Monday September 28th, 1964. Goldfinger had been released in the UK, the Beatles were touring America, and Lee Harvey Oswald was cover of Time magazine. In Oxford, the School of Technology (now Oxford Brookes) was enjoying its brand new Headington Campus. Wolvercote Mill was preparing to link a computer to its production processes. The strains of Gilbert and Sullivan leaked into the foyer of the New Theatre on George St, and the first issue of Daily Information was proudly pinned up in colleges, bookshops and restaurants city-wide.
“Rose, as in Tulip"
Daily Info was the brainchild of ex-Indian Army captain and Oxford resident, John Rose - born out of his frustration at being unable to place an advert in less than 24 hours, and intended as a convenient, speedy, affordable and effective means of local communication. A Daily Info sheet from April 1965 explained that so long as you rang in by 3pm, your announcement would be included in that day's issue, distributed by bicycle messenger, and visible in 160 locations before the students went in for formal hall.
From humble beginnings as a typewritten page of A4 produced in John's front room, comprising fewer than a dozen classified ads and a smattering of event listings, the Daily Info sheet soon became a fixture of both college lodge and pub noticeboard. Early developments were the use of coloured paper, boxed announcements (initially done with 'x's on the 'golf ball' typewriter), hand-drawn titles, and the inclusion of choice pieces of life advice alongside the ads, such as extracts from the Telegraph's 'Hints for Speedy Reading'. Later, the team discovered that it was cheaper to block print colour on a white sheet than to buy coloured paper. This led to much enthusiastic colour coding for different days, and a 'colour supplement' on Sundays - a white sheet with a band at the bottom for cartoons.
John's fearsome business style meant that the company sometimes achieved fame beyond the Oxford ring road. Andrew Walter, who worked in the office in the 1980s, recalls him disarming people on the phone with “Rose, as in Tulip," and describes how receptionists at IBM, manufacturers of the typewriters, were specifically briefed on how to deal with the inevitable Monday morning complaint from John's office. They once asked gently whether the call could perhaps be moved to later in the day.
“The sex life of the snail"
The Daily Info method for local communication has always been holistic, with the company taking interest - and taking part - in many diverse aspects of Oxford life. Caroline Jackston-Houlton remembers that in university vacations of the early '70s, the staff set up a language school. “I lectured on the sex life of the snail and other animals," she recalls. John was also keenly involved in the democratic process, standing as an independent candidate for the Council. Through Daily Info he kept Oxford residents well informed of local political goings on.
Then there was the non-political events scene, traced by the 'What's On' - a substantial events guide published separately from the sheet, and sold in newsagents throughout the '70s and '80s. It was in the '80s that Andrew Walter remembers being invited to a production by the Playhouse's Press Officer, with the suggestion that he write about it in Daily Info. John appreciated the innovation, and theatre and cinema reviews began to be included in the sheet. The company even provided Year Planners for organising the bustling local events scene into your life (still a very popular product in 2014), and Oxford 'By Day and By Night' Maps for finding the venues.
From very early on, the office was also Oxford's first drop-in computer workshop, sometimes keeping a door open around the clock when a graduate student had a thesis to type up. Theft of the computer equipment was never a problem, owing to the high level of trust between customer and company, and because at the time a thief would have needed a forklift truck.
“This is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to avoid!"¹
Having a proprietor with a passion for technological advancement meant that Daily Info was at the forefront of the revolutions in information and print technology. While this was almost always a good thing, the never-ending influx of new equipment did create the odd hairy moment. “In the '80s we got the new phototypesetter," remembers Jessica Osborne - (this was a linotype machine that allowed one line of text on the screen, no preview, no spellcheck, before whisking it away and typesetting onto expensive photographic paper) - “that's when things got really bad."
Then there was human error – mistakes that would draw the infamous cry of “this is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to avoid!" from the frustrated proprietor. “A particularly indistinct telephone message led to us advertising 'Rude Dreams' when the event was actually titled 'Road Dreams'," remembers Andrew, “that mistake got into the Times and onto Radio 4, although I also heard that the event drew a much bigger audience than expected."
Fortunately such moments were quickly forgiven, and the Daily Info office was an excellent platform from which to watch the second half of 21st century communications history unfold. Jessica recalls the excitement surrounding the introduction of Letraset dry transfer, which allowed high quality large-lettered titles to be printed, and Aaron Fleming speaks fondly about the advantages of working for John in the early years of the internet: “I would sit for hours and hours, exploring this treasure trove of information… The world-wide web, Netscape, electronic mail, internet relay chat, FTP… it was a whole new world!" And in this world, with a website published even before that of BBC News, Daily Info thrived.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" ¹
In the decade following John Rose's death in 2004, the company was carried forward by his daughter Miranda, and remained true to the old ideals of innovation, immediacy, a personal relationship with Oxford clientele, a generous employment policy and stoic adherence to deadlines – sometimes with chocolate mug cake to help you through.
Technological advancement continued to be at the heart of the business, with the website departing somewhat from '90s technicolour and expanding into a fully functional community hub. Other innovations from the Cowley Road office team include the events podcast and collaboration with BBC Radio Oxford, several painstaking reworkings of the Oxford Map, the Terry Gilliam-esque makeover of the Weekly What's On, and the brand new mobile site that is – oh – so shiny! Even the company's cartoon scene has had frequent updates and additions. Classics like the Daily Info dragons and Mary Potter's much-loved tributes to Oxford life were recently joined by the endlessly tragic “No Buns for Fatty" series, and the wombat, which is, well... just a wombat.
Today, under its new directors, Susie Cogan and Jenny Pawsey (who have 18 years of tea-making and proofreading service between them), Daily Info continues to keep its finger on the pulse of Oxford life. In fact, if a new ceilidh band were to have an impromptu jam session in the middle of Port Meadow at 3am on a Tuesday to celebrate the birthday of Ethelred the Obscure, Daily Info would probably know about it, tweet about it, and (more than likely) have members of staff performing in it.
“The correct sheet is on the door"
Suffice it to say that, with the help of several generations worth of staff, customers and friends, Daily Info has had a rip-roaring fifty years. Many who watched it develop have a very real affection for the small company that insists “taking money from little old ladies is wrong and you will go to hell - that's religion…" (an extract from the “Daily Info Bible") and defies physics by always making room for the double column ad that arrives thirty seconds before the deadline.
There is little more to say. The champagne is in the fridge. The year-planners are balanced precariously on the stairs. The wombat is peeking out of the Job Ads section and the correct sheet is on the door. Here's to the next half century!
¹ The inscription outside the James Farley Post Office in New York. It also hangs in the Daily Info office.
For more Daily Info history, including the reasons John Rose himself gave for its founding,