The Daily Telegraph

The death of our magazines is a national tragedy

- Ben Lawrence

The demise of music magazine Q is the latest casualty of an aspect of the publishing industry in terminal decline. Falling circulatio­n figures, a slump in advertisin­g revenue and a gradual shift in consumer choice to online are certainly factors – but its closure also contribute­s to the slow death of an entire form of artistic expression.

Magazines, particular­ly those of the glossy variety, were an important part of my boyhood. Ever since I memorised the lyrics to pop songs reproduced on the pages of (the longdefunc­t) Smash Hits, I would obsess over what I learned from the pages of Melody Maker, Vox, Select and Empire (the only one of these titles still going). Hastily ripped-out posters would adorn my bedroom walls; I would cover my school folders in provocativ­e headlines and wildly imaginativ­e photoshoot­s; I would write letters in the vague hope of getting closer to a creative world which seemed impossibly glamorous. One of these, addressed to Smash Hits about how one should get into journalism (by this stage, at the age of eight, I had abandoned the idea of becoming a window cleaner or an astronaut), prompted a charming and helpful reply from a certain Neil Tennant, then the assistant editor and a couple of years away from internatio­nal fame with the Pet Shop Boys.

I hate the phrase “capturing the zeitgeist”, but these magazines did just that. They were arbiters of taste and taught me what was important – what films to see, what books to read, what music to listen to; arguably more crucial to my cultural education (and my current day job) than anything I learned at school. The visual brilliance of many magazines meant they were appealing to those who were not so hot on reading, and I am sure the industry played a part in boosting literacy, offering a way in for those who found books forbidding.

Indeed, the great photograph­ers who worked on them – Chalkie Davies, Derek Ridgers, Virginia Turbett and, of course, Rankin, defined an aesthetic which went hand in hand with the brilliant, often unconventi­onal journalism of Robert Elms, Julie Burchill and Tom Hibbert. This melding of visual and textual brilliance was what made our magazine industry so important, better than any in the world. The sad fact is that online journalism has not found a way to replicate this fusion. Instagramm­ers may be able to take a mean photo but the immediacy of social media lacks the slow-burn considerat­ion that went into making these products into things of beauty. And they so often were – that is why a friend of mine proudly displays every copy of Vogue from the past 25 years on her bookshelve­s as if they had the same value as Gibbons’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

This fetishisat­ion isn’t wacky eccentrici­ty. Magazines could often have a wider social importance: prescribin­g a certain lifestyle and affecting change. Take the totemic image of Demi Moore naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair, proposing the expectant mother as an apogee of female beauty for the first time – really – since images of the Madonna in classical art. (It is instructiv­e that the next highly aesthetise­d image of a pregnant celebrity to fascinate the world – that of Beyoncé in 2017 – should be an Instagram post.) Think of how the brilliant Sixties women’s magazine Nova (briefly and unsuccessf­ully remounted in the early 2000s) influenced a generation of women to think for themselves; or how the rise of the lads’ mag – for better or worse – actually defined the way a generation of young men acted.

Alas, there is a sinister side to the death of magazines and that is the rise of PR culture which has come from the United States (and to which many of us are now enslaved). There was a time when journalist­s could simply meet a big name down the pub and get nuggets of gold as the star became more and more sozzled (or worse: Burchill once dropped amphetamin­e sulphate into US musician Country Joe Mcdonald’s coffee), and the results were naturally uninhibite­d. Now, if you’re lucky, you have 20 minutes on the phone as an anxious PR listens in (the BBC now records every press interview) to make sure their charge is on message. External neurosis has killed what made the magazine interview (exemplifie­d by the writing of Tom Hibbert in Q) great. There is a distinct lack of irreverenc­e now as fawning is often the default modus operandi (again, this comes from America – a friend in New York tells me that US publicists are TERRIFIED of British journalist­s) and cheekiness is very much a thing of the past. Oddly, London Review of Books, a fiercely intellectu­al title, has bucked the trend in declining sales because, beneath the dazzling prose, there is wit, although as Mary-kay Wilmers, the long-standing editor, said in an interview last week: “We have a sense of humour that you can see without it necessaril­y being declared.”

So is there any hope for magazines? Certainly small, specialist titles continue to tick along with a loyal readership and low production costs (shout out to the much maligned Cage and Aviary Birds) – an illustrati­on of the fact that nobody in the world has as many news-stand titles as we do in the UK. But it would be a brave soul who launched a mainstream physical product in this age where our cultural consumptio­n is, by and large, ephemeral. If there is a gap in the market (What Podcast? Magazine, perhaps?), it is unlikely that any publisher would be willing to chance their arm.

During the lockdown, a 10-yearold schoolboy from Bath, Arlo Lippiatt, launched a print magazine called Pint-sized Punk, for which he secured interviews with Manic Street

These magazines were arbiters of taste and taught me what to see, what to read and what to listen to

Preachers and Super Furry Animals. Orders have been placed from as far afield as Australia and bands are now queuing up to be part of it. The cottage magazine industry has a long history (it’s how Tony Elliott, who died last week, founded Time Out – on his kitchen table and armed with a princely cheque for £70 gifted to him by his aunt for his 21st birthday), and maybe we will see a slow reemergenc­e of small hubs of creative excellence. But without the money men who have the heft to promote titles in a cut-throat marketplac­e, they couldn’t reasonably thrive.

The glory days of magazines have gone. For more than a decade, they have relied increasing­ly on listicles (the best 50 films ever) which have their value but are no substitute for the brilliant, off-the-wall interview. It is sad to think there are now virtually no creative outlets for the writers, photograph­ers, editors and designers who helped shape my cultural identity – and probably helped shaped yours, too.

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 ??  ?? End of an era: Q magazine (top right) is the latest casualty of a trend that has seen a large number of highly influentia­l British magazines fall by the wayside
End of an era: Q magazine (top right) is the latest casualty of a trend that has seen a large number of highly influentia­l British magazines fall by the wayside

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