What singles out a successful journalist from an average one? Ideas. Good ideas. Ideas that really chime with the interests of their readers.
What differentiates a really successful magazine, website or newspaper from average ones? An understanding of the reader, of their concerns and interest.
And what underpins this success? Great ideas.
Ideas are at the heart of everything; they are gold dust.
So the challenge for any individual journalist, any editor and any publication, is to come up with ideas that work.
Some editors are great at fostering an environment in which journalists think creatively and ideas flow.
Others are terrible at it. Their editorial conferences are highly politicised and involve the competitive trashing of ideas, and the squandering of inspiration.
Such editors run less effective publications; ones on which the writers, section editors and others are rarely happy. There are plenty of those around.
One magazine, it’s clear from Janice Turner’s piece in today’s Times Saturday Magazine, that fosters just the right atmosphere for great ideas to flourish, is Grazia.
Here’s her account of the weekly editorial conference: “Crammed into an overheated meeting room on a Monday morning, a bunch of noisy women are discussing world events. First up, bunions: not just any podiatric deformities, but Victoria Beckham’s. “She’s been told she may never wear high heels again,” someone says. “That’s going to kill her.” There is much cackling. The agenda chugs quickly through India (street children freezing to death), France (is Sarkozy’s decision to ban the burkha progressive?) and then someone pulls out a clipped photo of Madonna, her cheeks puffy, her chin all Bo’ Selecta. “Ah, she’s a pillow,” says someone authoritatively. A what? Apparently, it’s a term coined to describe a celebrity who has overstuffed her face with silicone pads and collagen fillers.
“Grazia magazine’s weekly conference is a gas. It is like all the heated debates you ever had at the hairdresser’s or with friends over coffee, except when you speculate, for example, whether Kate Moss’s strange new grey streaks are natural or bottle, a perky, young beauty expert is on hand to say: “I’ve talked to Kate’s colourist and she says it’s a very chic grey called Chanel-egant.”
"The meeting has many abrupt swerves in tone: from trivial to serious, skincare to global calamity. A discussion about WAGs segues into Haiti’s orphans, then the Paris couture shows.”
And here’s how the editor runs the meeting: “At the head of the table, calm, quietly authoritative, but seldom interjecting even when debate drifts way off topic or descends into hen-party raucousness, is editor Jane Bruton.”
Such an occasion is in stark contrast to many conferences. Often they are a mere, ritualistic reading of lists from department heads.
Informal sessions – in the easier days of the past an excuse for a long boozy lunch on expenses – are actually where the best ideas come from.
Because, in such circumstances, people talk about what they are really interested in, not what’s on the formal agenda or what they think they ought to be concerned about.
Grazia’s editorial staff seem to be pretty much like its readers, and so what interests them will interest the audience.
Such chemistry creates titles that resonate. As Turner says: “Grazia seems to define a cultural moment, just as Cosmo did for the Seventies sexual revolution or Loaded during the mid-Nineties emergence of the new lad. Grazia Girl denotes a certain type of modern woman: urban, materialistic, fashionable, liberal, educated. She embodies a mash-up of all the comfortable old marketing categories, between up and downmarket, low and high-brow. Grazia Girl wears a Primark top with a Prada bag, she may read a broadsheet paper and love Heat. Advertisers adore her, politicians are starting to court her. But this product of disposable, downloadable, 24/7 culture is impatient and mercurial: she craves the new and she wants it now; tomorrow she will chuck it away.”
I worked on one national newspaper with a patrician editor who would ask at the end of conference, when he’d heard all the lists, “but what are people talking about?” He’d turn to the sports editor and ask, “what are they saying in the saloon bar?”
It was a quaintly old fashioned way of phrasing things, but it showed he had the right idea.
He knew that to really succeed, a publication must address what really interests, what really matters to readers even if – perhaps especially if – they wouldn’t formally admit to an interest in the topic if asked directly.
At Grazia, this is what the editor says about why she runs such conferences: “I don’t like to shut people up, I let them run on. That is often how you get the best ideas. I look around at people in our office. Some are twentysomething, single without kids, others are guilt-stricken working mothers like me. But we all like to debate things; we’re highly engaged with all sorts of subjects. We flick between discussing child abuse to the latest shoes. That is how a woman’s mind works. It can contain all this different stuff at once.
“Clearly, she uses conference as a handy focus group. Bruton’s chief objective is that when women pick up her magazine on Tuesday morning it will contain what they are already talking about. And the easiest way to ensure this is to simulate and observe that conversation."
If you want a model for how to come up with great ideas, and feed them into a great publication, Bruton and Grazia show the way.