Have men's magazines had their day? The original lads' mag editor James Brown on the state of publishing past and present

The news that FHM and Zoo are to 'suspend publication' will inevitably prompt commentators to declare that the lads' mag, as we know it, is dead. But is the future for men's magazines really as bleak as it appears, or are these titles simply guilty of not keeping up with changing tastes in the digital age?

At DigitasLBi's UK NewFront, The Drum caught up with the father of lads' mags James Brown to discuss this very subject and more.

You can watch our full interview with the infamous Loaded editor turned digital publisher of Sabotage Times in our video above, with some lightly edited highlights below.

James Brown on print vs digital...

"Publishing has definitely been much improved by digital technology – no doubt about it. I think we’ve been through two significant waves in that change. The first is obviously where I started in print, to websites. [Now] websites are almost being made redundant by social.

"It’s democratised it. It’s become much more fertile ground. When I started out in publishing it was very, very barren. It was very difficult to get into. Now you can do anything, anywhere, on your phone.

"With Sabotage Times, our first generation of homegrown writers that we found, we were finding most of them on Twitter. If you can write a really funny 140 characters, you can probably hold your own for 150 words, as it is now, or 800 words as it was five years ago. I don’t buy this that there’s just too much going on. All you’ve got to do is crack one joke."

On the future of print...

"The challenge to print is a really significant challenge. They have got a future, they’ve just got to evolve. And they have evolved.

"Every day of the week now you get given a fairly competently put together magazine at a travel point or a garage. Metro created a template that you could generate sophisticated and competent print media and give it away – and that changed everything around the world.

"But also there’s obviously massive growth in small independent magazines which can look beautiful, can have lovely ads in them. Anyone can do them now. I just think the market’s changed."

On mags including his former haunt the NME going free...

"I think for the NME they should have done that about six years ago. [Going free] changed Time Out from struggling to sell 40,000 a week to going out to 500,000 people.

"They should have done that probably as soon as the Metro and then subsequently the mag sector and Stylist and Shortlist did it.

"The main thing is you’ve just got to get the print into the audience’s hands that the advertisers want."

On branded content and brands becoming publishers...

"It was quite strange when I first started doing this. You’d go to companies and ad agencies and they’d tell you that a leading butter brand were now a publisher. Obviously they weren’t but they wanted to be.

"The simple fact is they’ve got more money than the publishing company. They were always the people who gave the publishing companies their money anyway, but instead of giving publishing houses and other media platforms the revenues in terms of ads they just buy the content and house it themselves.

"I’ve been doing content creation for all sorts of different brands for about five years now and we’ve only had one client that really wanted advertorials. And actually the vast majority of the work we create we would publish on our own platforms anyway – in fact we do.

"I spend my time with the team writing and creating and shooting the same sort of material we would’ve done if it was sitting in our own publications."

On titillation in print and Playboy dropping nudity...

"Anybody who has read Playboy to look at the women must be blind. And must always have been blind because the stylised playmate shoots were never sexy. They didn’t look like real women.

"It’s like when DC Thomson said they were going to shut the Dandy or the Beano, it was a great publicity stunt.

"Magazines are about people. They’re about the people who are editing it and creating it as well as the people who are reading it. And they’re living, breathing things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a digital magazine or a solo blogger or just someone who lives on social, or a print mag. While there’s a really strong relationship between the audience and the creators, that’ll work.

"But presumably the requirements of the Playboy audience have changed. And more pertinently to this, the requirements of the Playboy advertisers have changed."

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