The Reading Room

Time Out goes free

It began in the year of the student demonstrations, 1968, and from its first issue reflected those heady ’60s times, reporting from the front line of radical chic causes – CND, gay rights, the women’s movement, perceived political terrorism trials and US imperialism – that were typical of the underground press at the time, shared by other such titles as Oz, International Times and Spare Rib.

But it’s come a long way from that early start when publisher Tony Elliott set it up with ‘whispering’ Bob Harris as co-editor. It’s reputation down through the decades has moved from radicalism to a more consumer-oriented space, really hinging on its core value as an unparalleled weekly guide to what’s on in London, making it the king of the listings. It got to 110,000 copies a week in its heyday in the mid-’90s, is back down well below that now, but aims to deliver 300,000 copies a time when it reaches another milestone in London this autumn by going free.

It’s always aimed at a hip student audience and assumes a level of interest or above-basic knowledge of cinema, art, nighclubs, cuisine, or whatever it is discussing and listing. As this young audience became more affluent and internationally travelled from the ’70s onwards, both multiplying in numbers and evolving from hippy trail backpackers to gap year trustafarians, so Time Out’s publishing empire grew too, encompassing city guides, food, drink and restaurant digests, now publishing around 50 travel guides to cities and regions around the world. It stays a bit more cool and cutting edge in these areas than rivals in this space like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Time Out’s annual film guide, published until 2010, was viewed with the same movie fan relish as was Halliwell’s. And, like many other publications down through the last two decades, it now has a parallel life as an online publication too, with less detail and listings than the print version, but more quick updates and interactivity, plus the requisite mobile and iPad app versions, for good measure.

Although Time Out stopped operating like a collective in 1980 and Elliott sold half his stake to a private equity group in 2010, there’s always been the occasional bit of radical journalism in its pages, even if, over the years, that has become the exception rather than the rule. In August this year (2012) former news editor Duncan Campbell was hoping, via The Guardian, that a free Time Out might return to its radical roots: “Has London ever had a greater need of a non-sectarian, non-mainstream magazine to cover the extraordinary events that are taking place? The Olympics, the mayoral elections, the riots and their aftermath, the Occupy movement, Boris, Ian Tomlinson, deaths in custody, the bankers. The list is endless, and there is surely no shortage of keen young reporters out there desperate to be given the kind of chances that Time Out gave so many of us all those years ago.”

While he hopes this may be the case, he is willing to concede that it may become “just another of those bland, consumer-led handouts that are discarded to clog up the floors of London’s Tube trains and buses”, which is where I would put my money, if I was a gambling man. Still, I am certainly more keen to get my hands on a free copy of Time Out rather than Metro. It will be interesting to see how long that remains the case. AW

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