The media was once among the most golden of post-Oxford careers. It offered an opportunity to explore and set the social agenda, enjoy a glamorous lifestyle, and get well-paid for one’s ideas and writing. Today, it’s a very different place, with print circulations falling, ‘content’ produced for little or no payment, and the reputation of the industry itself in question. You might even ask why someone bright enough to graduate from Oxford would want to enter a field as fragile, fragmented and financially insecure as the media is today.
But in the 1970s and 80s, the media was the only place to be. Magazines in particular were clever, stylish and influential, setting the agenda to be followed by newspapers and TV. And the inspirational route from Oxford into the media was that taken by the legendary magazine editor, Tina Brown.
Tina Brown had become Features Editor of Isis in her second year. It wasn’t simply a case of writing for the magazine; as one contemporary said, “She somehow used the magazine to get to know a list of people she wanted to get to know.”
Simon Carr, now the Independent’s Parliamentary sketch writer and columnist, worked with Tina Brown on Isis. He explained once to The Guardian what had put her ahead of her contemporaries. "She had an amazing sense of what the game was,” he said. “All the time we were concerned with our Oxford careers – and she knew already that the real game was in London."
She had articles published in the New Statesman in her Finals year. She was writing in the Telegraph, Punch and Sunday Times while I was an undergraduate; and in my own Finals year, she took on the Editorship of a then ailing society magazine, Tatler.
So how did one follow in her footsteps? In those distant, pre-internet days, there was no way of circulating your prose and your ideas unless they got published in print. You needed experience and exposure if you were going to get into journalism when you graduated – and if you couldn’t hack your way into a position on Isis or Cherwell, your only remaining opportunity was to publish your own magazine.
So that was the route which some of us took, producing a kind of lifestyle glossy magazine called Vague. At the same time, a chap called Ian Hislop over at Magdalen was launching his own publication, a satirical magazine called Passing Wind.
Did it work? Well, several years later I was editing another lifestyle glossy magazine, called GQ – and he was editing another satirical magazine, called Private Eye.
But in my second year, I was also one of the finalists in the Cosmopolitan Young Journalist Competition. My first article appeared in Cosmopolitan while I was still at Oxford, a far better calling card than anything I could print myself. It led me into writing and editing for a range of magazines, colour supplements and newspapers. I’ve commented on radio and television, and run my own contract magazine publishing company. And I’ve gained a broad perspective on media as a whole, where I have watched fellow alumni throughout the years, and in which I continue to work and comment.
So what, in this new media age, of Tina Brown, our Oxford role model? She, of course, went to the States, edited Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and became, in the words of US media commentator Michael Woolf in USA Today, “the most famous magazine editor of her generation”.
But now, he says, “She is in a sink hole of cost, trying to use old-media tricks to meld The Daily Beast [website] and Newsweek [magazine] into the kind of zeitgeist-shaping, buzz-creating, cocktail-party-fueling package that the media has, for so long, been built around -- part craft, part culture, part snobbery. Rather a great age, if you were part of it.”
(Which, I’m delighted to say, I was.)
But,“To many,” Woolf concludes, “including many on her staff who have jumped ship, this means that she is blind to the realities of the new world.”
Ah, those new realities, in which the media is no longer looking as significant, influential nor secure as in my day. I want to look in this blog at how Oxford, its alumni and its current undergrads, have adjusted to those realities, and to the contemporary media world; examine the similarities and the differences between my own ‘great age’ and this one; and explore the changing relationship between Oxford and the media.
As we used to say, read all about it…