MEDIA: Headliner - The brave editor who plans to put a smile back on The Face

Neil Stevenson is playing a make-or-break game with the title, Glen Mutel writes.

This month's edition of The Face will be sporting a new look. Its content will have a new feel to it. The magazine that has dictated what's new for more than two decades has a new agenda, and it's a simple one - to break new ground.

Of course, new ground is seldom broken deliberately. People rarely admit that they've set out to blaze a trail. Innovation, we're often told, is merely a lucky by-product of simpler objectives. So if the future of your magazine depends upon your ability to reinvent the wheel, you've got quite a task on your hands.

Fortunately, The Face's editor, Neil Stevenson, has relaunched a magazine or two in his time. Not only did he steer Mixmag through its 1998 revamp, but he had a hand in Heat's recent reconfiguration as well. And, as the founder of the gossip website Popbitch, he knows a thing or two about innovation.

Which is just as well, because it's going to take some smart thinking to win back the 6,000 readers that the magazine lost during 2002, a 13 per cent decline.

It's easy to attribute this decline to the staleness of the magazine's format but The Face's plight has not been aided by the sheer number of competing men's magazines on the shelves. And rivals such as Sky, Word, Dazed and Confused and Arena will soon be joined by Trash - a joint venture between Ministry of Sound and Conde Nast that is set to launch on 4 July.

Trash will be edited by the former Dazed and Confused editor, Rachel Newsome, and is expected to offer readers a mixture of fashion and music coverage and Heat-style gossip. Emap is gambling that by the time it launches, The Face will have brought in enough new readers to be able to withstand the competition.

"There are risks in relaunching," Stevenson admits. "Some people love The Face the way it is so I expect we'll lose some readers. But we'll gain some as well and as long as the gains are greater than the losses we'll be OK."

The July edition of The Face will marry the fringe and the mainstream, with the controversial garage act So Solid Crew sitting just pages away from chart regular Dannii Minogue. As extra bait for new readers, the magazine will be packaged with "The Face Movements", a supplement sponsored by Levi's, which celebrates the 23-year history of the magazine.

Regulars will also note that the redesigned format has left no room for features such as the backpage Q&A, one of several relics from the days when the magazine could expect an audience of 100,000 readers. With the magazine's circulation now less than half this figure, the need to do something drastic to halt the decline was obvious.

MindShare's managing partner, Paul Thomas, agrees. "The Face needs to reinvent itself," he says. "It needs to become younger, culter and more aggressive. Magazines like this really do need to overhaul their editorial content every two to two-and-a-half years otherwise their brands will die."

Stevenson agrees that some action was needed. "The Face got famous by being fresh and surprising," he explains. "Very soon it established a unique style, but this has become predictable. When you work for something that's a success, it's a lot like being a curator of a museum. You don't want to change things because you don't want to fuck them up.

"But this redesign is pretty radical. It's not just cosmetic. We need to do stuff that's new and different. And if people are surprised, shocked, upset and disappointed, then that's great. Those kind of reactions are just right for The Face."

Emap's unwillingness to put naked women on The Face's front cover will ensure the magazine will never pull in an FHM-sized circulation. But advertisers have traditionally been attracted to The Face because of the type of readers it attracts rather than the quantity.

"The Face is never going to be the biggest title in the world," Thomas explains. "It's perceived to be very edgy, bordering on fringe, and it's not a must to have it in your media schedule. But it carries weight with a certain demographic that is quite difficult to hit."

Stevenson agrees. "Most magazines are read by a certain demographic, but that's not so much the case with The Face," he says. "We tend to appeal to people of a certain mindset - people who are excited by new stuff."

Whether or not The Face's new look will enable it to regain cult status among the nation's hardest to please remains to be seen. This month's edition has focused on celebrities who are only marginally left of the mainstream and it's hard to predict whether an audience that prides itself on free thinking will be tempted by this.

But Emap has bravely taken the axe to parts of the magazine that Stevenson freely admits should have been replaced long ago. And this may be what stops The Face's circulation plummeting to levels that even cult titles would be worried about.

THE STEVENSON FILE

1998: Mixmag, editor

1999: Heat, deputy editor

2001: Emap Digital, creative director

2002: The Face, editor

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