Interviewer: Peter Houston
Ed Needham: I started in my journalistic career quite late, really. I was living in Spain until I was almost 30. And I thought 30 was for some reason, there’s something between the ages of 29 and 30, which means the shutters come down, so everything that hasn’t been accomplished prior to that is never going to be accomplished.
So I moved back from Spain and started freelancing for people. That was in the mid-90s, and it was around about the time when FHM magazine had been bought by EMAP and became a mainstream magazine, and I started working for them.
And that was an extraordinary piece of good luck because that whole genre of men’s magazines just took off in the mid 90s. Before then, magazines for men assumed that men came home, marched into their drawing room, sat down in an armchair, poured themselves an expensive whiskey and got their pipe going and sat down and read some Walter Scott for the rest of the evening. It was a very antiquated vision of how men were.
And so that genre of men’s magazine came as a real breath of fresh air to an audience. I was a contributor, then became the deputy editor, then became the editor. And that magazine just took off, it went through the roof.
So I remember when I joined, we sat down, had a meeting, the editor then was a chap called Mike Soutar, and he said, ‘Where do we want to be in a year’s time?’ And in a market of five men’s magazines at the time, FHM was very much fifth. And we said, ‘Well, it’d be nice to be perhaps, third would be good.’
But a year later, we were out in front and selling, you know, we couldn’t produce enough copies to keep newsagents happy, they were just flying out the door. And so that was an extraordinary introduction to the world of magazines, and because that was my first experience of it really, I just assumed it was going to be like that for the rest of my life, and it didn’t quite turn out that way!
Peter: So after FHM, what did you do?
Well, I went to the United States and I launched FHM in America. And then I was at Rolling Stone for a couple of years. I edited Rolling Stone for two years, my title was Managing Editor, but they were eager at the time to bring in some outside experience, because they thought, like the rest of the magazine industry, saw these upstart magazines stealing their thunder, and thought, ‘Well, we’ll have some of that.’ So I think that was another great stroke of good fortune that enabled me to get such a senior job at such an august and esteemed and journalistic magazine.
I did that for a couple of years. And that was like operating in a completely different market, suddenly had access to ingredients in terms of writers and photographers of a calibre that we’d never been able to work with at FHM. That was an awesome experience. We also used to be able to invite all sorts of people for lunch.
So you’d often have, it was June of 2004 was the American presidential election, the middle of George Bush, his second election, and because Rolling Stone was very much a pro Democrat, magazine, we had all the Democratic candidates, one after another, came for lunch, and we could ask them questions. They could tell us the layout, their ideas, but also share all sorts of extraordinarily indiscreet remarks that you wouldn’t normally get from when these people are on the television. So that was great.
And also, we used to have quite a lot of musicians would come for lunch. And one of the things that I learnt from that is, they say you should never meet your heroes. But I think the opposite is also true, that you should meet people of whom you have a slightly low opinion, because, one of the people who came for lunch was Bono. I’ve never been a fan of U2, and he’s obviously famous for getting on the soapbox and being a bit annoying.
But he turned out to be just the most extraordinarily charismatic and engaging individual. And if he had said during this lunch, ‘Right, we’re all going to stand up now and you’re going to follow me, we’re going to walk into the Hudson River,’ everybody would followed him. It was absolutely magnificent and he was very polite, and he wrote me a thank you letter at the end of it, and these kind of things. So that was very impressive.
And then I also edited Maxim for a couple years, which at the time in America was the biggest men’s magazine in the world. So that was selling, I think about 3 million copies per month. So that was at the time when, again, the magazine world felt like it was going to be with us for centuries to come, and nobody could see any clouds on the horizon.
What’s the difference between editing something like FHM and Maxim which are relatively new to the magazine market and something like Rolling Stone that’s been going since late 60s, early 70s?
I think the real success of FHM and those slightly sort of irreverent impertinent men’s magazines was that they filled such a huge gap in the market. One day, Mike took us all off to an off site and he said, ‘Right, what’s got to be in each issue? What are we making each issue out of?’
And so we made these lists, well you’ve got to have a celebrity interviewer, we’ve got to have a famous woman in a sort of state of semi-undress and all that, and we’ve got to have some humour, and we’ve got to have some…and gradually it turned out some of these things were sort of elements, and some of them were more kind of themes, that they could be applied to all sorts of different things.
We narrowed it down and decided that actually the three things that FHM had to be made of, was it had to be funny, it had to be sexy, and it had to be useful. And if you think about those three things, that is the internet in embryo, right? Funny, sexy, useful is the internet, and that’s why magazines like FHM were so successful, because they delivered those things.
Whereas a magazine like Rolling Stone, obviously it has a very radical background in 1960s American counterculture, you think about all the things that were going on then when music was genuinely considered a threat to the entire fabric of the American nation. And the way in which we were all behaving with drugs and taking such outrageous risks with their hair and this kind of thing was considered a real, you know, it feels kind of absurd now, but social organisations, it felt like a genuine threat to the sort of social structure. And so it was very much allied also to the political counterculture.
The idea today of launching a magazine that blends music and politics is just unthinkable. Those two things are so far apart, but because Rolling Stone had its roots in this counterculture and took a very journalistic approach to them, this was proper longform journalism where people go away and report on stories often for several months, it had that moment of, it grasped that zeitgeist element and applied very traditional journalistic reportorial skills to it.
I think that was the real magic of Rolling Stone. And when I was editing it, people would drop whatever they were doing to respond to an invitation to be on the cover, even in the 2000s.
So, how do you go from having lunch with Bono to doing Strong Words which you’re doing now? I mean, it sounds a fairly solitary pursuit.
It is a very solitary pursuit. Strong Words is a magazine which I do on my own. I have a designer for two weeks and it works on a sort of six week cycle, so I produce one issue every six weeks. And to do that, I obviously read loads of books, and write lots of words, so there’s not really much time for anything else.
I work seven days a week. I used to allow myself one day off every issue so I used to have a Sunday off once every six weeks, which I would use to go – I live in London, so I’d leave London and I’d go walking in the countryside somewhere – but obviously now that that’s become illegal, I don’t do that either! So now I work seven days a week every every week.
During that time I read, I worked it out, I read the equivalent of War and Peace every week, and I write the equivalent of The Great Gatsby every issue, so it’s quite straightforward in that sense, it’s just a large volume of work that has to be got through, the same as most other people in their jobs.
But what’s different from those old days is that – and it’s a terrible sort of paradox, or situation of great unfairness really – that the technology that has allowed people such as me to produce an entire magazine on my own. It says, cut out all those people who used to provide intermediate services, pre press and couriers delivering photographs, and all these kind of things.
So the technology that has enabled me to do this on my own has also simultaneously destroyed the market for so many magazines, because the internet and digital amusements have taken the attention span away from from the magazine, audience and once that relationship is broken, people never go back.
So that’s the problem, but I really believe in books, I really believe that books are underserved by the media and that they have a great untapped potential, they’re sort of considered a bit of a niche activity or niche source of information or entertainment, and I think they’re deserving of a great deal more exposure.
And it’s also that magazines are kind of the only thing I know how to do with any sort of ability. I can’t pilot a tugboat or I can’t produce gargoyles for cathedrals or anything, whatever you choose, there isn’t anything else. Of all the thousands of other jobs that people do, this is the only one that I’m really qualified to actually do with any confidence. So, that’s where that comes from.
I just really feel the book industry, it needs a lot more exposure, it deserves a lot more exposure, and it’s seen its square footage just gobbled up as the attention that the numbers of pages say that the books used to get in newspapers have gradually disappeared as newspapers have shrunk, and books, the book industry isn’t able to put the kind of advertising revenue behind its promotion and marketing. And so books, they’ve just got less and less attention.
So Strong Words really aims to be the popular book magazine when people want to know, what should I read next? What is the next book for me that I have a reliable source of that information?
So what does your day look like? Do you read the book and then write a review and then start on the next book?
Well, kind of. I mean, there’s quite a lot of admin involved as well as you might imagine, and a certain amount of research, but essentially, it is lots of reading and lots of writing. But I because I like walking and I spent most nights at my girlfriend’s house which is about six miles away, so I walk there and listen to an audio book and then walk back in the morning at six o’clock. So I do a certain amount of reading while walking.
And then yeah, just get on with it, all those pages need filling. So it means that most days, I’ll read a book and write about it, but there’s quite a lot of other stuff needs doing as well in the elaboration of a magazine. Copy needs cutting, headlines need writing, I’ve got to plan the next issue, talk to publishers.
Have you ever thought about taking on staff? I saw a quote from you, or it’s actually not from you, it’s from Felix Dennis, but you used it in an article in The New Statesman. Felix said overheads walk on two legs.
Yes, that was one of his great mantras, that staff numbers – and it used to take an awful lot of people to produce a magazine – can easily gobble up any profits that you make. And it used to be that you needed not only your editorial staff, but then your sales staff and your marketing staff, your production staff, and then all the external people. So that’s kind of what he meant, I think, once you add up all the numbers, you’ve got easily 50, 60 mouths to feed.
So now obviously, by doing it with just me, I have just the one mouth needs feeding! I would happily take on people if I were able to, economically, you know, it’s not a an end in itself, there’s slightly this sort of martyrdom of doing all on my own, although I do like having the last word!
I would be quite happy to take on other people at some point and expand the business, because I do think this is a model that has a great deal of potential. I don’t have all these sort of management people above me that need a cut, I don’t have office space and receptionists that need a cut, I don’t have all these external suppliers that need keeping on board.
So I think it is possible to actually produce quite sophisticated magazines now without people all being in the same room and without massive support staff to make it possible.
I’m a big fan of that kind of indie magazine ethos, but I worry sometimes that the future of magazines looks a bit like a farmers market. So people seperate and doing their own thing and no one’s really got a career.
That’s true, and I very much agree with that. You asked me in the questions that we were talking about earlier, am I optimistic or pessimistic about the magazine industry, and I’m optimistic for my magazine, but pessimistic for a lot of other people’s.
When we were talking about how the magazine industry used to be before the turn of the century, this magazine world was an absolutely joyous place. When I was editing FHM I was in the same corridor as all these other great magazines, and next door was Smash Hits and next door to that was Mojo, and across the corridor was Kerrang, and next to them was Mixmag and downstairs was Empire and Q, and it just felt like this pleasure factory of all these terrific people, but all in their own little spaces.
So our office was very, very different to the Smash Hits office, and beyond that the Mojo office, they would stop at four o’clock on the dot every day to have a different cake and a sort of tea ceremony, whereas Smash Hits was just full of cardboard cutouts of pop stars and piles of paper and people running around and everything. Mixmag had their own in-house DJ, and it was who was on the Mix on the masthead, somebody who’s just in there all day playing records for them.
And so every magazine environment had its own personality, it was a really distinct place, and that just fed so much into the voice of each magazine. It was really powerful and flavoursome and reflected the personality of all these people cooped up in the same room together.
Whereas obviously, as soon as you start introducing things like hot desking and hubs and people working remotely, then all that atmosphere, it just doesn’t exist, it doesn’t have the opportunity to take root and develop.
Well, one of the criticisms that gets levelled, particularly at the women’s magazines sector at the moment is that they’re all the same, they’ve lost that character. Women’s magazines, I guess just because there’s still a women’s magazine market, the men’s magazine market I think went away, but is that ever going to come back? Can it come back?
Well, I’d like to think that there are enough people who really love just the sheer joy of producing magazines that something of that can be kept alive, like a bit of ancient yeast that can be reactivated at some point and fed back in, because I think people who buy magazines really respond to those voices.
But at the moment, I also fear that the kind of headaches that magazines are facing mean that issues such as having a really strong and individual voice are so far down the list of problems to be solved, that they’re probably not getting the kind of attention that other really serious issues are, hoovering up all that all the attention.
So you’re working on your own mostly. How has lockdown affected you? Has it made any difference?
If you imagine, I’m a man of my own in a flat sitting essentially motionless at a desk all day. Obviously lockdown doesn’t affect that, but I really miss some of the noise in the street. I live in the middle of Central London, and like to hear van drivers exchanging opinions on each other’s driving, this kind of thing filtering up through the window. And that’s starting to come back.
But I just miss the sense of the city going on around outside me, and I miss the news as well. The fact that for so long – I know it’s kind of changed a bit over the last week – but for so long, there’s absolutely no news other than Coronavirus numbers. And so that’s a significant difference.
But really, I think the big difference is, the editorial I can sit and do on my own at a desk without any problems, but the marketing needs me to be able to go out, so I really missed things like literary festivals we used to do, or we were doing events with authors at the Groucho club. We’d started to do events at a hotel chain, reader events where I would interview authors.
So the opportunity to go out and wave the magazine in people’s faces and try and sell subscriptions and build brand awareness, and relationships with publishers has been put on a sort of freeze frame. I’m sure it’ll come back as soon as the world builds up, it builds back to sort of normal velocity again, but all that kind of side of the magazine activity has been completely on hold during lockdown.
So you just got to wait, or are you doing anything differently, using more social media or anything?
Yes, I suppose focusing a bit more on social media. Marketing is not my strong suit at all. I think it’s become pretty clear doing this and thinking about it, that I think there are people who make things, and people who sell things, and in that sort of Venn diagram, they rarely overlap. Some lucky people are very good at both, but most people are strong at one and weak at the other, and marketing is my weakness.
So one of the reasons why I’m able to do Strong Words seven days a week is because it really captures my imagination, and you can only do something with a great deal of commitment, whether that’s making a magazine, or running marathons, or building some elaborate structure in your garden out of wood or whatever it happens to be.
If it really sets your imagination on fire, that’s the only way you can sustain that level of activity. And so, because marketing does not stimulate my imagination, it’s hard to find the same commitment, whereas it should I think be a 50/50 balance between the making of something and the selling of something.
And then I guess that’s why people have business partners, one does one and the other does the other, but in my instance the marketing doesn’t get quite the attention it deserves, and I have certainly an antipathetic attitude towards social media. I find it a bit gormless, so whereas I should be plunging in with great enthusiasm. I find it very easy to find reasons not to do it.