Less forgivably, ITK has few features which spin off and make sense of a current event — surely its main job.

And where are the news photos which look great on magazine paper stock? Too much ITK editorial feels like generic Google jobs. Good ideas — such as a report on women gambling addicts — are constantly let down by poor design and photography. With so few topical hooks and no discernable voice, ITK just feels like pages and pages of stuff.

Without TV listings — Bauer is terrified of risking sales of its three TV titles — or ads, what ITK does have is lots of service. The consumer pages are absolutely the best thing in it. A report on families priced out of living in Britain is pure Daily Mail catnip and should have been nearer the front.

But the fashion is done on the cheap, using cutouts or even catalogue photos. Mostly, it looks like someone has dragged random items from the Primark bargain bin and slung them on a page. Here, ITK is hogtied by its anti-celeb purism — fashion is today hugely driven by what celebrities wear, yet they won't deign to show even the odd pap shot.

The most interesting thing about In The Know is it takes us in a time machine to an age when celebrities mattered less and Jeffrey Archer bestrode the Earth. And what a colourless place it was.

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