Last month, Harry Mount took over the reins of The Oldie after the sudden passing of Alexander Chancellor. The youngest ever editor of the “light-hearted alternative to a press obsessed with youth and celebrity”, Mount talks to Gorkana’s Ona Zygaviciute about stepping into some rather big shoes, sharing a similar audience with Private Eye and why PRs should concentrate on quality, not quantity, when pitching to him.
A month into the role, what are your impressions of The Oldie so far?
I’m struck by the atmosphere – very redolent of how I imagine old Fleet Street at its best. Funny, clever people in the office talking openly and cheerfully about ideas, likes and dislikes. The perfect petri dish for commissioning articles.
Taking on this role meant stepping into the shoes of such well-known and respected editors Richard Ingrams and the late Alexander Chancellor. You have described both of them as ”youthful oldies” and ”your betters”. What does taking up this post mean to you?
Alexander Chancellor was a great old friend of my parents – he was at school with my Dad. I grew up with him in my sitting room, drinking and smoking away, laughing and being amusing. He brought that light, witty spirit to The Spectator and The Oldie. I couldn’t hope to emulate him, but he is a wonderful model to aspire to.
I grew up a huge Private Eye fan. So Richard Ingrams was a semi-deity to me as a child. When I grew up, I met him and interviewed him several times. I was always in awe of him – still am. To step into his shoes – and Alexander’s – is surreal, sometimes daunting and often thrilling.
Take us through your average day in the editor’s seat?
It depends where we are in the production schedule, which lasts for four weeks. At the beginning of the schedule, I will be commissioning articles and discussing ideas with writers. As the weeks progress, pieces by the regular columnists and the guest writers start to come in – and all the various editors and designers in the office will work on headlines, subbing and layout.
How would you describe the average reader of The Oldie?
They tend to be in their 60s, but there are plenty in their 20s – as I was when I first began reading when it started 25 years ago. The readers are a civilised, amusing, very knowledgeable group – a pleasure to meet and talk about what they agree and disagree with in the magazine.
Many publications are expanding their online profile, as well as moving from print to digital only. Could you see The Oldie making this transition?
We are doing exactly that, repackaging the website, with daily blogs from our great range of contributors, as well as several weekly blogs that I will write. Because we’re a monthly, we can’t always react to news quickly. This will give us that chance.
What was your relationship with PRs like while writing on a freelance basis and what would you like them to keep in mind when contacting The Oldie’s editorial team?
They could be brilliant. The best was one PR – with accounts that included Oxford University. He would ring me up once a year, with a brilliant, undeniably true, killer fact that I’d have been mad not to use in my articles.
Better to send fewer pitches, but maintain a high quality, than bombard with lower quality ideas.
What is the most memorable story you’ve reported on or interview you’ve taken?
I covered Hurricane Katrina for the Daily Telegraph. It was harrowing and exhausting for me; I can’t conceive of how awful it was for the inhabitants of New Orleans. It was my only experience of hard reporting on a single story for an extended period of time. I’m lost in admiration for those who devote their lives to that form of journalism.
Is there a hidden passion or talent that you were tempted to explore if journalism hadn’t been an option?
I considered becoming an architectural historian after doing an MA in the subject at the Courtauld Institute. I still adore old buildings and write about them occasionally. But the pleasure is all the greater because I haven’t devoted my life to them.
In a recent interview, you remarked about having been an ‘old youngie’, or otherwise mis-spending your youth to a certain extent by worrying too much and not having enough fun. What advice would you give to all the aspiring journalists out there?
Find a job you love and, in Noel Coward’s words, work becomes more fun than fun. I had two disastrous false starts as a banker and a barrister. It wasn’t the job’s fault in either case. It was my fault for going for well-paid, prestigious jobs I wasn’t suited to. If you find a job you love, hard work is happiness, and it’s not really work.
Harry Mount was talking to Gorkana’s Ona Zygaviciute