A couple of days ago the news came through to me (via Twitter, how modern) that The Word magazine was closing. This was kind of a shock – it’s the only magazine of any type that I make a point of reading every month, and there have been none of the tell-tale drop-offs in quality or desperate advertising promotions in recent issues that would have been indications that it was destined for the dumper. It would be tastelessly melodramatic to compare the closure of a music periodical to the death of a friend, but I did feel surprisingly upset about it, and I’m far from the only one judging from the flood of despondent messages on the magazine’s online forum. So what’s the big deal?
Word (the definite article was added later) was set up in 2003 by media old hands David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, who you may remember from their stint as Old Grey Whistle Test presenters even if you didn’t know about their central roles in the launches of such august publications as Smash Hits, Q, Empire, Heat and even Just Seventeen. All successful brands, but you get the definite feeling that The Word is where their hearts lay – it was a small-scale, independently produced venture (though no less glossy or less packed with interviews with respected elder statesmen of rock than its nearest competitors Mojo and Uncut) run by an enthusiastic and talented team out of a small office in Islington. It was clearly aimed at a relatively affluent, literate and middle-aged demographic and Hepworth and Ellen positively relished running features of unusual length and depth on eminent music veterans, backstage histories and interesting newcomers as well as, somewhat less characteristically for this type of magazine, cutting edge developments in digital music and the internet and the changes these would force on both the industry and listeners’ habits. Hepworth in particular has always been willing to embrace and discuss media innovations that might, ironically, eventually herald the demise of traditional periodical publishing, and The Word spawned two offshoots that are great examples of how a magazine can succeed in engaging with its audience via digital means: the aforementioned forum, the regular users of which are unusually articulate and tolerant of lively debate, and the weekly podcast, which typically featured Hepworth and Ellen informally chewing over topical issues with a rotating cast of guest journalists and musicians. In case of all of this sounds a bit po-faced I should emphasise that the main reason The Word engendered such an unusual degree of affection and loyalty from its readers was that it was fun: unpretentious, witty, well-informed and often approaching established showbiz phenomena from angles that simply would never have occurred to you. I managed to unexpectedly fluke my way onto the podcast once, and after chatting with Mark Ellen afterwards I can confirm that he really is as funny, generous and engaging in real life as he comes across in the podcast and in print.
I’m not too devastated by the magazine’s closure, though. Hepworth’s always been a canny and unsentimental operator and I’d be surprised if he hasn’t got a strong idea about what he’s going to do next – an internet or tablet-only incarnation of something reassuringly Word-like seems like a good possibility to me. But I’ll miss The Word – even if I wasn’t always that interested in the subject matter (a prog-rock special, anyone?) the writing was usually accessible and incisive enough to make the thing worth reading more or less cover to cover. And I was looking forward to more of the gigs they’d started to put on recently (like this one)…and I’d never have come across C.W.Stoneking with them…and the free CDs were pretty good sometimes too…pah. Where’s me real ale and Incredible String Band boxset when I need em?