Features

Nursing Standard at 30: 'It has always been about making things better for nurses'

In 1987 the RCN took a leap of faith and invested in a new, weekly nursing magazine. Former staff writer Daniel Allen recalls the early, pioneering years of Nursing Standard, which quickly established itself as a powerful voice for nursing.

In 1987 the RCN took a leap of faith and invested in a new, weekly nursing magazine. Former staff writer Daniel Allen recalls the early, pioneering years of Nursing Standard, which quickly established itself as a powerful voice for nursing

Nursing Standard's first issue.

It was a postcard that began my association with Nursing Standard in 1991. I was in Hong Kong, making my slow way home from Australia, where I had been working as a mental health nurse. After weeks of travelling through south east Asia it finally dawned on me that I would soon be back in Britain with no job and no idea of what I wanted to do.

In truth, I was an accidental nurse. I had left university with a sociology degree and hoped to be a journalist. But unemployment was high, jobs were few and it seemed easier to

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In 1987 the RCN took a leap of faith and invested in a new, weekly nursing magazine. Former staff writer Daniel Allen recalls the early, pioneering years of Nursing Standard, which quickly established itself as a powerful voice for nursing


Nursing Standard's first issue.

It was a postcard that began my association with Nursing Standard in 1991. I was in Hong Kong, making my slow way home from Australia, where I had been working as a mental health nurse. After weeks of travelling through south east Asia it finally dawned on me that I would soon be back in Britain with no job and no idea of what I wanted to do.

In truth, I was an accidental nurse. I had left university with a sociology degree and hoped to be a journalist. But unemployment was high, jobs were few and it seemed easier to change direction than suffer endless disappointment.

Mental health proved a good choice. I liked the patients – they were never ‘clients’ – and I did what I could to make their lives comfortable. I trained in one of those former asylums with long corridors and entrenched practices that were hard to shift. But for the most part what we did was founded on compassion.

Fateful decision

While in Melbourne, I wrote occasional ‘letters from Australia’ (a ‘wry look at nursing Down Under’), which the then editor of Nursing Standard, Norah Casey, deemed fit for publication.


Former Editor Norah Casey

So, thinking I had nothing to lose, when I got to Hong Kong I sent her that postcard: ‘Any chance of a job?’ Two days after I got home, she phoned me.

Nursing Standard was four years old when I joined. Or rather, the weekly magazine was.


Daniel Allen in 1991

In an earlier incarnation it had been a tabloid newspaper, produced in-house by the RCN at its headquarters in Cavendish Square, London, its small team was led by editor Steve Weaving.

Steve was among those charged with setting up the new weekly, a massive undertaking that meant finding new premises, recruiting staff, designing a new look and hitting tight deadlines. ‘It was an enormous gear change,’ he says. ‘We went from three full-time staff to an editorial team of, I think, 22 or 23. And we had to do it in a matter of weeks.’

‘To take a small, obscure newspaper and transform it into a full-colour magazine and put it on the news stands – that was a bit scary’

Steve Weaving

A driving force in shaping the new journal was Alison Dunn, a former editor of Nursing Times and, in the 1980s, the RCN’s head of communications and public relations (PR).

It was a very different publishing landscape back then, she recalls. ‘The nursing world had been dominated by two journals, Nursing Times and Nursing Mirror, for decades.’

Nursing Times then overtook and bought out its rival, creating a monopoly in editorial and advertising.

While the tabloid Nursing Standard had done a good job balancing what the RCN wanted to say with what members wanted to read, it could not compete with the clout of Nursing Times in terms of editorial voice or advertising revenue. ‘The classified advertising for nursing jobs was a multimillion pound business then – well worth fighting over,’ says Alison. ‘So for me, as RCN director of PR, the launch of the new weekly was not just desirable but necessary to combat that monopoly.’

The college’s then general secretary, Trevor Clay, and its ruling council were firmly behind the move but, says Steve, investing heavily in the magazine was still a leap of faith.


Former General Secretary Trevor Clay

‘To expand your publication by a factor of more than ten, to employ many, many more people and to take a small, obscure newspaper and transform it into a full-colour magazine and put it on the news stands – that was a bit scary. But as editor, it was a massive privilege and wildly exciting.’

Forging ahead

Geographical separation from the RCN – Nursing Standard’s base has always been in Harrow in north-west London – helped shape the journal’s editorial line. The old tabloid was very much a mouthpiece of the RCN but the magazine had to be much more, Steve recalls. ‘It had to support and reflect RCN values but be a broader church, too. So that physical separation from the RCN was a good thing. It helped us refocus what we were going to do in terms of editorial stance.’

When I first shuffled nervously into the magazine’s offices some years later, Nursing Standard was forging ahead. Steve, having eased it through its infancy, had moved on and was working in PR. Alison was leading the specially formed RCN publishing company, Scutari, now RCNi, and its widening range of nursing journals. Norah, a former RCN student officer who had been with the magazine from the start, was in the editor’s chair. And I was assigned an important role – tea maker.

Boiling the kettle was really all I was fit for. I had no experience of writing news stories, commissioning articles, reading proofs, meeting deadlines, shorthand or interviewing people. But I could, I think, string sentences together and was keen to learn, so after some months as apprentice in the beverage department and gaining some publishing insight, I began a postgraduate diploma in journalism. When I finished, Norah offered me a full-time job.

‘More and more, the interesting stuff in journals was being written by nurses about nursing, not by doctors about diseases’

Alex Mathieson

As well as many top-notch journalists, the Harrow office was brimming with nursing expertise – people who, like me, had chosen publishing over nursing and who, unlike me, were very good at both.

One was Alex Mathieson, the journal’s clinical editor between 1990 and 1995, and a former senior charge nurse.


Former Clinical Editor Alex Mathieson

‘It felt like an optimistic time for nursing,’ says Alex, these days a freelance writer and editor. ‘The eighties had seen an awakening, with ideas like the nursing process and primary nursing shipping in from the States. Nursing development units were doing really innovative things. Academic units were also taking off, with places like Manchester and Edinburgh able to rub shoulders with the best in the world.’

Back then, he says, journals were the main means of disseminating knowledge. ‘And more and more, the interesting stuff in journals was being written by nurses about nursing, not by doctors about diseases.’

Publishing the best

Alex remembers being given licence to seek out and publish the best continuing professional development and research material. New talent was encouraged and attempts were made to attract established nurse authors.

But that was hard. ‘There was definitely a feeling that the weeklies – ourselves and Nursing Times – were not the place for a known authority or aspiring researcher to publish.’

Linda Thomas also remembers that struggle. Linda, another nurse, was the journal’s first clinical features editor and rose to become editor in chief and then managing director before retiring in 2010.


Former Editor Linda Thomas

‘I’ll always be very grateful to the academics who could see the value of publishing their research in Nursing Standard,’ says Linda. ‘But I wish more had felt like that. And I suspect it’s still the case that it’s very difficult to get them to make their research available to practising nurses in a journal like Nursing Standard.’

Nursing Standard now outsells any other UK nursing journal.  And once a year, at the RCNi Nurse Awards, those practising nurses who have remained Nursing Standard’s core audience are given the chance to put aside all the stress and pressures of the job, polish up their bling and celebrate in style.

‘I love the awards,’ says Linda. ‘They highlight the innovation, the dedication, the absolute determination to improve things. The winners are just fantastic, working sometimes in difficult areas of nursing – prisons, continence care, learning disabilities, mental health – but always persevering to make things better.’

‘The awards highlight the innovation, the dedication, the absolute determination to improve things’

Linda Thomas

Making things better always seemed to me a fundamental aim of Nursing Standard, too. From the very first issue in September 1987 – check out those nurses’ hats – fighting on behalf of nurses and nursing has been in the journal’s lifeblood. Back to Nursing, its launch campaign, aimed to ‘spotlight some of the problems of nurse manpower – and some of the solutions’, and was the first of many campaigns that sought to effect change either in working lives or clinical practice. Incidentally, that first issue of the journal included a news item headed ‘Zookeepers better paid than nurses’. They probably still are.

Hard to forget

After I left Nursing Standard, I found the place hard to forget, perhaps because it was my first job in journalism or perhaps because of the staff and readers. But I think in part it was the subject matter. I still find the experiences inherent in nursing – life and death, joy and despair, anguish and fulfilment – absorbing.


Former Editor Jean Gray

So later, when Jean Gray, the editor who did so much to shape the modern Nursing Standard, asked if I would be interested in writing a weekly column, I said yes immediately – and immediately doubted whether I could sustain it. Every week? Seriously? In fact, I wrote that column for ten years and never ran out of things to rant about.

I remember I wavered a lot before sending that Hong Kong postcard. It felt too cheeky, too presumptuous. In the end it changed my life. And now, as Nursing Standard enters its fourth decade, I feel chuffed to have been part of something that has used the simple power of words to illuminate, provoke and galvanise readers all around the world.

An RCN view: editorial independence vital

RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin has watched Nursing Standard develop since she joined the college in 1992. ‘In the 25 years I’ve worked at the RCN, I’ve seen Nursing Standard mature and become a professional, outward-focused publication that also embraces all that’s good about digital.

‘Editorial independence has always been important. But I think skilled editors and skilled journalists can find a way to comment independently while at the same time promote what the RCN is wanting to do, and the relationship we have is good.

‘Nursing Standard balances well the professional and employment sides of nursing, which is the line we have to tread in the RCN as well. And as we have always argued, the two complement one another. Without good working conditions, you can’t really deliver the quality of care that nursing professionals should be able to offer.’

Looking ahead: embracing the digital age

Graham Scott, RCNi editorial director and, since 2009, editor of Nursing Standard, says: ‘Nursing Standard is easily the profession’s biggest-selling and most trusted source of clinical content, news and comment. Our challenge is to build on this and grow even further in the digital age.

‘There is no question that the popularity of print journals is in decline, because it is so much easier to consume information on our phones, tablets and PCs. Digital platforms also offer us the opportunity to engage more readily with our audience, and put nurses from all around the world in touch with each other.

‘So over the coming months and years, Nursing Standard readers will be given the opportunity to watch videos, listen to podcasts and have their say on topical issues, while continuing to receive a print journal if they wish.

‘RCNi Learning will develop so that subscribers can keep their knowledge, skills and practice up to date, and the RCNi Portfolio will continue to help make revalidation as straightforward as possible.

‘These are exciting times in publishing and RCNi will be working with our loyal readers and those who are not yet subscribing to develop Nursing Standard so that it meets their needs over the next ten years even better than it has over the past 30.’


Daniel Allen is a freelance health journalist

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