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Chris Moss

Is time running out for Time Out?

British Journalism Review
Vol. 23, No. 2, 2012, pages 39-45


Chris Moss was travel editor and books editor at Time Out between August 2008 and May 2012; he is the editor of Time Out’s Flight Free Europe and Adventure!, among other books. He is now working in Wales as a freelance writer and editor.


Contents - Vol 23, No 2, 2012

Editorial - Whistling in the wind? 3


Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic
John Nathan, Roy Greenslade, Joy Johnson - 5

Steve Barnett - BJR/YouGov poll on public interest and the press 15

Sport
Andrew Jennings - Journalists? They’re media masseurs 25

Charles Lambert - Why the press pack must raise its game 32


Chris Moss - Is time running out for Time Out? 39

Ian Cobain - When justice won’t be seen to be done 47

Steve Schifferes - Trust-meltdown for business reporting 55

Daniel Bennett, Judith Townend - Scandal of selective reporting 60

Chris Elliott - Small earthquake at BJR 67

Peter Hain - Time to prick the Westminster bubble 74

Nicholas Jones - A question of conscience 78

BOOK REVIEWS
Tony Brenton on Luke Harding 84
Ruth Dudley Edwards on Joel H Weiner 86
Michael Leapman on Arthur Butler 88
Cristina Odone on Nick Cohen 90
Will Wyatt on Steven Barnett 92
Bill Hagerty on Stephen Glover 94


Quotes of the Quarter 1 - 14
Quotes of the Quarter 2 - 24
Ten years ago - The way we were - 46
News - Cudlipp Award 80
Postscript - ibc


Cover illustration: MARTIN ROWSON


 

Once an iconic agitprop and arts magazine, London’s listings title may become a web-only e-commerce portal, writes a former staffer

In October 1984 I arrived in London, aged 18. At the freshers’ fair at King’s College, where I had enrolled to read theology, someone gave me a promotional copy of Time Out. I was from Lancashire, naïve about matters urban, but knew the magazine by name. Someone told me there was another magazine called City Limits, which was similar but “cooler”. I flicked through Time Out, found it too busy for my taste, and went to the pub. Over three years I never subscribed, rarely glanced at a copy (when I did, it seemed cliquey, like the music tabloids) and I used the grapevine for any arts and culture I required.

Fifteen years later I was living in Buenos Aires and a woman representing Time Out Guides arrived in the city from London. She said she wanted to produce a city guide about the Argentine capital and, since I was the only Anglophone arts writer working at the local newspaper, the Buenos Aires Herald, would I sell my services? If the magazine I had browsed had vague pretensions of being leftish and underground, the guide we produced was openly consumerist. It recommended more boutique hotels and pricey restaurants than any self-respecting Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, and while it had a whiff of the opinionated tone of the magazine, it was essentially a utilitarian guide to spending time – and money – in a city. There was no political content, only token social information (e.g. where to get contraceptives) in a glossary, and nothing remotely like an agitprop or social action slant.

I’m too young to have lived through the counterculture that provided the background to the launch of Time Out in 1968. There’s no need to recycle the story here, but founder Tony Elliott’s magazine provided a practical complement to the more radical journalism found in Oz and International Times; the core of this was a listings guide directing readers to happening hangouts like the UFO Club and The Roundhouse. When I returned to London in 2001 after a decade in Argentina, I washed up at Time Out’s HQ on Tottenham Court Road, working on assorted projects and seated next to Peter Stansill, one time editor of International Times. “Tony [Elliott] offered to do listings for International Times,” Stansill told me. “But neither we nor Oz wanted to have listings so he went away and did it himself. He is the one still going, so he was on to something.”

From 2001 on, I worked in various departments of the company and in August 2008 was put on the staff to launch a new travel section; I was given free rein and up to seven pages to show the readers that life didn’t end at Zone 2 on the Underground. Tony Elliott, now chairman but still hands-on when it came to content, layout and even founts, told me that no one needed “another fucking travel section” and that my job was to show Londoners that there were galleries and restaurants and things to do in other cities. I was not to patronise the readers, but to assume they were well travelled and give them openings, exhibitions and good-value places to eat and drink in Santiago, Shanghai and Seoul.


The magazine was all bones and not much flesh

If this message was not entirely lost on me, I had also, of course, to refer to the magazine for an editorial line. What I saw there was an unashamedly aspirational section called “Consume” that recommended the most obscenely priced clothes, perfumes and household stuff and a food section right at the front that covered the same ground as the Evening Standard, regularly giving high ratings to restaurants that charged £100-plus for dinner. The rest of the magazine was taken up with arts previews and listings and a small but well-executed section called “Big Smoke” that looked at the capital from a quirky perspective.

The then editor, Gordon Thomson, had done a good job of abandoning a previous editor’s misguided use of music and film celebrities on the cover and was committed to keeping London as the only real “star”. My gut feeling, though, was the same as when I was an undergraduate: the magazine was all bones and not much flesh; times and dates and prices, but little to indulge in over a cup of coffee. Some of my colleagues grumbled that a “London magazine” didn’t need travel; but I felt the magazine needed anything that provided proper reading material.

This, sadly, was not to be. Only a few months after I joined, a round of redundancies was announced. The books editor was dismissed, the sports section axed, and features slashed. At meetings we were told that the magazine was in crisis. Circulation was low and falling (over two decades it had fallen from more than 100,000 to 60,000), newsstand sales were particularly dismal, advertising revenue was in decline and the recession meant things would have to change if Time Out was to survive. David King, CEO of Time Out Group – formerly of BBC Worldwide, where he oversaw the controversial acquisition of Lonely Planet – told the staff that the company was looking for a buyer.

Early in 2009 Mark Frith was brought in as a “consultant”. He was there, according to Time Out’s managing director Mark Elliott, to advise editor Thomson; of course the latter promptly departed, humiliated and furious. With a background at Heat and Smash Hits, Frith took over as editor, earning a reported £120,000. He was sold to the section editors and writers – and to the commercial team – as a man who would turn circulation round and make the magazine popular. I had once asked Tony Elliott why Time Out wasn’t a huge media corporation, like Virgin or Sky, and he told me he always wanted the magazines to talk to niches – to those who mattered. But Frith announced at an editorial meeting that the current sales showed that the magazine was being bought only by a “niche of a niche” and warned that if the slump continued the magazine would sell zero copies by 2014-5. The man who had been at the helm of Heat when its circulation peaked at nearly 600,000 was here to save the day.

Hardly smitten but keen to keep their jobs, Time Out’s writers accepted Frith’s editorial format: loud coverlines announcing lists of things to do (“100 things to do in spring”, “London’s 20 best pizzerias”, “50 places to stay in the country”) week after week; the axing of “Big Smoke”; photo bylines; more space given to pictures and less to copy; no discussion or debate about content. Frith said he had no intention of making Time Out a celebrity rag, yet insisted interviews had to be with big names. Circulation rose by a tiny bit for a short period and then continued on a downward slope, while readers complained in (unpublished) letters about dumbing down. The mood on the editorial floors was dismal. A further redundancy led to my taking on the literary editor’s role with no salary increase. In fact, pay was frozen across the company, and King, Frith and Mark Elliott let it be known – once again – that the magazine had “to find a buyer – there’s no alternative”.

In November 2010, 50 per cent of Time Out Group was sold to the private equity firm Oakley Capital for a reported £20 million. Press releases made it clear that Oakley’s chairman, Peter Dubens (who made his first millions with the dial-up net provider Pipex), was specifically interested in Time Out’s online potential. Shortly after the sale, a staff member raised his hand in a meeting and asked: “Will we become some kind of online supermarket?’ “Not at all,” said the newly-appointed “UK content director” Tim Arthur, claiming Oakley saw their online ambitions as a parallel activity to the magazine. “The sale may even free up the magazine to take more risks,” he added.

There was scope for optimism. Arthur was soon made magazine editor and Frith left to take over a raft of magazines at Bauer. As a former section editor (comedy), Arthur had most of the editors and writers on his side. He promised stronger covers, better features, fewer tedious lists, no more picture bylines and a seamless linking of magazine to online content. But he had to balance his professional pride with Oakley’s focus on “transactional” e-commerce: that is, flogging tickets and offering discounts to the shows Time Out had hitherto been free to review and often deride. At a commercial level, perhaps it seemed natural – to the directors at least – that Time Out should move from recommending shows and products to trading in them; at the level of objective, honest, self-respecting journalism, there was an obvious conflict of interest.


Hundreds of letters of protest from readers

It was soon obvious which side was going to win. No new money was made available for adding pages or anything new in the print version of the magazine. The TV listings were removed – and then reinstated after hundreds of letters of protest and threats from readers to cancel subscriptions. Yet between November 2011 and the end of January 2012, Time Out acquired shopping deals companies Keynoir and Kelkoo Select and the theatre booking website Whatsonstage.com. New people began to arrive at the office, unannounced and never introduced to editorial staff. Desks were moved, departments relocated. More than 30 programmers and technicians were employed – some on temporary contracts, many on permanent arrangements – solely to design a new website for launch in Paris.

After lots of delays, www.timeout.fr/paris was launched – the first in a promised global roll-out of city websites. Then came more redundancies. The city guides part of the company was being wound down to publish a tiny handful of guides with hardly any staff editors retained. Then a dozen more magazine redundancies: a long-serving film critic, the deputy editor, the music editor, two sub editors, a senior designer, the picture editor, a picture researcher, the director of all the (lucrative) advertorials and sponsored copy – and then the books and travel editor: me. And, as morale began to sink to a new low, others began to hand in their notice: the art director left, the features editor joined The Guardian.

In the last few weeks of my employment, there were hints of censorship. Nothing was written down, of course, but it was made clear to many writers – including this one – that we were to refrain from attacks on the City and on Boris Johnson. The former left most of the journalists incredulous. The latter was a major turnaround as Ken Livingstone had long been Time Out’s friend and ally, even serving as its gardening columnist for a spell. But Dubens supports Johnson and he, it was evident, was now the editor-in-chief as well as the owner of the only part of the company that was expanding. Tony Elliott’s 50 per cent was a shrinking half; appropriately, the magazine was cut to 124 pages – the thinnest it had been in years.

Much has been made of Tony Elliott’s sacking of most of his staff in 1981, when he decided the magazine he had launched should no longer operate along co-operative lines and that pay should reflect power and responsibility. It was a watershed, of course, leading to the founding of City Limits and, eventually, to the expansion of Time Out to New York, Chicago and beyond. But was this single event responsible for the collapse of a regime and the end of a period of revolutionary zeal?

I decided to weigh the evidence rather than the mythologies. On my last day at the Tottenham Court Road HQ, I went up to the eighth floor where, since 2010, Time Out’s library of bound back-issues has been buried, far away from production and editorial – as if the directors didn’t want their new team of online uploaders to compare past with present. I scanned some typical issues. In the 1973 August 10-16 issue the coverline was “Secondhand London: Clothes” and there were three pages on the British secret service as well as four news pages. For October 11-17, 1984, the cover was “McCartney: Do you still need me now it’s ’84?”, with the ex-Beatle punked up to look like Marc Almond. Inside the main news story was “Union bashes tenant takeover” and there were three pages on London’s semi-legal speakeasies, and an entire agitprop section giving a week-full of suggestions for those interested in “political and social action”. Back then the magazine was the nursery of writers as capable and diverse as Tariq Ali, J G Ballard, Julie Burchill, Peter Paphides and Chris Petit. It was a good magazine, occasionally a great one.

On the week I left, the coverline was “Easter, cracked! Our unbeatable guide to making the most of the bank holiday”, and the second “sell” was “Weddings that wow”. There was a third sell promising tips on pubs for watching the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. Even by recent desultory standards, this was a lame issue of the magazine, one that, in my view, could do nothing but hasten its demise. There seems absolutely no doubt Dubens and his Oakley Capital cronies want Time Out to be a wholly online affair. From a venture capitalist’s point of view it would usher in a small masthead-but-big-money phase that would make financial sense, even if it ultimately eroded the brand to the point where it was hard to sell on. As for Tony Elliott, in Time Out’s official history London Calling, published to celebrate the magazine’s 40th birthday in 2009, he looked back and shared his manifesto with familiar bluffness: “If 1968 was a time of revolution, it was a consumer one.” The counterculture, he said, was “worthy, but basically irritating. Ultimately it [the hippy spirit] was a bit of a dead end”. Honest appraisal or a rewriting of history? Only Elliott can know, but there is something wearyingly familiar about a sometime idealist selling out as he or she grows older.


In its heyday Time Out was always a hybrid

While it’s true that the latest incarnation of Time Out is the most grossly commercial and philistine to date, it’s perhaps wisest to see this as an evolution of the Darwinian kind. Even in its heyday Time Out was always a hybrid, with news and agitprop up front and listings at the back – but the back was always bigger. The magazine’s survival where so many others have died – not just International Times and Oz, but The Face, Sounds, Virgin’s Event, City Limits, The Listener, and many more – is due to its lack of an ideology and its willingness to go with the flow (of capital as well as trends). The magazine that Elliott founded in August 1968, with its cover announcing the ICA’s “Cybernetic Serendipity” expedition, looks “far out” now, but it was merely in tune with the times. Timeout.com, with its Facebook buttons and its deals and app promotions and competitions and offers and tickets, and with a venture capitalist as its main driver, is in tune with a city (and the City) where there is arguably no real counterculture, and where the net has colonised anything that might be moderately cool and published it before Tim Arthur and his team of earnest scribes have got out of bed.

Listings magazines are the inventions of obsessive, nerdy types, bent on packaging up reality in order to control it. I still think Time Out is too busy, too expensive (£3.25 for 124 pages) and too parochial – just like London, in fact – but its evident move away from print marks a final shift from social and moral concerns and, ultimately, away from arts and culture as anything other than consumables. By placing his faith in listings and raw data over argument, ethics or philosophy, or even just stories, Tony Elliott nurtured a media ideally suited to the click-and-pay world of the net. Its present incarnation must surely mean the print magazine’s days are numbered.