Zoo Weekly Magazine: My Part In Its Downfall

Zoo Weekly Magazine: My Part In Its Downfall

B&T’s editor, John Bastick, has a number of secrets in his life including once attending a John Farnham concert and a love of devon and cold meats. Another is he worked on the pre-launch of the Australian edition of Zoo Weekly. Following the magazine’s demise yesterday, he’s decided to confess all…

John Bastick
Posted by John Bastick

Did you rejoice at yesterday’s news of Zoo Weekly’s demise? Did you regard it as nothing more than a mysogonistic rag for smutty schoolboys and the anti-Christ himself? A summoning of the dark lord Satan to return to earth to rule over us for all eternal? Well, as a confession, I may have been partly responsible for its launch in the first place (the mag, not the dark lord!)

The year – if I can think back that far – was 2005 and I was employed by now defunct magazine publisher EMAP Australia and editing now defunct men’s magazine FHM. The “suits” had gathered us in and decided the business (along with a mountain of other problems) had a cash-flow one. It was decided a launch of a top selling weekly title would bring the business not only the cachet it craved (particularly when competing against the glamorous likes of ACP and Pacific) but a trough of cash to stave off the wolves too.

If I recall – and again the memory’s hazy – a number of British Emap Weekly titles were touted for an Australian debut. Women’s weekly HEAT, fashion thingy Grazia and a new, mysterious men’s title called Zoo Weekly were the frontrunners. Well, the only runners, in fact.

On top of my FHM duties I was squirrelled away in a little closet called “top secret special projects” with FHM’s designer extraordinaire Nicholas “The Captain” Buckland. Our brief – apart from drinking too much and squabbling with each other – was to dummy-up a local version and devise a cunning editorial strategy, plan, whatever you want to call it to get a local Aussie version of Zoo off the ground. We were all made to sign secretive clauses that were punishable by death (well, instant dismissal.)

After not a great deal of effort that bordered on disinterest, I remember pitching our efforts to a boardroom full of the UK executive team who were to release the wads of British pounds required for a launch. This was the same team that had recently lost 100 million pounds in a failed US venture and so there was a little bit of apprehension; plus, I’d heard they’d had to slum it in business-class on the flight to Sydney for their crimes.

Despite muddling my way through the presentation and not being able to intelligently answer one of their questions it was decided that Australia was to have its own edition of Zoo Weekly launching in January 2006 with grand plans for 150,000-plus sales.

However, in hindsight, the question has to be asked: was launching a print product in the declining men’s category a risky venture? Very probably. Had that boardroom not been full of stuffy, middle-aged English print aficionados but a younger, all the more tech-savvy publisher would the outcome have been different?

Anyways, a team was quickly assembled; a former British editor was recruited and I, quite wonderfully, got shipped-off to Emap’s London office for a secondment. By all reports Zoo’s local launch was a raging success – namely because it was a $1 a copy – which also managed to hasten the demise of the other lad’s mags on the shelves. Alpha first to go; followed by RALPH and eventually my beloved FHM.

While in London I was having a stack of sex – albeit with my wife – and one single little sperm managed to ring Mrs Ovaries’ doorbell. Now up the duff, the decision was to abandon the UK after 12 months (where I should brilliantly add, I was Zoo’s reporter at the 2006 German World Cup for six weeks) and return to Oz. On my return, management hadn’t a clue what to do with me and save paying out a whopping redundancy I was sent to the Zoo editorial offices and ordered to look busy.

I remember on my first day looking at the latest issue. The folios (a magazine’s page numbers) went from 0-9 minus 5 and 6 and appeared to miss the 20s altogether. Worse still, the front cover reported it to be the “9th Februarry” edition. When I pointed it out to the editor he said – very politely, mind – “We don’t give a shit about that sort of stuff!” So clearly journalistic ethics, integrity and passion for the printed word were never high on Zoo’s KPIs (and I say that as a good thing.)

And this comment certainly isn’t a reflection of the wonderful staff, their talent, hard work or their zealous passion for the title but I absolutely fucking hated working at Zoo. When you’re in your mid-20s working in lad’s mags is undoubtedly cool. But when you’re in your mid-30s, recently married with a newborn kid and a massive Sydney mortgage it’s all just painfully sad. Hence, after about five months of misery I begged management for a redundancy, took the cash and walked out the door without even saying goodbye.

Making a men’s magazine is like making a cake. You get the eggs, the flour and the milk and you have to twist it into some sort of new creation with each edition. Same with Zoo; you get the girls, the cars and the gruesome photos and you’ve got to make the same old stuff look fresh each week. That’s where Zoo’s “stunts” came in – “win a divorce”, “win a boob job”, “win a three-headed monkey”. And it was the (well-documented) furore around these that Zoo relished and revealed in, its detractors despised, lawyers made a fortune from, and what arguably ultimately killed the magazine off in the end. Rather than fear being sued, lad’s mags wore it as a badge of honour.

I know lots and lots and lots and lots of people hate men’s magazines (when I left Zoo a headhunter told me to remove all reference to it on my resume) and sure, that’s theirs/your prerogative. Hey, I think New Idea, The Bachelor and Melbourne Housewives is the domain of brain-dead cretins but I respect people’s right to watch/read it and I certainly have infinitely better things to do with my time than spend my waking hours raging about it on social media.

Was Zoo nothing more than a misogynistic, women-hating pamphlet that condoned rape culture, as some would have us believe? To be honest, I’d have no idea nor feel qualified to comment having not honestly read a single copy of it since I quit in May 2007.

It always reminds me of a wonderful reader’s letter I got when editing FHM which read: “I’ve been reading your magazine for six years and I’ve hated every issue…!” Do men like attractive women in bikinis, V12 Ferraris, gags about flatulence and gory photos of people who’ve had a run-in with a crocodile? Yes, they do and regardless of Zoo’s demise they probably always will.

Sure, there’s always been this PC rage around men’s magazines, yet the endless fat shaming, malicious gossip, celebrity schadenfreude and bald-faced lies of women’s titles goes largely ignored.

Undoubtedly, Zoo’s been in strife for some time. I remember when we crunched the numbers way back in 2005 it had to sell 70,000 to break even. It’s been selling not much more than 20,000 for the past few years and must have been haemorrhaging cash for owners Bauer. And with Top Gear’s closure last week we can assume two things: A) Men under 40 have all but given up on print and (B) Bauer would much prefer to put its efforts into its women’s titles and recipe websites

It’s the one thing that’s always bemused me about the magazine industry – it moves at glacial speed. It takes forever to launch anything and when existing titles start to head south, all the alarm bells are ringing (plummeting circulations and revenues), publishers continue to quixotically meander on for years before putting a title out of its misery. There are good lessons to be had from the TV business. Launch a new show, promote the shit out of it and if you aren’t in the number one slot in two weeks then you’re quickly taken out the back and shot.

But vale Zoo. You did your job admirably for almost a decade (no mean feat in the tumultuous media times in which we live.) You were irreverent, stuck it to the wowsers, entertained and – whether you succeeded or not – made people laugh. And no one should ever be castigated for that for mine.

My best wishes to Zoo staff for their futures.