SMART, SALTY AND GONE

~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, February 7th 2013

It lasted longer than it might have in a decade that was not kind to magazines. But the Stool Pigeon, a music newspaper that unleashed an inky tirade on British readers five or six times a year for the last eight years, announced this week that the January issue (below) would be its last.

The Stool Pigeon was born out of the death of a magazine. Its founding editor and art director, Phil Hebblethwaite and Mickey Gibbons, carried the computers out of the offices of Adrenalin, the extreme-sports glossy they worked for when they found out it had gone bust and they were unlikely to get paid. They put together the first issue of the Stool Pigeon with some funding from Levi’s, printed 10,000 copies on newspaper on January 2nd 2005, and handed them out for free to records stores and venues from London to Nottingham. When Phil gave out copies at a music festival a month later, people took its illustrated covers and irreverent style for a one-off joke.

But the joke endured. The Stool Pigeon pitched itself somewhere between Smash Hits and Private Eye, and after Smash Hits closed in 2006, its smart and salty voice stood out even more in an industry increasingly driven by the PR cycle. It prized independence above all else, and its humour could be brutal. "Oh my Christ, Adele is number one in 17 countries!" reads one 2011 dispatch from the paper’s fictional columnist, Miss Prudence Trog. "She’s massive!" 

It looked different, too. Mickey spent days digging up old Victorian fonts from library books and digitising them to use in the paper. He’d design pages so complex and colourful that the text was barely readable. Phil fed him with headlines crammed full of puns on band names. A lifelong fan of Viz, Phil made room for an extensive comic section and was never happier than the day he saw a kid on the bus rip the comic pages from the staplefold of a discarded copy and throw the rest away. They adopted and resurrected old print traditions: the court circular, the penny dreadful, the exquisite corpse. One cover featured nothing but a large illustration of a bee and its species name, Beyoncé. 

The Stool Pigeon stayed free, and increased its circulation over the years to almost 60,000 by summer last year, twice the circulation of NME. It leaned heavily on interns and a stable of writers who rarely got paid, but usually came back anyway. When I started as an intern in 2009, I was given a table under an eave in the attic in north London that served as the office. I learned how to sub-edit copy in the space between ashtrays and recycled postage stamps steamed off jiffy bags of promo CDs. Each deadline meant a 48-hour shift papering the room with proofs, gathering at Phil's computer to make corrections on the screen before sending pages off to the printer. When the bundles were ready, Phil would pick them up in a rented van and drive the length of the country, up to Edinburgh and back, stopping at every venue or record-store stockist on the way back to London. 

Phil loved print, but he was never sentimental about what he had created. "We want to do it for as long as it interests us to do it," he told a reporter in 2009. Four years later, in his farewell on the Stool Pigeon website, Phil debates the catch-22 of juggling print and online with ever decreasing resources. "To be frank," he writes, "we’re knackered." Anyone who ever worked there will believe him, and be glad, at least, that it lasted eight years.

Hazel Sheffield is assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. Her most recent posts for the Editors' Blog were Why New York cabs won't stop and Be clear about the cloud.