MEDIA HEADLINER: Closer editor scratches some gloss off the celebrity market

Jane Johnson's leadership reflects her experience on tabloids.

The celebrity magazine market has never been as big and vibrant as it is today. Recent new entrants seem to have injected fresh life into the sector once dominated by OK! and Hello!, by being more willing to dish the dirt on their famous subjects.

One of these new upstarts is Emap's second celebrity magazine launch, Closer, which, according to the latest ABC audit, took a 334,542 slice of the weeklies market after its launch last October. According to media agencies, this is a respectable start and has been achieved under the auspices of the former tabloid hack Jane Johnson.

Editing a celebrity title is not an easy ride, given the level of competition and the need to grab exclusives to get consumers' attention, but Johnson's tabloid background means she is used to the daily grind of news gathering.

Seven years in newspapers has helped hone her news sense, and an early career as a writer on Chat and a commissioning editor at Bella means she is no stranger to the world of magazines.

Her present job may be a far cry from the intellectual atmosphere of Oxford, where she read English, but she relishes editing a magazine whose top line stories last week were "Gay dad's world exclusive" and "Sadie frolics with a hunk". She doesn't sound like a "media dahling", with her sensible conversation and measured response to questions. You get the impression that Johnson quietly applies her craft and manages the people around her without resorting to hyperbole.

Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, has worked with Johnson and rates her abilities. "Jane's a great journalist. When she worked for me she was clever, tough and a very good interviewer. She has the ability to get people to open up and talk about stuff they'd rather not discuss. She was also very calm and focused. Never got too worked up, however pressurised things got," he says.

Johnson is unperturbed by the prospect of new entrants in the celeb market, convinced that Closer has a USP above its rivals. "We see ourselves as incredibly different from any magazine because we have developed a character.

We have a personality of being slightly cheeky and giving people an insight into what celebrities are like. People were initially sceptical that we couldn't be different from Heat, and we've proved that we can be, with real-life content. We have very rarely crossed over with the stories that we do and we both have very different personalities."

She has a strong tabloid contingent in her entourage at Closer to ensure the exclusives keep rolling in. She also has staff with experience on the magazine's rival titles. Johnson poached Jane Oswald, one of the News of the World's top reporters, last November and, more recently, installed Michael Butcher, previously the associate editor of Now, as her deputy.

Media agencies agree that Closer has carved out a distinct personality.

Steve Goodman, the press director at MediaCom, says: "It looks very good and does target a slightly older market than the Nows and Heats of this world. It's a bit more in depth: it's not just telephoto shots of people. That's why it appeals to the more mature market."

Nik Vyas, an associate director at ZenithOptimedia, says: "Closer is a hybrid of the traditional women's weekly/celebrity magazine, but its approach is different from anything else that's on offer. Much as Heat moved the game on in its market, Closer is hoping to do the same in the women's weekly market."

But in a crowded market Closer's success is at the expense of other titles, as Paul Thomas, a managing partner at MindShare, points out.

"Women's weeklies were down 6 per cent period on period - there's no space in that marketplace. Celebrity is still king, but it's declining. All Closer has done is cannibalise the market," he says.

Johnson and Emap Entertainment's managing director, Louise Matthews, are confident that Closer can build on its circulation. Emap hails the title as one of its "power brands". Although sales of celebrity titles can depend on their covers, Emap is keen to nurture a loyal readership that will buy into it every week. Matthews claims that a large loyal core of readers has bought the title since its launch.

With its determination to crack the market from Closer's inception, Emap has put significant investment behind the glossy weekly, with heavyweight sampling and tactical TV advertising. It has spent more than £6 million on TV alone since launch.

"Our next hurdle is to get to 400,000," Matthews says.

Johnson is aware that she cannot rest on her laurels at Closer. "You do have to constantly look at yourself and improve all the time, but if the ethos is to have good stories then it will always remain a huge part of the magazine."

THE JOHNSON FILE

1993: Chat, features writer

1994: Bella, commissioning editor

1995: The Mirror, woman's editor

1998: The Scotsman, assistant editor

1999: Daily Record, assistant editor

2000: Sunday Mirror, executive editor

2002: Closer, launch editor

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