Published in the Financial Times

Here’s a challenging thought for all those working in the magazine industry: maybe change is a bad thing. Maybe all the re-designs, format alterations, editorial revolutions, style modifications and endless transformations that are accepted as a necessary part of modern magazine publishing are a waste of time. Maybe magazines would attract more readers, or at least just as many readers, if they never changed. Maybe the strange truth is that readers like things as they are.

It’s not an idea that has many proponents, I must admit, but it’s a thought that hits you head-on as you enter the offices of The Lady, “England’s oldest weekly magazine for women”, founded in 1885 by Mr Thomas Gibson Bowles. Stepping into the magazine’s elegant Covent Garden premises – its home since 1891 – is like stepping into a publishing museum. Signs from the 19th century adorn the walls. There are panelled doors, moulded ceilings and sash windows. Pretty flower boxes decorate the window ledges on the editorial floor.

In many ways, this single-publication business is still run like a Victorian publishing house. The co-owner, Tom Bowles, is a grandson of the founder. He runs the business with his sister Julia Budworth, and lives, some of the time, in a flat above the offices. He is a benevolent employer. For a treat last Christmas he took the 40-odd staff to a performance of The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre.

Indeed, the beloved organ of the nation’s gentlefolk is proud of its Victorian-style management set-up and makes a virtue of its conservatism. Its media pack, aimed at potential advertisers, celebrates the fact that The Lady “seldom panders to popular publishing trends”.

The magazine only recently abandoned traditional cut-and-paste page make-up, entering the world of computers and onscreen editing in 1998. When the current editor, Arline Usden, joined in 1991, becoming only the eighth person to occupy that position in the magazine’s 116-year history, she had no access to a fax machine.

The Lady has yet to embrace even basic 20th-century bathroom technology. The staff are each given their own little green and brown towel to take to the lavatory to dry their hands.

“Because I’m editor I get two towels,” enthuses Usden, a well-spoken and sweet-natured woman. “Everyone else gets one. I must admit that I like having towels. It’s the only magazine I’ve worked at during my career where I’ve had a towel. And I like it. Dryers aren’t hygenic, anyway.”

You could say that The Lady sticks two fingers up at the whole notion of change. But the magazine would, of course, never dream of making such a coarse gesture. Hand in hand with its unremitting conservatism, the magazine, which was originally launched as a “journal for gentlewomen”, is sensationally bland.

It never does anything that could possibly offend. Controversy is avoided at all costs. Politics is a complete no-go area. The words “lavatory” and “toilet” are banned. Sex doesn’t get a look-in. “We don’t really go in for sex, although we do mention affairs occasionally,” explains Usden.

“Even if it began in 1960, we don’t talk about sexual intercourse. You won’t find articles on how many organisms women should be having in a week.”

“Do you mean orgasms?” I ask, delicately.

“Yes. Orgasms. You won’t find anything salacious like that or any tragedy.”

“We are soothing,” adds Lindsay Fulcher, the 49-year-old assistant editor who is sitting in on the interview, providing her boss with moral support during this rare encounter with the national press. “We’re the kind of magazine you can leave lying around – and if you’re having your teeth done, you don’t want to be reading about some ghastly tragedy or erotic fantasy. People like something soothing and reasonable.”

This usually means articles about the royal family (“The circulation department do love royal issues,” says Usden), articles sent in by amateur writers and readers with slightly eccentric hobbies, a special crossword-style puzzle called the Ladygram, short stories, pieces about opera singers and gardening, and a column on bridge written by Gus Calderwood, “one of Britain’s leading bridge players and a celebrated bridge teacher”.

Just as important are the ads and classifieds. There is no Lonely Hearts column – that would not be appropriate – but The Lady is famous for its job ads for nannies, au pairs, mothers’ helps, cooks, butlers and matrons.

Several royals – including the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother – are thought to have used it to advertise for staff. Famously, the Duchess of York once advertised for a dresser in the magazine. The successful applicant – Jane Andrews – was recently jailed for life for murdering her lover.

There are also larger ads, which make depressing reading for anyone not at ease with their mortality. There are countless ads for stairlift rentals and personal alarms, special bras that improve posture and reduce back-pain and numerous ads promoting charities dealing with incurable diseases and the torture of small animals (“It’s shocking!” says one, featuring a picture of a cute puppy and kitten. “Every year in Britain almost two and a half million experiments are carried out on living animals.”).

The Lady’s readers are, by and large, very posh old women living in the south of England. Readership surveys suggest that some 68 per cent of The Lady’s women readers are in the top socio-economic groups – the affluent ABC1s. Some 70 per cent are aged 45 or over and 64 per cent live in the southern half of the country.

There’s no doubt that The Lady has a strong and dedicated following within this elite group of people. But the question is, could sections of the magazine industry – especially the cut-throat women’s weekly market – learn from the example of a magazine that bucks every publishing trend there has ever been? Is no change – or, at least very slow change – a viable strategy?

The owners of the magazine are fiercely private and refuse to proffer any financial information, but The Lady’s circulation figures don’t vindicate its unique strategy. Although circulation was pushing 70,000 in 1986, it has declined significantly and currently stands at around 40,000.

The magazine claims that these numbers are nothing to worry about.

“Fewer people seem to be buying magazines generally and women’s weeklies in particular, but we believe that we have a strong support among our niche group readers,” observes David Richards, the 53-year-old general manager. “We would like to keep above 40,000 and I’m optimistic.”

However, Nilufar Fowler, head of magazines at media buying agency Optimedia, believes that The Lady risks extinction if it refuses to change.

“A number of old established titles in the troubled women’s weekly sector, such as Woman’s Own and Women’s Weekly, are facing a similar loss of readers,” she says.

“Titles such as Your Life from IPC are doing a much better job of recognising that a 50-year-old woman today has a very different life experience and set of priorities than a 50-year-old 20 years ago. Today’s 50-year-old no longer wants to read about gardening and knitting – she wants to know about glamorous foreign travel, about stylish fashion and about current affairs.

“She’s not interested in growing old gracefully – as far as she is concerned, she is a long way off growing old at all. Until titles like The Lady start recognising this and tailor their editorial offering accordingly, they seem to be doomed to a slow and painful death.”

So The Lady faces a simple choice: it can either attempt to change more rapidly, running the risk of alienating existing readers but possibly attracting new readers, or just plod on as usual, in the hope that its tried-and-tested formula continues to appeal to the kind of people that read the magazine.

It is not a question that is being ignored by the magazine: there is a philosophical divide between the editorial department, which wants more rapid change, and the advertising and business departments, which err on the side of caution.

Usden, having worked on several regional newspapers and national magazines, and edited titles such as Successful Slimming, recognises a need to move more quickly.

She is already, arguably, the most radical editor in the magazine’s history. She has overseen the introduction of computers, fax machines, ISDN lines, the use of more colour pages and more interviews with celebrities. Recently, to her delight, she even managed to get the word “breast” on the magazines front cover – in reference to a piece about breast cancer.

But Usden clearly gets a little frustrated by the slow pace of change and the management’s profound conservatism.

“For 10 years I have been trying to get the contents page moved from around page 26 to page 3,” she says. “Just so that new readers can find their way around the magazine. But I haven’t given up yet. The management are frightened of change. There is a great feeling that you mustn’t disturb the classifieds. There’s a feeling that you mustn’t disturb something that brings in so much money.

“But I don’t believe for one moment that having a contents page on page 3 would make any difference to the classifieds whatsoever – it would just affect one display advert.”

Usden gives the impression that she is prepared for a long campaign for change.

“I am determined to win this battle. It’s a war of attrition. I pick away. I put the idea forward, I put a lot of reasons forward, I elicit support and I hope one day that the management will see what an excellent idea it is and how good it would be for the magazine.

“On the whole, people here, except in the editorial department, have never worked on another publication – they have never worked for anything but The Lady – so maybe they don’t understand perhaps quite how other publications work.”

Although, as a family business, The Lady doesn’t need to make huge profits all the time, and doesn’t face the same constraints as magazines owned by large publishing groups, the risk is that by the time the magazine finally decides to change, it could be too late.

Usden, for her part, doesn’t think that things are getting that critical yet.

“The magazine has gone for 116 years and I think it will go for another 116,” she says confidently. “We have dedicated readers and dedicated management and I’m sure it will continue to be buoyant. I love the challenge of trying to bring it into the 19th or 20th century.”

Published March 20, 2003, FT Creative Business

Copyright Financial Times