The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Interview: i editor Oliver Duff

The Mancunion talks to i editor Oliver Duff on the future of journalism, being ‘a crap gossip columnist’ and how politicians can engage students


Do you think print journalism is still relevant to young people?

Absolutely. We all have a huge choice about where we turn for information and opinion, and in a world where we’re overloaded with data, people who can aggregate and filter that – people who used to be known as journalists but who now wear a lot of different labels – are more important than ever. The specific medium our readers choose is less important to us than the fact they are choosing to engage with our journalism.

Three-and-a-half years ago the i paper didn’t exist; now we have a daily print circulation of 300,000 and our sister website has 33 million unique users a month. A lot of people, especially young people, mix media – it’s not a binary choice – and a disproportionately large number of our readers are young. I think that’s because we try to offer intelligent, fair, concise journalism at a cheap price (30p), with fewer of the unhealthy additives found in some other titles. We also try to make our paper really relevant to young people – the news, issues and politics we cover, the columnists as well as the arts, entertainment and sport. This is easy for us because a lot of our staff are young – I’m 30, and a lot of my colleagues are the same age or younger. This has always been a paper that believes in young people and invests in them, and we want to make sure issues that matter to them are given a platform in politics and society.

Do you think newspapers are giving enough space to younger voices?

Online maybe, but for a few of them not so much in print perhaps because they have struggled to attract young readers before – so they focus exclusively on their older readers instead. We haven’t had the same issue because we’re such a young paper ourselves, only founded in October 2010, and a lot of our staff are young. So we make sure our pages reflect that!

What was the idea behind the iStudent debates?

We think young people are badly represented in Westminster politics despite having such a critical role in society, because relatively few young people vote. Just 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted at the last general election (dropping to 39% among young women), compared to 75% of people aged 55 and over. That’s why Westminster politicians care much more about older people. I don’t think the answer to that is to hector people to vote – Westminster is guilty of disengaging from young people, rather than the other way round. Since so many of our readers are students or under-30 we thought we’d try to provide this platform for young people’s interests to be aired – and hopefully get a few more politicians to wake up to the millions of people out there who aren’t given much of a voice in Westminster politics. We also want to champion the many ways people can get involved in politics and society away from Westminster.

What’s the main reason behind the i’s success having one of the highest circulations in the country? Is it the price or is there a demand for the more concise style?

The 30p price is an important factor, but our readers say that they choose i because they like its quality, the unbiased approach to news and politics, and the space we give to dialogue with readers. Our brevity is key: people don’t want to wade through 700 words for every story, and they dislike that “buyer’s remorse” of having to throw away tonnes of supplements unread. We also try to make a lively paper every day and to develop i based on our readers’ requests – a lot of improvements to i are first suggested by readers. In conclusion, I suppose in the newspaper market, i is unique: we digest Britain and the world for our readers, quickly, cheaply, fairly and trying to adhere to standards of journalistic excellence.

How can politicians engage with students?

It’s really simple: meet many more of them, away from party functions (so they’re not just preaching to the converted) and away from events stage-managed by the press office. Everything else – understanding and caring about issues important to students, championing them, the dialogue, working together – follows from that. It’s not something that can be done through a focus group, and that dialogue isn’t something that can be faked. There’s this huge reservoir of talent and creativity that’s untapped, which could be used to benefit society and politics. For example using social media to organise people locally or on a specific issue to come together to solve a problem. Or on the macro level crowd-sourcing best policy from experts, instead of fag packet announcements designed to curry easy headlines but which fall apart under close inspection.

Also: change the voting age to 16, put a ballot box in every sixth form and student union, and let people vote on their mobiles. Time to move on from our steam-powered democracy.

What advice would you give people wanting to get into journalism and what’s the worst piece of advice you’ve seen given?

There is no substitute for practical experience and experimenting. Try work experience in as many different places as you can, student, local, regional, national, radio, telly, online and definitely print. Set up your own site or video channel. It’s fun, and showing a commitment to wanting to join the media helps you stand out from the crowd. Target your approach: the fewer resources a media organisation has, the more useful you can be. If you can’t afford to do weeks at a time, try to arrange the odd day here and there and build experience slowly that way. And write to a specific journalist asking for work experience, rather than sending generic emails to news desks. Offer to make the tea and water the plants, stay out from under their feet – and jump at every chance someone gives you. It’s that cliche about a foot in the door, and trying to create your own opportunity. Also: read newspapers, in their print form, every day. Sounds obvious? You’d be surprised how many people who want to work in the media don’t do this. The print media still set much of the agenda for broadcast and even online. Two more tips: go outside of your comfort zone, so you learn more, and always make stories about real people and their lives.

The worst piece of advice was from a senior reporter the day I started: that journalism was a sunset industry and I should give up before I got going. He was wrong. If I get fired tomorrow I’ll have been blessed with a decade of fun, mischief, surprises, freedom to pursue interesting ideas – and travel.

How did you get into journalism?

While I was a sixth-former, writing reports for a sympathetic news editor at the Leighton Buzzard Observer, Mick King, then throwing myself into the student paper when I went to uni. I did a little work experience for nationals but was fairly clueless and too terrified to speak to anyone. By the time I got to The Indy I’d pulled myself together a bit and got lucky when an admin vacancy arose just as I was sitting my finals – I’d proven my ability to make tea and photocopy without upsetting anyone. The reward was a seat next to the news editors. Hearing them tear through each edition was a great education.

You used to be a gossip columnist, how different is covering celebrity news to covering politics?

I was a crap gossip columnist, certainly when I started. I didn’t recognise anyone – I failed to identify Kate Middleton when she pushed in front of me at Richard Branson’s buffet. Worse, I didn’t give a toss about celebrities. But it was great fun, I think of it as throwing planes from the back of the class. We covered a lot of politics and took pride in breaking some proper news stories too. Good gossip columnists – and there aren’t that many – have a steel that belies the flippant public image.

Politics profoundly affects people’s lives, and political journalism is rightly a serious business. I can think of four main similarities between covering politics and writing a gossip column: you need a nose for a story, an ability to spot new information in a throwaway sentence; you need to work damn hard and spend a lot of your time meeting people and building trusting relationships with contacts; you need to try to challenge the status quo and establishment; and to do either well you have to place real people at the heart of each story. The best political journalism transcends Westminster and resonate in people’s homes.

Your profile says you were fired from the position of bar critic after three weeks, what’s the story there?

Artistic differences. Also, I was rubbish. At the time they wanted reviews of the smartest new bars, whereas my preferred drinking holes had grumpy landlords, blackout curtains and mouldy carpet.