Farewell to the first and last great Aussie men’s mag
The drinks went down easy. A little too easy for a wet Monday night. Alpha magazine was no more, the pin pulled in an 11 am meeting with management, and past and present staff were out drowning their sorrows. Outside, the rain poured down, as though in commiseration.
In its heyday, Alpha was the biggest-selling men’s magazine in Australian publishing history. Its demise says much about the current industry focus on electronic publishing. But it says more about how incredibly tough it is, and always has been, to sell magazines to men in Australia.
Men’s magazines are a tough game. The toughest. While women across all demographic groups have an automatic reflex to purchase mags both quality and trashy, men have no such compulsion. It’s like our hormonal cycle, or lack of it compared to women. The impulse is just not there.
The high point for men’s mags in Australia was the late ’90s and early 2000s. Inspired by the UK lad mag revolution, titles like FHM, Ralph and Inside Sport evolved. A decade on, and Ralph is dead, while FHM and Inside Sport struggle on. Just.
The only Australian men’s mags with any kind of enduring track record are the golf mags, fishing mags, motoring mags and other specialist titles. They’re not inspiring, but they are what they are, and they make small, reliable profits. A great success story in today’s market is Men’s Health. Only time will tell if it lasts.
But the bottom line is that no men’s mag had ever truly cracked the mass circulation mainstream in Australia without resorting to smut. Then along came Alpha.
When News Magazines looked to expand its magazine division in 2005, the obvious avenue was the women’s market. But News Mags bigwigs dreamed big. They saw that men would respond to an intelligent publication if it wasn’t too up its own arse, or too obsessed with looking down women’s cleavages.
Someone came up with a great tagline. Alpha: it’s sport and it’s personal. The “personal” worked on the literal level because we had the grooming, gadgets and grog up the back. But it worked even better on the emotive level. As any sports fan knows, “it’s personal” is a phrase that connotes attitude. And Alpha had attitude.
I was one of the fortunate few who were part of the launch team charged with developing that attitude. We had a talented group. Chief sub-editor Ivan Smith was a surly Englishman whose whip-tongue and pedantry knew no bounds. Current GQ editor Nick Smith ran the back section with style and flair, even if his tastes were a little metrosexual for some. And our fearless and inspirational leader was current Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen, who worked under a TV which was always blaring at full volume.
Developing a magazine’s personality is tougher than it sounds, especially if you overthink it. It’s a task best left to organic processes, and after one too many early development meetings, art director Darren Gover cut through the crap. “I just want to make a mag,” he famously said in frustration. It was a line often repeated down the years in Alpha editorial meetings. If someone was harping on, or refusing to back down over a dud idea, someone would say “I just want to make a mag” and that would be that. Back to work stations.
So we made a mag. And we made a bloody good mag, as our initial circulation figures of more than 200,000 attested. Inside Sport, previously Australia’s premier sports title, never came close to 100,000, even in its glory days. There was no magic formula behind what we did. We just talked about sport the way men talk about sport, without ever being too dumb about it.
We took the piss when necessary, which was often. When we wanted to make fun of Jason Gillespie’s mullet hairdo, we stuck a giant stinking fish in his hands for the photo shoot. Another time, we stuck a huge fat cigar in golfer Geoff Ogilvy’s mouth after he won the 2006 US Open. Then there was the time we went all gangsta on Ricky Ponting. Sports stars respected us because we respected them, but didn’t fawn. Our readers got that, too.
Alpha also covered all kinds of territory in search of a good yarn. In the very first issue, Neil Breen sent me off to Alice Springs, to tell the story of the birth of the Australian sports betting industry through Centrebet chief Gerard Daffy. It was three days of booze, blackjack, outback horse racing and more booze. But what really made the story memorable for readers was the portrayal of Daffy himself. Who’d have thought readers would empathise with him, and his inability to buy the business which he alone had built up? Everyone hates those money-hungry bookie bastards, right? Not after reading about Daffy in Alpha they didn’t.
Another time, we massively trumped-up Alpha’s importance in the Australian media landscape, and bagged an elusive invitation to a shindig called the World Press Briefing in Beijing. And so, a year out from the Olympics, Alpha dined on what looked and tasted like the eyeball soup from that Indiana Jones film at China’s state guesthouse. Good times. But most importantly, a great story for the readers.
We also took the magazine craft seriously. Lists are something that newspapers rarely do well but mags can do brilliantly. Our annual list of the year’s top sporting moments became a much-awaited issue. Then one day, we said stuff it, let’s list the 100 best sportsmen ever, from every country, every sport and every era. Why? Because we can! So we did. And everyone argued with us. And we had great fun. Which was great, because I’ve always said that the first rule of the media is that if you’re having a good time, your audience will too.
Despite all of this, circulation began to decline, and changes were made. The feature section shrank. Our clean, modern layout was replaced with shouty fonts, and a busier look. Bikini babes crept in.
The mag consolidated under cool-headed editor Heath Kelly, who ran Alpha for its final two years. He commissioned stories from some of the world’s most exciting sporting locations, mindful that most readers would never get the chance to experience these places for themselves.
Thanks to Heath, I got to experience a Super Bowl and India’s IPL cricket tournament in 45 degree heat. I am extremely grateful to him for these experiences, but that’s absolutely not the point. The point is that the readers were grateful, because we took them on a journey which no other magazine could take them on.
But now the journey is over. For all Heath Kelly’s tenacity and vision in tough times, and for all the good work done by the entire Alpha team over six years, the latest circulation figure of 65,000 was just not enough.
It’s ironic, because Alpha’s design and editorial team produced a ripper iPad app, the first app in the News Mags stable. There are also some readership figures due out this week in which Alpha will cream the likes of Inside Sport, as per usual. Too late. The deed is done.
I am proud of what Alpha was, even till its dying day. The Alpha team never regurgitated content. We didn’t have the luxury of borrowing pre-made overseas content, as FHM does each month. Nor did Alpha ever talk down to our readers, or lord our knowledge over them. We might have been dickheads occasionally, but we were never wankers.
Can you believe that Fairfax’s deservedly short-lived poncefest Sport and Style once claimed an indelible link between the worlds-apart concepts of sport and style? Bloody wankers. They deserved not the swift death that came their way but a drawn-out ritual humiliation.
At the other end of the spectrum, Zoo Weekly is now Australia’s best-selling men’s title. Good luck to them. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading the mag, but then, I’m just a bloke who’d rather a stimulating read than be stimulated by some two bit reality TV contestant’s fake boobs.
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