When I worked for Take a Break magazine, telling people what my job was was a little bit like telling people I was a football fan before it became socially acceptable. I’d get odd looks, raised eyebrows and sometimes even the faintest hint of physical recoil. “I wouldn’t have imagined you working for THAT” would be a frequent comment. Which, when translated, meant “What’s a nice college graduate like you doing on a scummy magazine like that?” The fact that I was politically-engaged on the left caused further bemusement. How, as a friend’s brother once asked, could I live with my conscience? People like me were supposed to aspire to work on The Guardian, to be dismissive of such low cultural phenomena as TaB.
I was reminded of those conversations by a couple of recent developments involving both publications. Last week, The Guardian caused a storm after running a story on the expenses of BBC chief Mark Thompson. There’s a full run-down of how the story developed on Judith Townend’s blog, but in short, the paper was hammered by readers commenting on its website who thought most of the expense claims were perfectly justified. The Guardian responded by trying to point out to its readers why they should be outraged, then changed the story in the hope that they would be more outraged. And readers were outraged – by what they saw as The Guardian‘s attempts to overcook a non-story and knock the BBC.
It was a very interesting example of how the interaction between reader and media works in these Journalism 2.0 days. And the details were quite ironic given that The Guardian is not slow to point out out much better it is at operating within new media than everyone else. A few days before it had gleefully reported how the web community had scuppered a particularly obnoxious Daily Mail poll (and I’ll confess to enjoying that too), now it was on a receiving end of something similar.
Many were annoyed at what they saw as The Guardian joining the kind of attack on the BBC that they’ve come to expect from the right-wing press. Similarly unexpected, by many people, was news of Take a Break‘s latest campaign – Thank God for Social Workers. The magazine is backing trade journal Community Care‘s own Stand Up For Social Workers initiative, all part of what editor John Dale said is the mag’s remit to cover “serious issues in an accessible way”.
I wonder what all those eyebrow-raising guests at dinner parties would make of it – a supposedly left-of-centre newspaper trying to whip up a storm against a traditional target of the right, while a supposedly trashy magazine runs a campaign defending a traditional target of the right.
The view of Take a Break is based on that strange mixture of misunderstanding, ignorance and snobbery that passes for analysis in much of the media world. And the thing the media world almost certainly dislikes most is that TaB doesn’t give a damn about it. It has a large and loyal community of readers, who see their own lives and concerns in its pages. In its heyday it sold more than 2 million copies a week, and even in today’s atomised market still shifts almost a million copies a week. Its editor John Dale has displayed a genius for reinvention and eye-catching initiatives, from National Wedding dress Day to forming the mag’s own political party, which have kept the publication fresh and vibrant year after year. And yet when I used the word genius in conversation with a former colleague – from Heat since you’re asking – she scoffed.
I’m not singing TaB’s phrases because I used to work there – my contribution on the sub’s desk over three-and-a-half years was a small one. But recent events have made me think about my time there, what I learned about journalism, and about attitudes. Times ARE changing and journalists must change with them. But some things stay the same, and the continued success of a magazine with a loyal and engaged community which nearly one million people pay for every week holds an obvious lesson. Taking time to understand your reader and to deliver good stories makes good journalism. That simple fact underpins all the complicated, and in many cases over-complicated, theories on where we need to go as a trade.
As The Baltimore Sun‘s Gus Haynes says in The Wire; “I just want to see something new every day and write about it.”