As Smash Hits ink fades away, will the fans hit the digital age?

Encapsulating the pop culture of the 1980s, Smash Hits magazine has gasped its last column. But it wasn’t just the victim of changing tastes, like the gallant Pink ‘un and Green ‘un of yore

Smash Hits got a good send-off last week, with acres of newspaper and broadcast coverage about its demise. Journalists old enough to know better grew misty-eyed and indulged themselves with a trip down memory lane. A website was set up for people to share their tears.

The once-mighty teenage pop magazine first came out in 1978 – the year Marketing Week was launched – and that made those of us who where there feel rather old.

Smash Hits encapsulated the pop culture of the 1980s, printing song lyrics, star gossip and interviews, and poster photographs for bedroom walls. It was essential reading for pop fans – regularly selling over 500,000 copies – and made good profits for its publisher EMAP.

But it also had a wider influence on popular culture. Neil Tennant was an assistant editor before forming The Pet Shop Boys. Former editors like Nick Logan, David Hepworth, Mark Ellen, Mike Soutar, Mark Frith and Kate Thornton went on to launch titles such as The Face, Heat and Word, and became radio and TV presenters. One EMAP executive described Smash Hits as a title whose time had passed. Another said its circulation was kept up only by its cover-mounted free gifts. In fact, it was a victim not just of changing tastes but also of changing technologies and business models – and it wasn’t the first in recent months.

Just before Christmas another – albeit very different – publication ceased publication. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle closed its weekly sports results paper, the Pink, because so few football matches are played on a Saturday afternoon. The Saturday-night sports paper was part of Tyneside culture for 110 years, though it only turned pink in 1963. For most of that time, Newcastle United and other top clubs played their matches on Saturday afternoons, making a late afternoon sports paper ideal for results and match reports.

But satellite technology and pay-TV changed all that. When Sky became the paymaster of the Premiership and Football League, it persuaded them to move matches to Sundays, weekdays and evenings. In the 2004/05 season, only 14 of Newcastle United’s 38 Premiership matches were played on Saturday afternoons and last autumn there were 10 blank Saturdays out of 21.

The Chronicle is not the first paper to stop publishing a Saturday sports title, of course. The other day, veteran Guardian columnist Frank Keating bemoaned the recent passing of the Bristol Evening Post’s Green ‘un and several others, including the Newcastle Pink ‘un: “Put to death at the end of December to join others also consigned in 2005 to the bleak, ink-spattered newspaper morgue of memory – Liverpool’s fabled Saturday Echo, Manchester’s once bonny Pink, Coventry’s pink Telegraph, and the singular Buff of Leicester’s Mercury. Brave survivors battle on, among them the gallant Greens of Sheffield and Portsmouth, the dauntless Pinks of Middlesbrough and Southampton and Birmingham’s intrepid Argus. Their defiance is edifying. But, surely, futile, unless Sky loses its control of the fixture list.”

Of course it’s sad, particularly for someone like Keating who used to phone his reports into the Bristol paper. Yet, overall, the football fan can find more sports journalism these days than ever before – in newspaper supplements, on radio and TV, and online. The Newcastle Chronicle editor said it would still provide comprehensive sports coverage, switching much of the Pink’s content to its weekday papers, and its website.

As with the football fan, so with the teenage, and pre-teen, pop fan. In the digital age, much of the content of Smash Hits will live on and – unlike the Pink ‘uns and Green ‘uns, so will its brand name.

Pop fans are switching from print to digital media such as the internet and mobile phones. And while the magazine’s sales and advertising revenue have been falling, Smash Hits has re-emerged as a multi-media brand. Almost 800,000 people listen to the Smash Hits digital radio station each week and five million a month watch the TV channel. Mark Storey, head of radio programming for EMAP, comments that the closure says more about print than the title itself. He believes Smash Hits’ glory days are far from over.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Former editor Hepworth, one of the most influential magazine journalists of the past 28 years, wrote in The Guardian: “You can’t blame EMAP for closing it – though you can allow yourself a quiet snort at the claim that the brand will continue to flourish on ‘other platforms’. That is like closing Manchester United’s first team but expecting to still sell shirts.”

Is Hepworth, like Keating, viewing the world through Pink-tinted spectacles? The huge nostalgia for print titles shows just how strong is the bond between publications, their journalists and their readers. They think it’s all over⦠But in the digital age, is it?

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