Cover date: 17 January 2008
Free stuff: it's good, right? Ask anyone and they'll tell you that they love getting something for nothing, right? Ask anyone in London, though, and you may struggle to hear their answer over the cacophony of people complaining about free newspapers. Specifically, the way they're left all over the Tubes and trains (I have a sneaking feeling that Londoners are more bothered by the untidiness than the environmental issues or that some poor sap has to clean up), and the perceived aggression in the way that they're handed out on the street.
Strangely, few people seem to let these concerns stop them from reading the freesheets, and even more strangely, even fewer people seem to complain about the papers' most obvious problem -- that they're terrible. All right, no-one's expecting Truman Capote, but surely readers are entitled to better than the cut-and-pasted newswire copy and tedious celebrity titbits that make up the freesheets. (Metro gets something of a pass because its worst crime is blandness, and at least it comes out in the morning so you haven't necessarily read all its content on the internet already. London Lite and especially thelondonpaper, with their pseudo-funky design, lame attempts at humour and desperate paparazzi-pic splurges, make my blood boil.)
But it's evidently a successful business model, because two weekly magazines have followed it in recent months: first Sport and now ShortList, a men's mag which is distributed in six major cities around the UK. Although some monthly titles are floundering, the men's market is not exactly moribund, with strong sales in the weekly and health-and-fitness sectors, and the quality monthlies staging a recent comeback. So is there a gap in this market for a free title? And is ShortList the mag to fill it?
One benefit of being free is that ShortList doesn’t need to fill up its cover with endless lines telling us what’s in the mag, as newsstand publications do, all of which boil down to “Please buy me please buy me please please please!” It can pick a single bold image designed to get the reader to open it once it’s in his hands:
This is a particularly good example. Tony Soprano will appeal to its male readership, whether they’re the type who prattle about the classical drama of The Sopranos or the type who just like it when Tony breaks people's faces. But even if I weren't a fan, I'd read this feature. As I would 20 Greatest Anything, really. Men like lists. That’s the genius of the concept. The editorial quality doesn't matter all that much -- if it gives men something to argue about, it’s done its job.
Page 3 The contents page gives us ShortList’s motto, “For men with more than one thing on their minds”. I get it, ahaha, and I’m gratified by the mag’s recognition that men aren’t interested only in tits, but it feels like they’ve got a slogan purely because other men’s mags have one (“For men who should know better”, “The magazine for men who mean business”, etc). But surely this should be a key part of the mag’s image, and hence it should be on the cover. If it’s not strong enough, why bother? Elsewhere on the page, most of the space is devoted to a large picture reminding the reader that he is a Man and likes Men’s Things:
Page 4 Next, “Notebook” is the magazine’s news section, and it’s pretty much PR-led guff. Someone who used to work on Cold Feet has directed a political action thriller that comes out in March; we’ll all have sexbots by 2050; Grant Mitchell from EastEnders reports from Afghanistan in a new hard-hitting Sky One show. It's possible that you think I've made up one or more of those, as an arch comment on the stupid triviality of modern culture. It would probably be best if you carried on thinking that.
A bit of football news, a bit of highest-paid-sportsman-in-the-world blah, a bit of technology news, a bit of coverage of the US primaries. Sorry, what? Yes, that’s right, the US primaries -- but just to show you that ShortList doesn’t take these things too seriously, it’s about celebrity endorsements of the candidates, and thus is illustrated with a teeny tiny picture of Barack Obama, and a huge picture of Scarlett Johansson, who is supporting him. Or she met him once. Or she’s heard of him. Who cares -- look at her cleavage!
I thought this was a mag for men with more than one thing on their minds…? (In fairness to ShortList, this is the only sign of anything that could be called gratuitous T&A in the mag.) The other celebrity endorsements mentioned include noted conservative Sean Penn's support for hardline rightwinger Dennis Kucinich.
Shall we give their fact-checkers the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is another attempt to show that they don’t take these things too seriously? No.
Then there’s a bit about how James Gandolfini is looking for another job now that The Sopranos has finished, which sure raised my eyebrows, I don’t mind telling you. Oh, and did they mention the 20 Greatest TV Shows Ever on page 26? I wonder if The Sopranos achieves a high placing.
Page 13 “Playlist” and “To-Do List” are ShortList’s pick of the best cultural things around. “Playlist” promises to “fill your ‘at home’ time with magic and wonder”. Really. It really says that. This seems at first to be more PR gubbins -- the sort of thing that could feasibly be called “What we received in the post this week” -- but it’s actually a little more highbrow than might be expected. The featured album is Cat Power’s Jukebox, while they also plug Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (which, by spooooky coincidence, I had just started reading on the morning I picked this issue up) and Mark “E from Eels” Everett’s book about living with a genius physicist. In “To-Do List”, as well as the Coens’ No Country For Old Men and Chris Rock live, they encourage their readers to see the adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis at the Lyric Theatre. It is safe to assume that the current issues of Zoo and Nuts do not echo these recommendations. ShortList is clearly not content to hype any old rubbish and -- especially considering the unashamed dumbness of its freesheet rivals -- should be congratulated on this.
Page 16/18 These pages are occupied by ShortList’s star columnists, Danny Wallace (“Is A Man”) and Sam Delaney (“Wants Answers”). Columnists are the love-’em-or-hate-’em element of any publication, and any opinion about them is inevitably completely subjective. With that in mind, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Wallace’s droll whimsy is superior to Delaney’s pseudo-laddish posturing.
Why is this page illustrated with a still from Goodfellas? It seems Delaney has managed to turn a trip to visit his nan into a piece about how his life is just like Henry Hill’s, because he was driving in a hurry while wearing a suit. This is the very definition of trying too hard.
Page 20 The ShortList “Tens” are the magazine’s raison d’être, the lists that aim to enliven pub chats, although I wish they wouldn’t signal this with the subheading “Enlivening pub chats since 2007”. If the copy’s doing its job, you shouldn’t need to tell us. This issue has the ten weirdest gig venues; ten classic Stallone quotes; the top ten French protests; the ten best Have I Got News For You presenters; the ten worst foods to be canned; and Big Brother -- Where Are They Now? This is classic men’s-mag journalism and well done it is too. Although I started reading fully aware that their choices are meant to be provocative (hey, pubs aren’t going to fill themselves with conversation, you know!), my argument muscles tensed reflexively when I read that they had picked Boris Johnson as the best HIGNFY host. What?! He’s a spluttering fool and an objectionable tosspot! He can barely read the autocue! You haven’t even mentioned Alexander Armstrong! Etc.
This is followed by ShortList “Expert”, which is reviews of stuff you don’t need like skis, personal media players and, er, houses, and a curiously unrevealing interview with Tommy Lee Jones. In it we learn that he has a new movie out, he has made a few movies in the past, and he is planning to make more movies in the future. This reads like a one-size-fits-all syndicated interview. If it isn’t one, that makes it even worse.
Page 24 It’s “Donald Trump’s Rules Of Corporate Warfare”! I suppose making lots of money’s never going out of fashion, but Trump seems so silly and naff and ’80s, I can't believe people still want to be him. And I can't believe anyone thinks reading this will help them become him.
Page 26 To no-one's surprise, The Sopranos tops ShortList’s “20 Greatest TV Series Ever”, and the rest of the list is similarly predictable: (post-) modern sitcoms like The Office (UK version), The Simpsons and Curb; classy drama like The West Wing, The Shield and Prime Suspect; bona fide classics like Fawlty Towers and Blackadder; and sci-fi-it’s-OK-for-non-geeks-to-watch like Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes. The inclusion of Minder is an understandable sop to the slightly older and more traditional male TV viewer, but I have to say, although naturally I remember it fondly, The Fricking A-Team can hardly lay claim to being the 14th best show ever. I mean, Spaced isn’t even in there! Or The Wire! And where the hell’s Buffy?! And… oh, they’ve done me again.
At the end of the feature is a preview of some upcoming, hotly tipped programmes such as Mad Men and Dirty Stupid Monkey. It’s heartening that they didn’t make previewing these the focus of the piece, because there’s nothing more boring than a feature about programmes that are coming to British TV in the next few months -- either you’ve already downloaded it (if it’s a US show), or you’ll have forgotten the preview long before the show finally arrives. I wish the editor of The Guardian’s Guide would realise this, because that seems to include a TV season preview every other week these days.
Page 30 We’re getting to the nuts and bolts now: a spread of grooming products, three pages of fitness and a travel page. All these are necessary because they target the high-end readership that advertisers love, but magazines often struggle to find a vaguely interesting way to present them. It’s particularly difficult to make workouts attractive on the page but ShortList, with its sunny colour scheme and no-nonsense san serif font, does a better job than many.
The other pages are bog-standard and dull, and the TV previews continue the mediocrity. Although it’s not a great time of year for telly, surely they could find something better for their main preview than a programme about Justin Lee Collins crashing a magic convention. Like, well, let’s see what else is on… Gordon Rams -- ah, no. Echo Bea -- um, well, eh. There must be someth -- look, Mike Bassett: England Mana… Oh. It really is January, isn’t it. And I suppose that isn’t ShortList’s fault.
Page 38 For “The Guest List”, ShortList invites a personality to
Wow, these rocks sure are interesting. It’s just a shame the pictures are so small, and so stationary. What’s that you say? Earth: The Power Of The Planet is available on DVD now, priced £20? I’m sure you’d love me to provide a link to the Amazon page for that exciting series right here!
When considering whether or not ShortList is a worthwhile publication, you need to decide if you’ll add “…you know, for a freebie” to your conclusion. Is it a good read, full stop? Or is it a good read…you know, for a freebie? I’d tend towards the latter, which sounds like damningly faint praise, but I don’t mean it to be. It does its job admirably, holding the attention for the length of a commute, with simple features done well, a pleasingly light-hearted tone and the excellent Danny Wallace column. Considering I would literally rather stare into space contemplating my own mortality than read the pukesome London Lite or thelondonpaper, this is something of an achievement. However, I wouldn't consider paying money for it, which -- despite its good points -- shows it isn't an unreserved success.
ShortList’s other great benefit is that it doesn't have to worry too much about the threat of the internet. Until we can all download web pages straight into our brains wherever we are, ShortList isn't competing with the net's, ahem, boundless glories for the reader's attention; it can be confident of having your undivided until you get off the bus. As long as it can satisfy advertisers that that's the case -- and until those advertisers find a reliable way of making money from the internet -- it's safe to say ShortList is here to stay, and it deserves to be.