Data dump: Oxford Today closure


WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2017

For the record, and without further comment for now, here is the response I received from the University of Oxford to my Freedom of Information request about the closure of Oxford Today magazine.

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ITEM 1 – AGENDAS, MINUTES BACKGROUND DOCUMENTS FROM ANY POLICY OR STRATEGY MEETINGS CONNECTED WITH THE UNIVERSITY’S DECISION TO CEASE PUBLICATION OF OXFORD TODAY MAGAZINE IN PRINTED FORMAT

1.1        General Purposes Committee, 23 January 2017

Extract from Public Affairs Directorate Annual Report (GPC(17)02)

Proposal for the future of Oxford Today

Currently, PAD prints 165,000 copies of Oxford Today twice a year using commercial (non-OUP) printers, and posts them to alumni who left the University more than ten years ago. Good progress has been made on increasing advertising revenue, but sharply rising print and postage costs mean that the status quo is not sustainable. We therefore propose substantial changes to the Oxford Today model during 2017. This

If these proposals go forward:

  • Oxford Today will be delivered primarily through a newly-developed app, three times a year in a digital format rather than twice in print.
  • We will continue to print some copies of each edition (c10,000 tbc) using OUP presses. These will be distributed via the Colleges, Divisions, and Alumni Relations, to important alumni. Alumni who are genuinely unable to access the online version of Oxford Today will also be able to receive a printed copy.
  • Oxford Today will retain its important qualities as an intelligent, curated magazine. The savings from the move to a majority-digital version will allow PAD to meet the objectives for 2017 outlined at the beginning of this paper.

For reference, the number of monthly page views for the digital edition of the University alumni magazine www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk currently stands at 52k (up from 1.5k in 2010). Twitter followers now total 3k, while Facebook likes are 4k (up 30% and 70% respectively year-on-year). The open rate for the weekly Oxford Today e-newsletter is 30%, which is considered very healthy by media industry benchmarks. Dwell time per page – which is considered to be a strong metric for measuring quality of engagement with an audience – has increased from 2 minutes to 2 minutes 59.

1.2       Minutes of the General Purposes Committee, 23 January 2017

Public Affairs Directorate Annual Report (GPC(17)02)

  • PAD currently had £325k funding available for non-staff costs, £250k of which was used to print and distribute Oxford Today. With costs increasing at 6% per year, if no changes were made within 4 to 5 years all the available non-staff resource would be spent on Oxford Today.

GPC expressed its strong support for the strategic shifts and for the move to measuring success by impact rather than output. It was agreed that the current financial position in relation to Oxford Today was not sustainable and that printing and distribution costs needed to be reduced. Printing 10,000 copies (which could be done by OUP) for distribution via colleges, divisions and Alumni Relations was considered to be a sensible way forward. However, although there appeared to be no direct connection between the magazine and donations coming through the Development Office, the view was expressed that Oxford Today played a role in college fundraising. Given this, it was important that PAD continued discussions with colleges about mitigating the impact of the changes. Decisions would need to be taken by April 2017 as this was when the current printing contract terminated.

For its part, GPC endorsed moving to digital delivery of Oxford Today and encouraged PAD not simply to replicate the magazine in an online format but to exploit fully opportunities to reach out to different audiences, to tailor content accordingly, and to make the magazine more dynamic. It was confirmed that, whilst PAD formally owned the content of Oxford Today, content could be freely shared with divisions, departments and colleges.

GPC agreed the proposals on the understanding that PAD continued to engage with the colleges on how to mitigate the impact of the proposed changes to the printing and distribution of Oxford Today within the 10,000 issue ceiling.

1.3       Minutes of the General Purposes Committee, 20 February 2017

Minute 3: Public Affairs Directorate Annual Report

GPC noted that the Conference of Colleges’ Development Panel had just completed its survey of college opinion on the proposed changes to the printing and distribution of Oxford Today and that the Chair of the Panel would discuss with the Director of Public Affairs and Communications.

1.4       Minutes of the Committee for Development and Alumni Relations, 30 January 2017

Public Affairs and Oxford Today[1]

The committee noted a presentation from the Director of Public Affairs on the Public Affairs Directorate (PAD).

Oxford Today

The committee was informed that a decision had been taken, in consultation with the General Purposes Committee, to distribute only digital copies of the Oxford Today magazine after April 2017. The decision had been taken based on the following:

  • the current cost of distributing Oxford Today was around £250,000, and would increase yearly as the number of alumni was rising. Costs were expected to rise even more after Brexit. PAD’s budget, not including staff costs, was around £300,000, and with yearly cost increases it was projected that the cost of producing Oxford today would take up the whole of this budget within five years;
  • the Oxford University Press was not able to provide the printing services for the magazine, so it had to be produced by an external company, which was more expensive;
  • the University did not have an IT system which could facilitate a subscription system, and the budget for developing this could not be found in the next few years;
  • although an alternative might be to reduce circulation to certain groups of alumni, it was considered that this would be damaging from an alumni relations perspective;
  • other universities were making similar decisions with their alumni magazines: some advantages of the digital versions were that they could be more interactive, and it was possible to analyse user interaction more extensively; and
  • the principal concern was that the quality of the publication should not be jeopardised by the increase in costs.

As a contingency, 10,000 print copies would be produced in case groups were identified who would not be able to use the digital copies. PAD would discuss with OUP whether more copies could be produced economically.

The committee was concerned that the decision might have a negative effect on the colleges’ alumni relations initiatives, as Oxford Today was valued by alumni, but it recognised that the constraints on PAD’s budget made the current arrangements for distributing the magazine untenable.

1.4       Minutes of the Committee for Development and Alumni Relations, 8 May 2017

Minute 3 – Oxford Today

The Director of Alumni Relations confirmed that the magazine would be produced in electronic form as planned, but a number of hard copies would still be made available for the colleges to distribute to their alumni. The exact number of hard copies which would be produced was still being negotiated.

[1] There was no accompanying paper.

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Item 2 – details (including agendas and minutes) of any proceedings involving the editorial advisory board of Oxford Today over the past two years that make reference to the potential closure of the print edition

Minutes of a meeting held on 18 January 2017

Future of OT

This item of the agenda was brought forward in light of [Initials redacted] having to leave early.

[Initials redacted] explained that he perceived OT to be a high quality publication that undoubtedly did much good. However he faced major headwinds in respect of PAD budget and as a result of unforeseen shocks among them BREXIT. As a result of this the high proportion of PAD’s budget spent on mailing OT now appeared unsustainable and the view was to curtail that and reduce it to possibly 10,000 copies printed by OUP/Oxuniprint.

[Initials redacted] noted that this would mean losing almost all (if not all) advertising revenue, which stood at about £140,000 a year.  Inserts could be exception to this, but again revenue would be significantly reduced. [Initials redacted] clarified that what was being proposed was effectively the axing of OT as the magazine it had been for 28 years.

A wide-ranging discussion then ensued. [Initials redacted] explained that he had had as many industry conversations as possible, and that digital magazines were not working for other publishers. The current investment was typically in social media, website and if anything a re-investment in print, whose merits in some respects grow as the digital sphere becomes too noisy. [Initials redacted] asked if Oxford had considered only sending OT to wealthy alums. It was noted that sending it only to a ‘high engagement’ list was under consideration. [Initials redacted] noted that in some ways OT could be seen as projected an image of the University that runs contrary to the one they now want to project. [Initials redacted] noted that it might be possible to use a different paper stock and trial something more like the NYRB rather than a ‘glossy’. [Initials redacted] noted that it was impossible to quantify the good that OT does and in respect of fundraising in particular. This has long been the weakness of all alumni publications, that they are ‘soft-marketing’ with non-quantifiable returns, although [Initials redacted] noted that good research had been done in the US and that there had been shown to be a strong positive correlation between giving and alumni publications that do not explicitly ask for money, more so than for direct fundraising development literature. [Initials redacted] noted that a majority of Russell Group universities now sent only one magazine a year, and that all of them were wrestling with similar issues of cost and resourcing. Nonetheless, he said, there remains a strong view that print magazines are superior to a merely digital alternative with no physical presence.

[Initials redacted] ended the meeting, which had run out of time, by noting that nothing had finally been decided in respect of OT and that he was still surveying ideas and possible ways ahead.

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