Time Out went free this week. It wasn’t really a shock, the notion had been knocking around when I worked there, particularly when thelondonpaper and London Lite were stinking up the streets. The success of the free Evening Standard probably sealed the deal. The economics are unarguable: drop the cover price and circulation rises, allowing you to charge more for advertising. If you can simultaneously reduce costs – which they have been doing through regular redundancies – you may have a viable magazine once again. The danger, though, is that once the decision to go free has been made, there’s no going back…
What has it meant for Time Out? Well, the new magazine has less pages but still has plenty of previews, lists, bitty features and clunky ads, with just a couple of longer reads thrown in for us old-fashioned types. What it doesn’t have – along with book reviews – is listings (at least in any meaningful sense), which was the reason Time Out was invented in 1968. (There’s also no letters page, which is a mistake if they still want to establish that vital personal link with readers, and one I think they will quickly rectify.)
This isn’t really a surprise. Successive TO editors have always struggled with the listings part of their brief: listings are ugly, boring and largely resistant to any sexing up, despite the best attempts of periodic and largely futile ‘redesigns’ (has a redesign of any magazine or newspaper EVER raised circulation?). They are also beyond the control of the editor, who has to leave them to section heads. Even editors who came from within the magazine, and therefore understood the centrality of listings to what Time Out did, didn’t actually appear to like them all that much. They take up valuable space from the exciting things an editor likes to do at the front of the mag and telling a section editor you are cutting their pages is a draaaag.
To make matters worse, listings do not do well when it comes to ‘page views’ or ‘unique users’, the trite and often completely useless method by which the value of anything in print is these days judged. And because people don’t click on listings on the website (for reasons that are so obvious I won’t even bother to explain), the logic goes, they don’t read them in print.
A number of people have noted that without decent browsable printed listings, Time Out has potentially rendered itself useless, but I don’t want to comment on that. What does interest me is that effect a lack of listings will have London’s smaller venues. The joy of TO‘s listings was that it gave the smallest museum or club as much prominence as the biggest and most well-funded, allowing readers to decide which to visit entirely on the merit of their programming. It’s this that made Time Out absolutely central to the rise of fringe theatre, avant-garde art, clubbing, burlesque and alternative comedy – each scene was created by individuals, but a free listing in Time Out coupled with enthusiastic support from in-the-know section editors took things to another level. Even larger venues have told me they noticed the difference in footfall when they were omitted from listings (by accident or for reasons of space).
Time Out obviously doesn’t have the circulation, and therefore the pull, it once did and there are other specialist resources for those interested in the esoteric fringes of London’s cultural life, but the loss of listings will surely still be felt by venues that aren’t internet savvy or lack a large marketing department. The solution for many will be a prominent place in the preview part of the existing sections. Time Out‘s section heads will never have been in such demand… And PRs can be a dangerously homogenising bunch.