‘Laziness, probably’ isn’t the answer you would expect when asking the founder of The Week magazine what inspired him to become a journalist. But for Jolyon O’Connell, it was rather by chance that he ended up choosing journalism as a career. Indeed he frankly acknowledges, ‘I didn’t go into it because I was passionate to be a journalist; I was more interested in drama really at St Andrews. It was slightly accidental. I mean I knew I could write and I was interested in things but I suppose rather like choosing a meal at a restaurant, you work out the things on the menu you don’t want and I didn’t really want to go into the city and I didn’t want to do a lot of other things and journalism seemed to be the thing to do.’

‘It’s this business of short cuts. The busier you are, the more you need it’

However, accidental or not, Jolyon has firmly carved a niche for himself in the world of media. The former deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph has founded one of the most successful current affairs magazines in the world that is published in Britain, the USA and Australia. Short, sharp pieces that summarise the week’s news and highlight the different viewpoints of the newspapers are accompanied by articles on leisure, culture and food amongst others. The magazine is a hit with highly influential figures including politicians and copies of it are often requested by Question Time panellists just before their appearance on the programme. As Jolyon sums it up, ‘It’s this business of short cuts. The busier you are, the more you need it.’

He explains that the idea for The Week came to him while taking a walk in Scotland in 1994. ‘I thought to myself maybe there is now a scope for a digest because on the one hand, I read all these newspapers everyday and still when I go into conference to talk about stories, there are things I’ve missed because I haven’t been able to read them all. Well if that’s the case with me for a living, then it must be the case for other people. So on the one hand, there is far too much stuff in the papers and they’re getting bigger and bigger and on the other hand, people are getting busier and busier I thought, so there was a mismatch.’

Jolyon envisaged women as the magazine’s target audience. ‘I particularly had women in mind because women are much busier than men and always have been…so I thought they’d appreciate something like this, probably even more than men and it’s turned out to be the case, we have slightly more women readers than men.’

‘We’re opening their eyes to other perspectives in the world, which they won’t get from their newspaper of choice’

While life has certainly sped up in this modern era, it could be argued that The Week only encourages that frenetic pace. I ask him whether it can be criticised for spoon-feeding people and making them lazy when it comes to reading stories in depth and appreciating their complexities. I argue that not all stories can be summarised in two hundred words. He concedes, ‘It’s a fair point’ and seems slightly bemused as to how to answer the question. He continues, ‘I think on the whole, most people’s appetite for this stuff is reasonably limited. We do try and give you on those briefing pages the essence of complex issues. I don’t think I would pretend that The Week will give you everything in depth…what The Week will do is give you a broad overview of the world, which you need whether you’re a scientist or an academic and then you go off to find the things that really interest you in other publications and in other ways.’ He adds that by displaying the different viewpoints of the nationals to the readers, ‘we’re opening their eyes to other perspectives in the world, which they won’t get from their newspaper of choice.’

‘The people who read it do so partly because they want to feel smart with friends’

Felix Dennis, the British publisher of The Week has boasted that if you read the magazine cover to cover, you’ll be the smartest sounding person at your Friday night cocktail party. Jolyon is quick to emphasise that this is still the case. ‘I absolutely think so. I think a lot of it is about wanting to feel smart. I do another magazine called Money Week and the people who read it do so partly because they want to feel smart with friends and better armed with information. Information is power, the more you know, the more you can impress, the better deals you can do etc.’

I ask him if he’s worried that The Week will face competition from rival corporations imitating it. He replies, ‘No, not really. The more, the merrier. The Guardian did their own version of The Week called The Editor.’ Was it good? ‘Yes it was. It was covering a slightly different market than us. I suppose the unique thing that we have is that we are completely independent. We aren’t owned by any big corporation or newspaper so we can be trusted in that way, whereas if a newspaper did it, it would naturally want to make money for itself rather than give lots of space to its competitors. What we’re all about is giving space to the newspapers. We’re a showcase model.’

‘The Week has its biases and it has its own view of life. It’s sort of not marxist but nor is it fascist’

Despite claims of impartiality, how difficult is it for The Week to remain neutral? ‘Oh I think the magazine has its own character, which really reflects those of us who put it together. We read what comes across our desks. We read the obvious things and some unobvious things, we miss a lot but we try not to miss too much and we give you, as a bunch of people reading on your behalf, what we think will amuse you. There’s no hidden agenda but nor is there any scientific way of doing it. It’s done in a very amateurish way and I think that’s partly why it works.’ He adds, ‘The Week has its biases and it has its own view of life. It’s sort of not marxist but nor is it fascist. It’s got its own tone and its own attitude to the world. You can tell that through the names we give to columns like ‘Boring but important’ and the column ‘It must be true…I read it in the tabloids’ suggests the kind of attitude we take, which is a slightly sceptical attitude to the world but not an ideological one.’

For someone who heads a team that sifts through roughly two hundred newspapers every week and who reads five papers daily and magazines, Jolyon is remarkably upbeat when I ask him whether he ever gets fed up with reading. He responds with a smile, ‘Yes, sometimes but you know then I take a holiday. There are worse ways of making living than being paid to read the papers, which is what we all do basically.’He admits that he does occasionally miss the creativity of writing the articles as opposed to compiling them. He comments, ‘I think there is a great deal of fun to be had in putting The Week together but yes, I do sometimes look back with nostalgia. That’s what journalism is about – it’s about going out, asking people questions and being surprised by stuff.’

‘If you’re going into journalism, you’ve got to be very bold’

Despite the advance of online journalism, Jolyon believes The Week will still remain in demand. He remarks, ‘I think magazines like The Week are quite well built for that world because they’re niche products and they come out once of week so they’re not too often. Also they’re more likely to survive than newspapers because people go to the web more for news than for comment. Newspapers depend on news to make their profits so I think they are slightly more vulnerable than specialist, niche magazines like us.’

I am struck by how down to earth the man, who has created one of the most interesting, witty and pithy magazines, is. Before I leave, I ask him for some final words of advice for aspiring journalists. He is direct, ‘If you’re going into journalism, you’ve got to be very bold.’