Friday, December 7, 2018

Fair, with a bit of play

“It’s a shipping magazine. We should
put ships on the cover.” Nah
I wrote this piece to mark the closure of Fairplay magazine in November 2018 after 135 years of publication. I joined Fairplay in 1995 and soon became its first ever sub-editor, which meant I controlled everything that got published – a privilege I abused massively.

When I was asked to write something for its final issue, I foolishly didn't check the word count I had been given, so I had to abandon the piece reproduced here and ended up writing something entirely different. Still, unlike what appeared in the final issue, this conveys some of the fun we had producing the magazine in the 1990s and 2000s. I might be wrong, but the loss of that sense of fun might have contributed to its demise.

I HAD spent the early 90s cheerfully undermining the efforts of the Far Eastern Freight Conference to maintain its increasingly unrealistic Europe-Asia tariff while I was working for Mitsui OSK Lines. Having rather neglected the container trades, Fairplay was hoping to rectify matters and so hired two of us from that side of the industry.

When I joined the magazine in August 1995 – no daily news in those days – it had lost all but one of its editorial staff since the beginning of the year and was facing competition from the upstart Tradewinds as well as Lloyd’s List. The owner, John Prime, tried to refresh the publication by hiring a mixture of experienced and younger staff, mostly from the industry but also from journalism.

In those days, the Look Out column was four pages of opinion. It could be trenchantly critical, piercingly analytical, wistful or humorous. In a good week, it would be all of those things.

I had only been there a few weeks when one of my colleagues returned from her first assignment: a presentation by Precious Shipping on the dry bulk trades. As she sat down to prepare her story for the Markets pages, she told me about two bankers who had turned up, devoured the food on offer, guzzled the free wine and rudely rushed off in the middle of the presentation. “Write it up for Look Out,” I urged.

But she had a deadline looming and had never written an opinion piece – she had been there even less time than I had – so I wrote it myself, full of assumptions, inventions and quips that I hoped were funny. She checked it for accuracy and we submitted it to interim editor Stewart Wade under the title ‘The grey locusts’.

And that’s how I got derailed from being a container trades correspondent to editing Look Out for the next dozen years and eventually being appointed Editor.

When I joined Fairplay, we were still printing news stories that arrived in envelopes from abroad, but in 1996 someone had the idea to use this new thing called ‘the Internet’ to publish news. Fairplay Daily News made its first appearance at the Posidonia exhibition that year, where its main value was in drawing English and Indian executives to the stand to find the latest cricket score.

Fairplay had a long tradition of plain speaking, going back to the outspoken founder Thomas Hope Robinson, and we tried to retain that spirit and make the publication more lively than the average business magazine. My ‘eureka’ moment came when proofreading an article about a P&I club’s results. Tacked on the end was a comment from an executive decrying the avarice of claimants in the wake of the Sea Empress grounding. While the original headline – something like ‘Free reserves down 1.6%’ – had its merits, I felt the P&I executive’s phrase ‘monster of greed’ was more engaging, and so I rewrote the piece to make that the focus.

Headlines are a challenge when dealing with potentially dry subjects. Making them clever or funny is good, but the headline still needs to work for someone who doesn’t understand the reference. One of my favourites was a proposal to develop a northern Australian port to handle more Asian imports. It appeared under the headline: ‘Oz gateway: is Darwin the natural selection?’

A simple play on words can be just as effective, saying one thing but implying another, such as hinting at military titles in ‘Major spat on General Average’, or above a piece on why certain screws are ineffective at securing the plates on medium-speed diesel engines: ‘Allen screws it up badly’.

Wiser heads sometimes prevailed: a story criticising the homogeneous loading of bulk carriers went under a more prosaic headline after the editor rejected ‘Homophobia’.

We might have crossed the line once or twice, such as when we ran a picture story about an Italian ferry operator who had hired a porn star to inaugurate his new service (the lady, Eva Grimaldi, also bore the name of the operator’s rival, which must have pleased him no end). His PR company had sent a picture of the grinning shipowner standing next to a striking woman wearing slightly more make-up than clothing, which appeared under the headline ‘The face that launched a thousand wrists’. The News Editor scribbled “NO!!!” on the proof, but proprietor John Prime laughed his socks off, so it stayed in.

We hired some professional designers for the 2003 redesign, and the availability of online photo libraries made it possible to find more interesting imagery than the standard PR shot of industry worthies holding a plaque or cutting a ribbon. There were still pictures of ships, of course, but we tried to vary it as much as possible. When one of the directors suggested we should always put a ship on the cover “because it’s a magazine about ships”, we stressed that it was a magazine about business, which is an abstract concept and so merits an abstract image. In the same vein, Investors Chronicle is a magazine about money, but they seldom put pictures of piles of money on the cover.

For any magazine, the cover has one purpose, which is the same purpose as the wrapper on a chocolate bar: to persuade someone to pluck it from the shelves, tear off the plastic sleeve and open what's inside. There’s nothing like a pile of magazines still in their wrappers to make someone cancel their subscription. Finding the right image 51 times a year was always a challenge.

In the same way, a headline exists to persuade someone to read the story and so justify the subscription. The content has to offer value to an executive, but executives are people first, and so have to be engaged on a human level.

So, when we did a cover story examining whether the International Group of P&I Clubs (or was it IACS?) really was a closed shop, I went to a nightclub and photographed the doorman in the classic ‘you can’t come in’ pose. He asked for two copies of the magazine: one for himself and one for his mother.

For a story critical of safety procedures, we paid more than we normally would for an MC Escher drawing of a perpetual, impossible water system (‘The ISM Code: it works on paper’). And then there was Michael Caine carrying a shotgun in a still from the film Get Carter, as the EU moved to ban liner conferences (cover line: ‘Get Cartels’). Again, a reader who didn’t get the reference would still have understood that powerful forces were lining up against conferences.

I have a final confession to make: one of our correspondents didn’t exist. When we introduced bylines for the first time in 120 years, we needed a name to put on the template – one that wouldn’t look silly or misleading if it accidentally got published, and one we could also use for anonymous sources. Helena Handcart was considered, but in the end we opted for Helen Highwater. Alas, she never went on to greater things.

~Patrick Neylan, Fairplay 1995-2008; editor 2003-07~

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