Remember the Yule rules

Is there anything more daunting for a magazine editor than the Christmas issue? It is your bestselling month, a great sampling point for new readers, vital for propping up that wobbly second half ABC and it is stuffed to the parson’s nose with seasonal advertising.

And yet creating a successful Christmas issue goes right against the journalistic grain. Brilliant new ideas, design innovation, avant-garde fashion – forget it.

In December, readers don’t want new and different, they want same old, same old. Stop rolling your eyes and recommission that “little black dress” feature from last year, find some outfits to take you from “desk to dancefloor”, make your shopping editor cry with “647 gift ideas”. No feature should be more ground-breaking than “10 new places to put body glitter”.

At Christmas, think of your reader as a goldfish: they are unable to retain the information on how to roast a turkey, wrap a present or decorate a tree and must have it explained to them from first principles – with graphics and time charts – every single year.

And most importantly, put aside minimalism and ultra-modern chic.

Any home set in December that does not have a log fire, a big fat tree, tartan ribbons and elaborate table settings just looks like Bob Cratchit’s garret. The furthest you can ever go is “traditional with a twist”.

True to form, this year’s Christmas issues are – depending on your festive perspective – as comfortingly familiar as gran’s trifle or as hoary as cracker jokes.

Looking at the shelves, a clear visual distinction emerges between the magazines catering for twentysomethings – Marie Claire, Elle and New Woman – and those for the 30-plus readers – Red, She, Eve and, Santa’s greatest helper, Good Housekeeping.

For readers of the former, Christmas duties are no more onerous than selecting the right sparkly top and making sure you get snogged.

Christmas is an event you (often grudgingly) attend, not something you put on. And the younger glossies have all signified this lightheartedness with unseasonally pink and, particularly in Marie Claire’s case, rather chilly covers. Because their readers – lucky bitches – do not have to think about Christmas until the last minute and are not ready for a tinselfest in early November, when December issues go on sale.

But for the older woman, for whom Yuletide is the annual showcase of her cooking, homemaking and all-round feminine skills, Christmas issues can’t come early enough. Bring it on, the deep red covers – white or silver if you must – the gold embossed logos, the models in caribou-trimmed knits, the words “100s of magical ideas” displayed in a twinkly Photoshop bauble.

Inside, along with the food, the presents and far too many sequinned dresses, will be at least one of the following: a charidee appeal, a health report on the perils of binge drinking, how to have a stress-free Christmas (as if), the headline “Boxing Day buffet on a budget” and a celebrity ringaround about what the famous want for Crimbo, like the one in Elle in which Sarah Jessica Parker wishes for peace in the Middle East.

There will also be a heartwarming story entitled “Our first Christmas without X” to make us all cuddle up more closely to our own loved ones.

This, frankly, could have run in any issue, but someone has persuaded a photographer to drive up the M4 with a box of old Christmas cards and a Norwegian fir strapped to his roof and the punter looks very touching posed in front of them.

And all this, because of the unnatural cycle of production schedules, has been accomplished many months ago. While it is cheering to discuss swimwear in chilly February, there is nothing more dismaying than returning from your high summer hols for that dreaded Christmas meeting. How can you think hot toddies and velvet throws while wearing flip-flops and factor 30? Well, Lindsay Nicholson, editor of Good Housekeeping, puts us all to shame. She holds her first Christmas meeting on 4 January, when a features wish-list is drawn up. Then, in midJuly, she summons staff to the Good Housekeeping dining room, where the air-conditioning is turned up to the max. Carols play, candles are lit and mulled wine is consumed. Staff are served a full Christmas lunch before returning to an ideas meeting in Nicholson’s office which, in the meantime, her PA has decorated with trimmings and a tree.

It may sound demented, but Nicholson believes this kind of “method journalism” is the only way of getting into that very precise Christmas mindset.

“It is disastrous to do Christmas half-heartedly,” she says. “Once, while I was editing Prima, we thought we’d do something different. We had a pink and silver cover, we did a salad rather than traditional veg. And sales bombed! “At a Christmas meeting, someone inevitably says, ‘do you really need a pud after that huge meal?’ And my job is to say ‘bollocks, everyone wants Christmas pud’.”

And so behold, GH’s Christmas commandments: 1. Thou shalt always photograph a turkey and it shall have one slice delicately carved out; 2. The candles shall be lit and the pud shall be flaming; 3. The cake shall be displayed whole, not in slices; 4. No calorie counting (or else why would it need the new year diet special?); and 5. No little child shall look unto a copy of GH and say, “woe, here is a feature that says Santa does not exist and that fat bloke with the sack is my dad”.

Is it any wonder December GH sells 100,000 more copies than in any other month? God bless them, every one.

There is often a moment with a favourite magazine when it infuriates you so badly you chuck it across the room never to purchase it again. With Empire, it happened to me about a year ago when the then editor, Emma Cochran, introduced each issue with a photo bylined ed’s letter.

Get out of here. The reason I bought Empire was the dweeby lists, the anorak information, the irreverent sidebars. I wanted the experience of Nick Hornby arguing in the pub with Jonathan Ross, not female starstruck swooning. I can read Glamour for that.

Anyway, having picked up Empire recently at the London Film Festival, I am delighted to report it is back on form. Under new editor Colin Kennedy, the layout and structure are anally well-organised, the film-buff lists are back (check out the 50 cheesiest moments of all time) and, best of all, it is once again very funny. No surprise, then, that sales are at an all-time high. Men, I have to admit, just make better nerds.  Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real.

She’ll be back in four weeks Next week: Bill Hagerty

by Janice Turner

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