Time out for Tony Elliott: Why new magazines are still possible but old bastards ruin it.

A new age of media is happening. Anyone who says otherwise is a coward

Photo credit: Time Out


Tony Elliott died on July 17, 2020. He was 73 years old and multimillionaire. In 1968, he was a student reading French and history at Keel University, with £75 in his pocket (about £1,100 in 2020 money). He was meant to spend his final year in France and the money was intended for spending there.

Instead, working off his mother’s kitchen table, Elliott used the cash to start a magazine. Named Where It’s At — could that have been any more ‘60s? — it was soon renamed Time Out, and, with ‘Whispering Bob’ Harris, his partner in the endeavour who would soon leave for fame as a DJ and TV presenter, Elliott hand-delivered the first issue to the boutiques and record stores of the King’s Road, then across London.

A quote from him included in The Times obituary sums up what Elliott was thinking:

“It was an era of dope, sex and rock’n’roll, heavily laced with serious cultural and political intellect. I was fully connected to the cultural changes and the new wave, whether that was music, theatre, poetry, books. The only place where you could find about those things was in what was called the underground press, but none of them were doing the information in a focused or dedicated way.”

So Elliott and Time Out did. It was a countercultural phenomenon which would also tell you where to see the cool stuff. It mixed radical politics and editorial with the actual facts you needed to find the fun.

Elliott’s genius was clarity and it was that clarity that allowed him to build an independent publishing empire over 40 years, only needing to bring in outside investors after the crash of 2008 when Time Out’s parent business had a lot of debt that needed paying down quick.

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While his contemporary Richard Branson also began with magazines but quickly diversified into anything his avaricious eye could spy, Elliott stuck to magazines and books, licensing Time Out into a giant that comprised 40 magazines in cities across the world, along with travel books and city guides. Again in The Times obit, Cyndi Stivers, Time Out New York’s first editor recalls Elliott’s attention to detail:

“Once, someone accidentally opened up the file containing the logo and shifted the text something like 1/28th of an inch. None of us noticed it, but he did, immediately.”

In memorialising Elliott, many press commentators have dropped comments like “we will never see his like again” and murmured about how the media is a busted flush these days. It’s bollocks. The entrepreneurial spirit is as strong as ever online. Take the success of Gal-Dem for one — a growing media empire that focuses on perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour — or the literary clout of magazines like The Stinging Fly where some of Sally Rooney’s early work first appeared and which she went on to edit.

Men — and it is mostly men — who grew up with the deep expense accounts and frequent pub visits of the inky age of music magazines and the glossy era of new magazine launches that followed The Face changing everything love to say that the game is over. But the game is just over for them. In a world where anyone can build a newsletter like this one, journalism and writing can thrive. The problem comes when you want to be a man in a big office with your name on the door.

Those days are dead, but new empires can be built. You just need to throw away the dusty rulebook. Like Tony Elliott once did.