Student journalism needs saving. That’s the philosophy behind a rapidly expanding tabloid student media platform that has been called “a top-down organisation run out of an office in London” and “a money-making monopoly” by disgruntled print publications it is threatening to render obsolete.
The Tab, which was founded in 2009 in Cambridge, is now a federated media network encompassing twelve universities. Founders Jack Rivlin and George Marangos-Gilks, pictured, are currently engaged in the business of evangelising the Tab cult throughout the country.
The Tab first drew national attention for Tab Totty, a series of picture-led features that depicted undergraduate girls in various states of undress. It has since become a feeding ground for Oxbridge stories for the national newspapers and was called “neither clever not funny” by the Guardian, which its founders rightly wear as a badge of pride.
They do so because The Tab is a becoming something of a religion on British campuses. “Almost everything written for young people is either really patronising or really sterile,” opines Rivlin, a tousle-haired young man with a knowing, mischievous laugh. “It’s infuriating.
“The thing is, we’re not interested in politics or what people believe. Our readers don’t care about a student’s self-professed ‘world view’. There’s a misconception that students should be writing about the deficit or Barack Obama. They shouldn’t: they should be writing about their own world.
“People accuse us of dumbing down, but what’s dumb is soulless, pompous writing, which isn’t even really journalism, just self-indulgent writing for no audience.”
Asked to summarise The Tab’s guiding intelligence, the pair struggle slightly. “We tried to come up with a tagline and they were all terrible,” explains the more laconic but intensely charismatic Marangos-Gilks. “The only thing we care about is people who are too earnest. I guess our philosophy is: we don’t give a fuck.”
It can be a challenging sell to the “bores” running existing student newspapers, who take themselves “comically seriously”, according to The Tab. But Rivlin has a keen eye for the sort of undergraduate who might be a fit. “The people I like are people who enjoy causing trouble,” he says.
That attitude has only hardened since March 2010, when The Tab published an apology to former BBC Newsround presenter Lizo Mzimba that became a brief email sensation in the media and in universities up and down the country.
“We fully accept,” wrote The Tab, “That [Mzimba] was not ‘seen draping himself over a number of girls’; it was untrue to label him as a ‘sleaze’ and a ‘perve’; and we were wrong to accuse him of loitering around ladies’ toilets to support false allegations that his behaviour while in Cambridge was debauched.
“The Tab also acknowledges that Lizo was not gaffer-taped to a wall in Emmanuel College; he was not forced to lock himself in a toilet following a confrontation with students; and he was not ‘bug-eyed and sweaty’ as a result of a night of heavy drinking.”
That sort of laugh-out-loud chutzpah is what’s attracting hordes of plucky and daring young writers to The Tab’s masthead. Although The Tab doesn’t intend to compete with union-run student newspapers for readers, it is certainly now engaged in a talent war with them on campuses.
It’s a battle The Tab seems to be winning, which bodes well for its aspiration to create a powerful national media organisation at which students can get proper writing experience: “It sounds naff, but we’re a newspaper for students, not a student newspaper, if that makes any sense.”
Of course, there’s the occasional slip-up, given that so many of the network’s writers are under the control of volunteer editors without professional journalistic training: in particular, Tab journalists are yet to learn the tricks of evading trouble-making blowhards in rival publications and, occasionally, women’s societies.
In the occasional flare-up over supposedly ill-judged articles, The Tab has acquitted itself well. And the journalism emerging from The Tab’s ranks is, by and large, very impressive, and a world apart from the dull-as-ditchwater, worthy windbaggery of so many student newspapers.
And that’s before you consider where Tab alumni have ended up. Former Tab editor Joshi Herrmann is now a feature writer at the Evening Standard. Also at the Standard is Oscar Williams-Grut, who writes for the City desk. 2010 editor Alasdair Pal is now a successful financial journalist, while Lauren York is about to start at the Mail on Sunday.
In fact, the Mail is a predictably popular destination: two more former Tab staffers are starting at Mail Online in February. Additionally, Rob Smith is now a senior reporter for Thomson Reuters.
Rivlin himself has bagged a Telegraph blog, with which he continues to torment the humourless with scathing articles about “bitter Oxbridge rejects” and reports about the death of “racism awareness” campaigns at British universities.
“Jack has an understanding of editorial that I cannot grasp,” says Marangos-Gilks in the first of a volley of compliments the pair hurl at each other. “He’s the one leading the team.”
If Rivlin is the sharp editorial mind behind much of The Tab’s best content, his lower profile co-founder is the creative dyslexic who solves commercial problems and takes the tough decisions. “When there’s a problem,” says Rivlin, “George is the one who says: ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.'”
Perhaps the best way to describe a centrally-managed student newspaper group is a guerrilla alternative to postgraduate journalism degrees – one which yields not only a huge portfolio of published work at the end of it but also the promise of lucrative and high-level introductions.
Incentivising students to make way in hectic extracurricular schedules for what is in some ways volunteer work is one of the challenges Marangos-Gilks wrestles with every day. But he’s confident when he says that the barrier to entry at The Tab is sufficiently low, yet the editorial oversight sufficiently high, that budding hacks find the experience invaluable.
“Being a society president might give you an extra line on your CV,” explains Marangos-Gilks, “But our writers graduate with an entire portfolio of work.”
Thus far, The Tab’s reception has been impressive: the network received 235,000 unique visitors last November, and the company has secured £200,000 in funding, which has enabled the founders to employ a deputy editor, Tristan Barclay.
For all their pooh-poohing of the dead tree press – and there is plenty of it – The Tab’s founders have at least picked up one of Fleet Street’s signature habits: prolific use of the c-word. I see it in all its glory when the conversation turns from each other to why the pair decided to avoid traditional careers in journalism.
When asked why he left his job as a news reporter, Rivlin laughs. “It got quite tiring, constantly being called a c–t by people I thought were miserable c–ts. And that was just the PRs.”
Judging by the team’s ambitious plans for expansion into the US, which include a bus tour of the States, taking in dozens of universities to evangelise about the virtues of tabloid journalism, the atmosphere at The Tab is studiously avoiding the sterility of larger newsrooms.
Although the route to profitability will be long and hard for The Tab, which is run out of the same co-working space as The Kernel in London’s Clerkenwell, if it proves it can pay its own way, and, perhaps more excitingly, if it can establish itself as the definitive talent filter for gifted young British journalists, it will become a desirable asset.
In the meantime, there is work to do. A visual shake-up is in progress. The Tab’s current look, which divides opinion, boasts some of the largest headlines on the internet. A fresh version, slated for the end of this month, will tone down some of the design’s excesses while retaining the spiky flavour.
“We don’t always get it right first time,” says Rivlin, who once told former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie that his grandfather had invented bubblegum (MacKenzie believed him, and printed the claim). He is quick to point out that The Tab mocks itself as vigorously as it chides others.
Judging by the four-letter tirade The Kernel overhears between the pair a few moments later, he’s not kidding.
Editor’s Note: Mr Marangos-Gilks sits on The Kernel’s editorial board.