Oxford Today: gone tomorrow?


THURSDAY, JUNE 22, 2017

The University of Oxford’s magazine, Oxford Today, is to cease publication after 29 years. If the industry rumbles are correct – and I’ve very good reason to think they are – then the final print issue of the magazine was dispatched last month to alumni and other subscribers.

It’s a baffling move, and one that will make Oxford stick out as the only university in the global top division without a magazine. What’s more, the closure comes at a time when its competitors are waking up to the value of print, and throwing considerable resources into strengthening their publications.

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Of the other three British universities in the top ten of the QS world rankings, both Imperial College London and UCL have relaunched their magazines with an external publisher in the past three years. CAM, the University of Cambridge’s award-winning magazine, has been refreshed with a major design update. (Note that I have connections with all three titles: please see the disclosure statement at the end of this post.)

Yesterday’s news: Oxford Today

In the United States, Oxford’s decision would be unthinkable. While it’s difficult to make direct comparisons – Harvard Magazine is published six times a year by a company independent of the university and part-funded by reader contributions, for instance – alumni magazines are seen as absolutely vital in maintaining the lifelong relationship between a university and its graduates.

At their best – and their best is very good indeed – these magazines are sources of prestige and objects of pride for their universities. They attract the top rank of writers and cleave to lofty editorial standards. Their articles frequently go on to set the agenda in mainstream publications. In a small way, they are part of public life.

This has not been the case in the UK, where alumni relations is still a primitive science. Most university magazines are dreary, flimsy pamphlets stuffed with “success stories” of alumni you’d cross the road to avoid, architectural mock-ups of shiny new buildings that all look alike, and news of research breakthroughs that has been translated via several hands into marketing guff.

Fortunately, this has been changing. A lot more British universities are at last publishing magazines of genuine value to their readers – driven in great part by a recognition that providing something that repays their graduates’ attention is the best way to foster an ongoing sense of belonging (and philanthropic thoughts). So why is Oxford Today moving in the opposite direction?

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My guess would run along these lines. Printing is expensive and inflexible, which is why the accountants love online platforms. As anyone who has worked in the business knows (and again, I’ll draw attention to the disclosure statement) the figure generated by producing tens of thousands of magazines tends to leap out from a spreadsheet. Why not stop the presses for good, and make the mag online-only? Everyone has an iPad nowadays – right?

There has probably been some research with alumni. I’d imagine it delivered the insight that while a large proportion of recipients look forward to receiving the magazine and consume it eagerly, many others will pick it up and immediately file it in the recycling tray or the cat box. The environmental implications hardly need stating.

All very well, but these are arguments for being smarter with the print edition, not abandoning it altogether. An opt-in or opt-out system could easily remove the uninterested and indifferent from the mailing list.

Because the simple fact is that you don’t get the same experience, engagement or loyalty from online publishing. No one in journalism doubts that print is a dying business; but there are times and places where it is still the most appropriate medium, and this is one of them.

For one thing, going online-only cuts out a whole constituency of readers who simply don’t use the internet. This group includes many of the oldest alumni, who are generally most loyal to the magazine and to the university. And if you want to be instrumentalist about it, they’re also among the most likely to provide philanthropic support for their alma mater.

You can’t leave an online magazine on the coffee table (or in the smallest room of the house) to be picked up in moments of leisure or relaxation. You cut out the chance of serendipity: finding an article on an unlikely subject that proves to be engaging and illuminating. And if there’s one attribute that marks out the best university magazines, that’s it.

By contrast, readers “pick and click” at online articles according to a brief headline. While an article may be shared many thousands of times and travel way beyond the graduate community, this is a different sort of engagement altogether. It does more to forge an association with the person sharing the article than the online magazine brand, and ultimately the university.

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To go back to some specifics, Oxford Today’s recent history is an interesting one. What has happened over the past seven years speaks (to me) of an initial willingness to develop the title, which was then stomped upon by bureaucracy, bean-counters and marketing wonks.

Since 2010, it has been published on behalf of the University’s Public Affairs Directorate by FuturePlus, the contract magazine division of Future Publishing Ltd in Bath. The awarding of the contract was not without controversy, and several members of the editorial advisory board decided not to follow the publication to Future.

(In a quirk that will surprise no one who has dealt with Oxbridge, the magazine comes under the aegis of Public Affairs rather than the entirely separate Alumni Relations operation, whose feelings on the closure are as yet unknown.)

My understanding is that the contract with Future will now be allowed to lapse, and all alumni communications will be taken in house. It’s likely that the Oxford Today branding will continue to be used across online channels.

No announcement about the closure of the print magazine has been made, and I’ve had no response to my inquiries from the university’s press office. I’ve lodged a Freedom of Information request to see paperwork connected with the decision, and I’ll update this story as soon as it has been fulfilled.

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A call to action, then. I strongly believe that the decision to cease publication is the wrong one, and that it’s time for alumni who feel likewise to make their views known to the University.

The Alumni Office may be contacted at enquiries@alumni.ox.ac.uk – and I think it’s well worth spreading the word to fellow alumni, and among College and University groups.

 

FULL DISCLOSURE: I wouldn’t pretend to be neutral in this debate, so for the avoidance of doubt… I write or have written for the alumni magazines of the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, UCL, Bath Spa University, Birmingham City University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I am editor of Staffordshire University’s alumni magazine, which I helped to launch in 2012 with Publishing Ink Ltd (subsequently RileyRaven Ltd). I’m an alumnus of the University of Oxford and a member of two Colleges (Jesus and Linacre). I was interviewed for the editorship of Oxford Today in 2010; the job was awarded to Dr Richard Lofthouse.

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