It is now some six months since the Observer’s new editor, Roger
Alton, was persuaded to have a go at turning the paper around and his
handiwork is clear to see.
He’s the fourth editor in nearly six years to be pitched by the Guardian
Media Group at its troublesome acquisition, and is unquestionably having
the easiest ride of all of them, in terms of PR. In part this is because
the paper, with sales hopefully stabilising at around 398,000 (although
at a fifty year low) was in a desperate state when he took up the job,
and he’s benefiting from a distinct ground swell of support denied, say,
Rosie Boycott at the Express.
The Observer’s liberal, pro-European take on the world and its line-up
of political columnists is quite different from the alternative middle
class perspectives peddled by the Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph. It
has a role.
After 24 years at the Guardian, above all orchestrating its G2 section,
Alton retains the full confidence of the parent newspaper, as the
investment in its three new tabloid sections rolled out this month
demonstrates, something not enjoyed by previous editors. The Guardian,
with a fine series of scoops under its belt, has a definite sense of its
central importance as top dog in the scheme of things. The two editors
and their teams, must have a cordial relationship.
Alton is a huge talent, sparky and open to ideas, if a bit short of
conventional news experience. It is, his staff say, interesting working
for him. Under him the paper stresses words and good writing.
It is also doing sterling work, week after week, on intelligible foreign
reporting: last Sunday’s clarion call about the quiet dismemberment of
the World Service was a perfect fit. The Review section, famously
revamped by ex-deputy, Jocelyn Targett as a vacuous package with a
single photo on its outside cover, has reverted to text.
The new tabloids Escape, Cash and Screen are still pretty rough and
ready sections. But the ideas behind them, consumerism with an Observer
twist, demand attention.
Escape is trying to break the mould of pure holiday/travel writing with
cover stories about Howard Marks holed up in a West Indies hurricane
rather than pure holiday advertorial. Cash is a snazzy personal finance
Yet there’s a distinct contrast between features on whether a
27-year-old can raise a mortgage, and the problem letters from
pensioners at the back. This seems the key problem: can the Observer
hold on to its traditional readership, older, more staid, more serious
than the Guardian’s while adding on those coveted under-35s?
One of the clear 1999 media themes is about breathing new life into
jaded brands: witness changes at ITV and Talk Radio. The Observer can’t
be quickly fixed, but it is being pointed in the right direction for the
first time this decade.