A Goodbye to the Lad Mags and My Brief Stint in Publishing

by Carmen Aiken

It was with an odd sense of sadness when I noticed a long-ago boss’s post on Facebook recently: “FHM has closed. Very sad day.” The Daily Mail, Telegraph and Guardian reported the same: Bauer Media suspended FHM and Zoo, set to close by 2016. Eight years ago, my 20-year-old self interned for the magazine, so this news and the reactions to it gives me the feeling of being a very young dinosaur.

My small liberal arts college did not have its own study abroad program, so I picked mine on the basis that they set you up with an internship. There was architecture, finance and economics, and journalism and publishing, where I hoped to gain enough experience to push me into a career.

We received our assignments before shipping out. I would intern at a small press in the Shoreditch district. Inwardly, I rejoiced as I perused their catalog in my dorm room. This would be it, I thought, this is how I start my adult life.

I didn’t have the journalism minor my college offered. I’d barely declared an English major weeks before, but I’d worked on successful and acclaimed public radio documentaries produced through our partnership with San Francisco Public Radio (seriously, they’re great!), and had done the high school newspaper thing; I figured moving in this direction was expected and possible.

In hindsight, there’s no way a foreign internship at a tiny press would’ve helped much. To illustrate: I showed up for my “interview” only to be told they had neither the resources nor the work for an intern. Crushed, I walked back to the program offices through Kensington and reported my news. A few hours later, they called and asked me if I would be interested in working for FHM.

The stamp on my visa had me arriving in the U.K. in early January 2008 (“no recourse to funds”), and my interview with my soon-to-be boss was toward the end of February.

Mostly, I remember wearing a terrible dress to talk to this genial man about how I felt about working for the magazine. Yes, I was a student at a progressive women’s college, but glossy magazines excited me and frankly, I had no problem with lad’s mags, here or abroad. I mean, Gloria Steinem was a Playboy bunny, right?

He described how the next move was to get the print content available on phones. Of course, they had a website, but with trends in print subscriptions looking dour for most magazines, the goal was to generate revenue through exclusive digital content for subscribers. My internship would be based around this; I’d get my own magazine phone for previewing work and they’d pay for my transport from my flat to Oxford Circus. Of course I said yes.

I woke later than my flatmates to go to the office and sometimes rode the bus with the girl who interned at Q, who sent me into a sputter when she revealed that she had met and had no idea who Pete Townshend was. I trawled the internet to come up with funny or sexy or weird or gross pieces to feed into the CMS (keeping track of all the acronyms was probably the most difficult part). I’d preview it on the phone and go back and fix what wasn’t working. I guess these were listicles, in a way, although mostly they were sexy photos of girls on the beach or photos of horrible jungle diseases.

I read through the archives for ideas, talked to my boss about the interesting print articles he’d penned. There was always a vague sense of unease about the work being done — this need to make sure there was a connection between print and phone content. As the young Luddite I was happy to embody at the time, I found it frivolous. After all, there was real journalism and real content in real glossy magazines.

Months before, at a poetry reading and party at my mentor’s house in San Francisco, I stood outside with a bunch of the bro-ets gathered. One of them pulled out the first generation iPhone, the first one I’d seen in real life. Out of my reach, I thought as I played with it and we all marveled.

Still, as I stared at photos of beautiful soccer players’ wives, I thought that this wasn’t going to take off. Who wants to look at stuff on their phone? And who would want to pay for it?

Obviously I answered one of those questions. Above the subheader to the Guardian article on the closing — “Titles set to follow former rivals Loaded and Nuts in folding as young men turn to mobile phones, social media and free magazines” — is a plaintive ask for donations to support the work. But before websites begin their own suspensions as adblockers choke off the ability to keep digital lights on, their print forebears will vanish with few answers as to how to keep publishing content from quality articles or the sexiest women alive.

FHM was the only actual media gig I ever had. It was 2008, and my finance-major roommate and I warily watched RBS and Bear Stearns speed the collapse. I never really wanted to move to New York and the odds of my landing a lucrative publishing or journalism gig slimmed as old media and new media, content farms, self-publishing, e-readers, mechanical turks with exposure for compensation — everything — spilled into the world faster and faster.

Even now, with journalist friends and acquaintances who eke by or actually make their freelancing work through local media outlets, I can’t hack it. I think I’m just too old to make a go at writing listicles; besides, there are 50 recent journalism grads from Northwestern and Mizzou and DePaul in front of me. I’ve considered putting a few essays on Medium, but I hesitate, questioning the validity of self-publishing, of no editors, no one steering the ship I’ll throw myself onto. I may not have received compensation for the majority of work I’ve managed to put under my name (The Billfold excluded, bless!), but someone is somewhere, I hope. Am I watching the meteor approach and hoping the digital natives behind me use their talents for Pulitzer-quality work in a Thought Catalog age? Or will the mammals accept that marketing gigs are probably going to keep them fed through whatever ice age approaches?

No, I am not a dinosaur who got to write actual articles laid out next to salacious shots of High Street Honeys. But once I did commute to a magazine’s office, I had beer o’clock, and I can look at that year’s “sexiest women alive” issue and think, I was there, I worked for a magazine, a print magazine.

Carmen Aiken writes and works in advocacy development in Chicago.

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