Sunday 15 September 2019

How a bright, bold new magazine was born

Irish Independent Comment and World Editor Tom Coogan remembers how he helped to launch Weekend in 1997…

Tom Coogan

These days, nothing much happens in linear time. Any Netflix show worth the watch skips over the decades like a slate on water. Real time moves much faster. To think that Weekend magazine was launched 20 years ago seems ridiculous.

A person who publishes a book wilfully appears before the public with their pants down.

If it is a good book, nothing can hurt them. If it is a bad book, nothing can help them.

These words were written by the poet Edna St Vincent Millay; launching a magazine could also leave one pretty exposed. For, Independent Newspapers, as we were back then, didn’t do wild extravagance. There was a lot riding on this, in terms of investment and promotion.

Tom Coogan
Tom Coogan

The commitment to a full-colour 64-page magazine was indulgence on a scale that would have made Cleopatra’s personal shopper blush.

Those days were literally pretty black and white. Magazines were effete and expensive; hard-boiled editors had no truck with them. When the late Vinnie Doyle, then editor of the Irish Independent, appointed Brian Brennan as Weekend’s editor — I was to be the whatever, in order to launch the magazine — he half-knew what he was doing.

Brian had worked on magazines before and was brilliant. We were given a four-week lead-in time before going to press. We were warned the  competition was about to do likewise, and we could be sucker-punched. Or to use Vinnie’s own more memorable phrase: “Our arse will  be out the window and we won’t have a leg to stand on.” Ms St Vincent Millay might have empathised.

Brian and I countered that four weeks wasn’t enough, so we got five.

Back then, a full week’s TV listings was the holy grail of all newspaper editors — if you had that, you had it made.

But we hadn’t. And therein lies a tale: a chance discovery that the Press Association in the UK could provide us with the listings got that lead monkey off our backs.

It is worth remembering things were different back then.

Online was where people hung out their clothes. Google and Facebook had yet to swoop upon the industry, making megabillions. The age of labelling journalistic work as ‘content’ — throwing it up online, amassing unimaginable fortunes by draping it with ads by information-superhighway behemoths — in which none of the profit goes back to the newspapers that broke the stories, had not dawned. And all the while they drive the dynamos that keep the fake-news pistons pumping.

But 20 years ago, were one to take the ‘content’ from someone’s home and make money off it, there would be problems. They were simpler times: you knew what you were up against.

The launch party for the magazine was box-office. Angus Deayton, of Have I Got News for You fame was flown in. One of the ordinances laid down by Vinnie Doyle was that we would not use staff at the paper. As time went on, he relented, and we had Justine McCarthy, Martina Devlin and the evergreen Mary Kenny to assist us. But by and large we had to cast the net wide for writers, and we got lucky.

We found the late Paolo Tullio, Peter Cunningham and John Daly. Dermot Bolger and Roddy Doyle also appeared over the years. A young photographer who now works for the UN, Kim Haughton, was another stalwart, and a new-to-Dublin Martina Fitzgerald was also a frequent contributor. We had the services of two gifted graphic artists in Gabriel Bruton and Tony Martin. There were really too many to list, but Kathleen O’Callaghan and Georgina Campbell kept a sharp eye on food and fashion.

The first year was memorable for many reasons. Frank McCourt spun the threads of a relentlessly miserable Limerick childhood into gold in Angela’s Ashes, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Sam Smyth’s scoop on how the then-retail magnate Ben Dunne had given Charlie Haughey €1.3m prompted enterprising souls in the rag trade to merchandise T-shirts with the legend ‘Ben There Dunne That, Bought the Taoiseach’.

I ended up spending seven very happy years with the magazine before moving back to the Irish Independent to launch the compact edition.

The magazine powers on today thanks to a sharp,  committed team — and, most importantly, thanks to you, the readers, who give reason and meaning to all our efforts.

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