It’s Monday morning, and I have in my hands the first edition of the new Time Out, which re-launches as a free publication in London tomorrow.
The new magazine looks bright and confident (to my eyes), fulfilling the magazine’s brief to provide Londoners with information and inspiration for the week ahead.
It also looks effortless, which it certainly wasn’t.
The project started in earnest in June. Under the supervision of Time Out’s editor, Tim Arthur, three journalists and two designers were locked away in a sweaty glass box of an office and left with instructions to rethink a magazine that has in four and a half decades become the what’s on bible for London, and the centre of a publishing empire that now cover 37 cities in 25 countries.
Time Out’s problem was that bibles are going out of fashion. In the internet age, the information that has been Time Out’s core is not only freely available, but can be endlessly tailored for the individual, by interest, genre, time, price or location.
Since 1998, circulation had halved, and though the organisation has responded well to the challenges with a free website and a suite of brilliantly realised free apps for mobile devices, it was clear that something needed to be done with the magazine to keep it relevant.
Making the decision to go free was the easy part. The economics of a 300,000+ circulation free magazine are compelling, since it allows you to charge advertisers more to reach a greater audience. The practicalities are a little more tricky.
In paid-for Time Out, the magazine used to carry around 34 pages of advertising in a 118-page issue; in free Time Out, those 34 pages would pay for only 46 pages of editorial. The cut was not from a total of 118 pages to a total of 80, but – as far as editorial was concerned – from 84 pages to 46.
On top of that, the magazine we produced had to be recognisably Time Out: opinionated, funny and occasionally irritating. This, we constantly reminded ourselves, was not a new magazine for London. It was a new Time Out.
And so we filleted and flirted with formats. How about a three-section magazine, based on Seeing, Doing and Consuming? How about a giant Directory of listings to create a weekly little black book?
What, in the end, is Time Out for?
Balanced against such questions was the need to consider advertisers more actively, while retaining our editorial independence of thought. Like most paid-for titles, ‘old’ Time Out had what I think of as a mountain structure: you start with small pieces, centre on the big reads, then fade out again with more bits. If you do that on a free magazine, you risk having so many ads early that it becomes impossible to make your all-important early pages look good. As David Lynch might say, a free magazine needs twin peaks: bits; big read; bits; big read, in order to make advertising equally appealing and effective throughout the book.
In terms of editorial content, our readers were our guide. The longest-standing complaints about the ‘old’ magazine were that it confused as much as it inspired: “There’s so much in here that it makes me feel guilty for sitting at home”; “I feel paralysed by choice”; “I never bother reading the listings but when I do there’s always something I wish I’d known about”.
Our new Time Out would be more active in pointing things out. We still have all of the information about every event in London, but now that information is held digitally, freely available to those who seek it out according to their own preferences.
In print, we now act as a critical filter, selecting only the best that London has to offer, while pointing to forthcoming events that require advance booking or action. Part of the new role the print product is playing is as a constant reminder that it is only a part of the Time Out whole. You want more? We got more, and you can get it in any way you like.
The magazine you see tomorrow is different. It’s more visual, less packed, easier on the early-morning bleary eyes. But it’s still Time Out, the original blog of life in London, still written by people who feel compelled to share their passion for the city they live in.
I note as I write this that I have been using the word “we” a lot. Time Out is like that. It gets under your skin. It remains the only place I have ever worked as a journalist where an idea you have today can be in print, better than you visualised it, the following Tuesday. The staff here are every bit as talented, funny, cynical, depressed, irritable and stupidly hard-working as they were 14 years ago, when I last worked here. It’s been a pleasure to be involved again. I hope that it shows in the finished product.
Nigel Kendall was chief sub-editor and deputy editor of Time Out from 1990-1998, and has been an editorial consultant on the free Time Out since June.