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Shortlist and Stylist: Web lessons from print “insurgents”

19 Jul, 13 | by BMJ Group

In August last year London listings magazine Time Out became the latest high quality title to drop its cover price (£3.25), say farewell to the news-stand, and become a commuter freebie. 

timeoutIt looks, feels, and reads like its paid-for predecessor. There are film, theatre, dance, music, comedy, shopping, food, cabaret and club previews, and full-page ads for products including Hertz, Tesco Mobile, BA, and Fullers Brewery confirm that advertisers have stuck with the title, which now has an average weekly circulation of 205,530, a fivefold increase on the 54,875 copies it was selling each week in 2011. 

Time Out is not routinely discarded by commuters, a trend it shares with glossy rivals Stylist (distributed on Wednesdays to affluent 20 to 40-year-old women with high end fashion, travel, beauty, people and careers content), and Shortlist (distributed on Thursdays to professional males)

But unlike Time Out, both Stylist and Shortlist launched as “freemium” titles and have never had a cover price.shortlistcover

What does this have to do web development and BMJ? Two similarities spring to mind. Readers of  BMJ journals are, in most cases, not the people who have paid for the content. Advertisers pay for that, along with institutions (university and hospital libraries, the NHS and other health departments, pharma companies). These pay for access on behalf of their students and employees, with a small number of personal print, online and app subscribers. So it’s important that the BMJ and specialty journals serve two masters – publishing content that readers want to read, cite, listen to, watch, and debate, and providing meaningful user data to paying customers who need to know that their subscription remains good value.

Secondly, the process of innovation championed by Mike Soutar, CEO of Shortlist Media, shares many characteristics with the collaborative spirit in which digital products are now conceived and developed, the kind of spirit, in fact, that was much in evidence at the recent BMJ hack day, which you can read about in previous blogs and BMJ articles.

Soutar is a former editor of Smash Hits and previously editorial director at IPC Magazines when Loaded launched as the “original lads mag.”  He described Loaded as a “happy accident” when he addressed a recent BMJ strategy event, a classic example of how print titles were traditionally conceived – with an editor having an idea, taking it to the board, hopefully getting their support and the promise of funding to develop the idea further. According to Soutar, editors’ ideas had a 10% hit rate, and a 3% success rate.

 A fresh approach was needed, he argued, one that bore fruit in 2006 when he set up consultancy Crash Test Media to nurture “left field” ideas for the publishing industry.

Soutar’s approach is to assemble different teams of colleagues from across the business whom he describes as  “insurgents.”  These are people who who think the unthinkable. They clear their schedules, leave the day job behind, sign non-disclosure agreements, and are freed up to innovate and iterate after identifying what it is about the status quo that frustrates readers, often in friendly competition with other teams across the business.

In the case of Shortlist, he said, it was the fact that men were turned off by existing mens’ titles. In other words, the world had moved on since the launch of Loaded in 1994. The old model smacked of vanity publishing and was riskier because huge sums were earmarked for new launches, often solely on the hunch of a respected senior editor.

Heat magazine, for example, cost £4m to launch in 1999 and was a flop before it eventually reinvented itself as a celebrity gossip magazine. Soutar admitted that his approach can be risky for different reasons – teams live and breathe an exciting new project and can unwittingly tip off the competition by letting the cat out of the bag in conversations outside the office.

Soutar’s model shares many characteristics with the BMJ hackers, who gave up their weekends to respond to one of four challenges (creating better doctors, enabling a zero harm NHS, revolutionising scholarly publishing, and localising content for different territories), and formed themselves into teams. A typical team consisted of medical students with coding skills, qualified doctors with an interest in technology, and a bunch of entreprenurial programmers, many with business degrees or marketing backgrounds.


Soutar didn’t describe the digital elements of Shortlist and Stylist when he spoke to us. Was that part of the strategy? Do they even have websites? Of course they do.


Soutar’s titles, and Time Out for that matter, are also successful and innovative digital products.Its Emerald Street email launched in April and now has more than 50,000 subscribers. The Time Out app is that genuine thing – a magazine app with a focus not on articles but on things to do in London, including a strong local focus (when I looked recently it had information about the Sydenham Festival), and useful geo-targeting (“find things to do near me”).

Innovation is alive and kicking in the news-stand print sector as the cover price gets consigned to history and new distribution models emerge. But maybe it innovates most successfully when it champions the collaborative/competitive spirit that characterises digital product teams, drawn (as they usually are) from the ranks of technology, journalism, technology, marketing, and sales.

David Payne is editor,, and readers’ editor

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