At the turn of the century, OSPL was badly run and the company had acquired significant debts. Worst of all, few people were aware of quite how bad the situation was, particularly on the editorial side of the paper. Events finally came to a head in the summer of 2001, as Jon Boone the editor of In at the Deep End and incoming editor of the Cherwell returned to the offices during the long vac. He discovered that invoices from printers had not been paid in months and that the company had not filed tax returns for three successive financial quarters. The situation was critical – OSPL had acquired £19,000 in outstanding bills and was already £16,500 into its overdraft. Tax authorities were pursuing £7,000 in unpaid VAT bills and bailiffs were preparing to remove all valuable property from the offices. This would have made it impossible to produce the newspaper, even if OSPL had money to print it. Meanwhile, the Chairman of OSPL had fled. One week before the first edition of term was due to go to print, Boone wrote in desperation that without help:
it would be extremely unlikely that the Cherwell would ever be able to rise from the ashes – we would lose the faith of our regular advertisers who would turn to other media for their needs, lose all our equipment, lose all our journalists and would, in short, cease to exist after 82 years of existence.
With bailiffs at the gates and the company on the verge of collapse, the paper was only saved by the help of alumni who were able to arrange an emergency overdraft of £25,000 from HSBC. However, rather than turn a corner at this point, the paper continued to be plagued by poor management. In October 2001, OSPL had appointed a new board member to help turn around the company. But when a new Chairman started in November 2002, he found that no advertising had been arranged for Michaelmas and that the company’s books had disappeared. After a partial recovery, the company’s financial situation had worsened again and it was now £27,000 in debt. It was only with great perseverance and the work of those who chose to stay to sort out the company’s problems, rather than evade responsibility, that it survived. The paper was slashed in length and almost all colour was removed. The legacy of the crisis is still perceptible today, as The Isis was permanently cut to one issue per term to lower costs.
In 2009, the Cherwell acquired national attention of a different kind. The problem began when the editorial team printed 50 copies of a spoof edition of the paper dubbed the ‘Lecher’. Some of the ‘jokes’ included a story where two students talk about sexually abusing and killing babies, while another included a photoshopped image of a former editor of the paper dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume. As if that was not enough, they also wrote a spoof story about a busker whose bagpipe music had annoyed Oxford residents, joking that the instrument had been used as a means of torture during the Holocaust. The spoof edition went down well at a meal for staff, but drew universal condemnation when it was picked up by the website Oxford Gossip. OSPL demanded that the editors resign. While the spoof edition was in poor taste, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the newspaper had not made things like it before. For example, the 1979 edition of the Cherwell Guide had included a picture of the editor in an SS officer’s uniform on the contents page. What this episode really demonstrated was that, in the digital age, undergraduate ‘jokes’ would no longer go unnoticed by the outside world. If it was not obvious before, it was now clear that Oxford undergraduates were under greater national scrutiny than ever before.
In contrast to these moments in the not-so-distant past, the paper’s current situation is remarkably stable. The Cherwell makes a small profit, and is no longer used to subsidise The Isis. Every week in term time, a 32 page edition of the paper is printed and the paper’s staff is consistently larger than it has ever been before. But is it only a matter of time before the Cherwell returns to crisis again? History would suggest that is bound to be the case. After all, despite the current illusion of stability, the paper faces greater structural challenges than ever before as it adapts to a new, increasingly digital context. Ultimately, however, the fate of the paper lies where it always has – with the students who run it.
By Robert Walmsley
Part 6 – A Near Death Experience