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Posted by markswill in Media.

One of the more pleasant aspects of being under-employed is that I have lots of time to read many more newspapers and magazines than I used to, at least whilst they still exist. No, I’m not going to revisit the withering effect that the interweb has had on print publishing (see Paper Tiggers), but I feel I must comment on the homogeneity of a medium that epitomises the uneasy melding of both newspapers and magazines, i.e. and unsurprisingly perhaps, newspaper magazines.

 Of late I’ve taken all of what were once grandly referred to as the ‘quality’ (neé broadsheet) ‘papers in regular rotation on Saturdays and Sundays, all of which naturally include a magazine. Back in the day when such things were a rarity, I well remember the excitement of reading the grand-daddy of these, the Sunday Times Magazine, still published and still something of an exemplar. Trouble is, it’s become too much like all the others, or vice versa, and as such one might well wonder what the point of these magazines is? In a word of course, it’s advertising. Upscale advertisers hitherto reluctant to suffer the fluctuating if not downright rubbish reproduction of their glitzy car, cosmetic and lifestyle photos on newsprint were generally keen to bung ‘em in magazines whose circulations far outstripped those of conventional periodicals.

But whereas the S. Times original was, well, just that, there’s now little to choose between it and the glossies that come with The Observer, The Times, The Weekend Guardian, both weekend Telegraphs and the less than glossy Indies, that I wonder whether their publishers dare claim to offer advertisers something that their competitors can’t. Or maybe they don’t? Maybe they’re happy to be ‘me too’ titles just as long as they get a decent slice of the cake? Well if so, and as a reader who pays an ever increasing amount of money for this stuff, that’s just not good enough.

And this is of course where I abandon forever any chance of scribbling for these organs,but to illustrate the bland uniformity of which I gripe, consider the evidence.

Most of the above open with frothy amalgams of columnists irritating us with their middle-class bleating: Kathryn Flett in the Observer; Victoria Mather, the Telegraph; a rotating roster the usual suspects in the S. Times and my personal worst, Tim Dowling in the Guardian, whose consistent rubbishing of his wife must surely presage a nasty divorce? They then treat us to incidents of familial grief (or joy) and/or that lazy retreat of harassed editors, the vacuous celebrity Q&A and/or a first person, dryly re-written account of someone’s personal hell, and/or some chirrupy miscellania encouraging us to buy stuff we don’t want, need or can afford and/or photos of alleged celebs we don’t want, need or can afford to see as they fall out of Mayfair niteries.

Once you get past the starting gate, then come the inevitable profiles masquerading, certainly in the case case of the S. Times and the Guardian, as stuff about celebs who are in fact worthy of the designation because they have brains and talent but too often reveal themselves as having neither. If we’re lucky, we then might find a Serious Article about famine, flood, war some other random pestilence and possibly an unsolved crime from long ago or an oriental artist famed (in very small circles) for producing large spheres painted with very small circles. In truth, the S. Times is consistently head’n’shoulders above the others here, but once that ‘difficult-but-important’ stuff is out of the way, we then must struggle through the accursed ‘lifestyle’ pages.

Depending on where you spend your two quid, you get Nigel Slater,  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or some photogenic children’s novelist with a West London allotment telling you what to eat this month, accompanied by scrumptious snaps that no dish I’ve ever cooked could realistically pose for – and believe me I’ve tried. In most of the mags fashion abuts the food and, again, this features stuff most of us would or could never buy draped over impossibly gaunt 14 year-old models (the partial exception being the Guardian’s efforts to include a token 50-something clothes horse which I presume is a sop to the age group who are most likely to be able to afford the clothes that they wouldn’t otherwise dare wear).

Then we if we haven’t already had enough, there’s some more unaffordable gadgetry, usually followed by celebrity gardening, reviews of restaurants, wine and housing (see fashion, above) and agony auntestry book-ended by some cute photos or, in the case of the S. Times, ‘A Life in the Day’ which they’ve run with since 1960-something and is sometimes actually interesting.

You’ll have noticed that the FT’s Weekend Magazine is absent from my catalogue of despair, and that’s because it’s a genuine departure from the formula with quirky, sharply written and invariably interesting snippets front and back, a healthy disregard for fashion and foodie-ism and has the only car tests worthy of the name (the rest of the pack providing mere excuses for inappropriate hacks to mouth off about almost anything except the car in question).

Unfortunately the Weekend FT is priced at £2.50, a deliberate ploy to deter plebs like me from buying it, thus ensuring that its advertisers get the discerning and well-heeled customers they pay for. Maybe the rest of the weekenders could learn something from that?

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1. Neil Murray - June 10, 2009

Interesting and mostly true. A few points of order – the Sunday Times mag has recently gone back to its roots with a photo feature every week – arresting, always interesting, often the best thing in the mag. And its final column is called ‘A Life In The Day’, not ‘A Day In The Life’. Nothing to do with Sergeant Pepper. Wonder if I’m the only bod who still refers to the mag as the ‘Colour Supplement’? Oh, and my own pet hate – the supps, magazines, whatever, that rip stuff off from humorous websites and present it as their own. Or even from other titles – I mean, re-printing one of Viz’s Top Tips every week is just lazy.

2. Pete - June 10, 2009

Aha, someone else that has noticed the incessant moaning that issues from the pen of Tim Dowling (I bet he blames his pen too). Perhaps someone should brief columnists in weekly mags that, whilst superficially connecting with their public through shared domestic anecdotes can work for a short while, in the longer term it is perhaps healthier for their home life, and more interesting for the reader, if they get out a bit.

And Neil, unless Mark has edited his original piece before I got to it, it looks like you have been hoisted by your own subliminal petard – he does say A Life In A day not wot you sed.

Neil Murray - June 11, 2009

He did edit it :-))))

3. FrankW - June 15, 2009

And in fact the weary web is no hindrance to (unconventional) paper publishing. It simply takes a little imagination, lateral thought, arrogance and wossname to realise that the much-maligned interwobble is a great (read ‘cheap’) way to avoid the noosetrade and to get .. inevitably … paper magazines in front of readers.

But, to Mark’s premise. Nope; I have no idea why anyone pays money for something they cannot realistically want to read. I am profoundly bored with hacks writing about themselves, not least because…

… I do it all the time myself.

4. Martin Craig - June 15, 2009

I loved the old Sunday Times colour section. When I was pretending to be a teenage Kerouac, my folks used to save them up for me and bring them to my run-down garret of a bed-sit in Liverpool, where I carefully cut them up and covered a whole wall with them as a collage. I couldn’t take it with me when I moved, so I made another one at my next flat in Jesmond, Tyneside. No doubt both buildings now have blue plaques beside the door.

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