Media: Is Alton up to the climb ahead?

Rock climbing is nothing compared to the uphill task facing the new editor of The Observer.
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The Independent Culture
ROGER ALTON, the new editor of The Observer, is a man obsessed with rock climbing. Lunchtimes are spent on a climbing wall. Now he has the climb of his life - dragging the circulation, the morale and the look of his new paper back to its previous heights.

He starts off with a backpack full of goodwill, for he is a man universally liked and admired. The only half-negative story heard by this writer is a tale of his getting cramp in his leg while dancing at a hip drum 'n' bass club, and having to limp off the dance floor.

And his popularity should have professional implications for his new job. Under Will Hutton, the previous editor and now editor-in-chief of The Observer, a climate of division developed that saw Hutton and his supporters pitted against his deputy, Jocelyn Targett, and supporters of Targett's radical plans for the newspaper.

Under Hutton's predecessor the atmosphere was, if anything, even worse. Andrew Jaspan quickly alienated many Observer old hands and was himself frustrated at his inability, thanks to a strong union, to get rid of those he did not rate.

"If anyone can pull people together it is Roger," says one senior Guardian executive. "He is hugely popular because of his energy, and even if you did have reservations about his judgement, you still had to respect him."

After five years of changing editors and numerous increasingly radical redesigns, The Observer is likely to achieve some stability under Alton. "Roger's approach will be that doing a good newspaper is not rocket science," says John Mulholland, editor of Sporting Life and Alton's former media editor at The Guardian. "It will be about good stories well presented and executed."

Unlike some of his predecessors, he is unlikely to initiate a mass clear- out of staff. Instead, those who know him are predicting a clear-out of ideas. His influence has already been felt. The story count in his first week's news pages this Sunday was much higher than it has been in recent months. Under Hutton and Targett, a blurring of news and features had made the paper look increasingly confused.

Alton's appointment marks the end of a period of what might be described as over-intellectualising broadsheet newspapers. Jocelyn Targett's proposal for The Observer has been described as a Sunday newspaper inside a magazine. There was even a plan floated to put The Observer, a magazine with a newspaper inside it, in a bag rather like the bag used for the massive New York Times' Sunday edition. Wags at The Observer dismissed it as a "mag in a bag", and one said: "We might as well have started making hamburgers and giving a newspaper away with each one purchased."

Targett was said to be in tears when he left The Observer building last week, and it may be that his youth and personal style has unfairly attracted envious criticism. Nevertheless, one former colleague contrasts him with Alton thus: "What you see with Alton is what you get - frequently, a dodgy- looking denim jacket. On the other hand, Targett was mainly PR. If his ideas had ever matched his suits, there wouldn't have been such a problem."

Alton's great strength is spotting exactly what the big story is and persuading someone to execute it at short notice. "He is very demanding of people. You can argue with him at 12am that there is no time to do something and he will come back at 4pm and make you do it anyway. By then there is even less time. So you will never get away with saying no," says one former colleague. "Although he hates confrontation, he manages to get his way because he is difficult to negotiate with."

The Observer's new editor spends a lot of time out meeting people, talking in pubs, going to the theatre, the cinema and even - apparently - clubbing. "Unlike Alan Rusbridger [editor of The Guardian] he is not locked into the dinner-party circuit," says the Guardian executive. "You wait ages for him in a pub, then he flies in for 25 minutes, sprays you with ideas, picks up stories, then flies out again.

"He crashes in two minutes before conference, shouts for some ideas, goes down to the meeting, then runs out and commissions pieces. He disappears for much of the middle of the day, supposedly to play squash or climb a wall. Then he's back at 4pm, changing everything and pissing off the subs."

The subs, and everyone else at The Observer, have been warned.