Roger Alton: The Observer editor on the relaunch of the world's oldest Sunday paper

'The Observer' editor Roger Alton doesn't take too kindly to interviews, even when his newspaper has just relaunched in its new Berliner format. But that doesn't prevent him from giving James Silver his frank views on the industry
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The Independent Online

Late on Sunday morning, the relaunched Observer is in the shops and its editor, Roger Alton, is a touch hoarse. He's been plugging his new full-colour bulked-up Berliner-style paper on Andrew Marr's BBC1 show - jockeying for airtime with Tony Blair, Ann Robinson, and The Sun's political editor George Pascoe-Watson - and he just has to sweat it out to see if the switch in format is accompanied by a boost at the news stand.

The final hours to the relaunch were tense, Alton admits, with jitters about whether its sister-paper The Guardian's new £60m presses would be able to cope with The Observer's far-heavier print load. "There were anxieties that if a lot of pages bunched, the deadlines wouldn't be met and then you wouldn't get the papers out - that was the worry when you are printing on that scale," he says. But the fears proved unfounded with all the deadlines met and greeted with sighs of relief and rounds of applause on the editorial floor. Early in the evening, Alton went to the printworks in Bow, east London, to watch the presses in motion. "It was very, very moving," he says. "The thrill of seeing these giant, new immaculate presses roll is fantastically fucking thrilling."

Charles Kennedy's handily-timed resignation caused a flutter of excitement in the newsroom late in the day. Until that moment, the splash had been Andrew Rawnsley's interview with the prime minister at Chequers, focusing on Labour's rising stars. Kennedy quitting banished the PM to page two. "It was announced at 2pm that Kennedy was going to make a statement at 3pm and you knew that was going to be the resignation so we redid the front and other pages."

The revamped paper has a lower page-by-page story count than the broadsheet Observer, which traditionally featured at least three stories on the front page and two stories on page three. The Berliner-version has a single story on both those pages, with the reader quickly reaching features and columnists on the inside pages. Is this a pitch for The Mail on Sunday's mid-market ground?

"The Mail on Sunday's a very good paper and sells a huge number of copies and if any of their readers want to buy us then I'd be happy," says Alton. "I think we've got a lot of entertaining stuff. The story count is clearly something you have to watch and be aware of, although I don't think it is down that much as [the new version] has many more pages.

"The structure is broadly news pages broken up in the way the (London) Evening Standard is by columnists like Nick Cohen. When you've got a lot of pages you've got to give people a different rhythm. In the first section you've got four main structural elements. You've got initial news, commentary, overseas news and Seven Days - fun and games at the back. And each of those themselves has their own structure. I think the paper feels nice in your hand. Last night when I picked it up I thought it felt like a solid product."

When I ask him what feedback he has received so far, he replies: "Well, no one has sent me a message saying 'Hi Roger your paper's absolutely shit', if that's what you're asking. The feedback is going to come in the market when we see how the readers take to it and we won't know that for a couple of weeks."

Initial reaction yesterday was mixed, though broadly enthusiastic. Jonathan Fenby, the editor of The Observer between 1993 and 1995, placed himself in the "positive column", praising the Review section especially and saying he was more at ease with the new paper than with the Berliner Guardian. "On The Guardian, when you get the masthead and the skyline that can be too dominating," he said. "That isn't as much the case with The Observer."

Edinburgh-based newspaper design consultant Ally Palmer, who recently redesigned Le Monde was pleased with the subtlety of Alton's changes. "In some ways The Observer doesn't surprise me. It's high quality and feels fresh, modern and colourful, whereas The Guardian was an innovation and I'm still getting used to things in The Guardian and have found it much more challenging in many ways."

Among readers who contacted the paper's website yesterday, one correspondent, "Ross", wrote: "[The] paper feels like [it] has far more weight than the new Guardian. I hope The Observer does not turn into the dull paper The Guardian has become. The size of the paper is much better and brighter but [I] still would have preferred a tabloid-size paper."

Another, "RGS", said: "The circulation of British broadsheets seems to be stable and unchanged from 40 years ago. Whereas their US counterparts are in dire straits. They must be doing something right here, but I hope it is not the celebrity content. I can't decide on the Berliner format. It still seems strangely long and narrow to me."

Born in 1947, Roger Alton went to Exeter College Oxford and joined The Liverpool Post in 1969 as a graduate trainee. He moved to The Guardian as a sub-editor five years later and has stayed with the group ever since, editing the paper's arts, features and Weekend magazine on his way to the top job at The Observer. "It's not the most adventurous of careers. But I've had fantastic opportunities to do a whole range of things and had a really good time."

In person, Alton is refreshing company. Unstuffy and mischievous, he plays the old buffer to a tee but is sharp as tacks. Enquiries reveal he is popular with his staff. When we first talk in the run-up to the paper's relaunch, he proves an interminably restless and fidgety interviewee. As he speaks, he squirms in his chair, batters the table, shuffles newspapers, goes rummaging in his desk and at one point wanders out of his office to ask his secretary's opinion. His answers change direction so many times mid-flow that both of you frequently end up forgetting the question. He also has a well-oiled line in humility: "I've got fuck-all to say of any interest so this should be a very short piece."

It certainly would be a fairly short piece if you cut out all the curses. Alton swears like a trooper. "Please don't make me sound like a cunt," he implores. Later, as he poses in his office - a vision of discomfort with a rictus grin fixed on his face - he informs The Independent's photographer: "I always look like a cunt in pictures." And then there's his carefully-considered analysis of the state of the Sunday newspaper market: "Tight as fuck." A future career as a media columnist no doubt beckons.

Since The Guardian went Berliner last year, its circulation has topped the 400,000 mark for the first time since March 2003. However, Alton is rather too long in the tooth to make predictions for The Observer, which posted a circulation of 436,882 in November. "Any increase in circulation will be fantastic, I mean anything at all," he says, no doubt fully aware that if sales don't improve it's a fair bet that retirement will edge that little bit closer. "I would be thrilled by anything in this ferocious market and so would anyone else at the company ... If we can get an increase, hold it and get people to say actually this is quite good ..." He trails away momentarily distracted by the cricket which is burbling on his office television.

The Fleet Street rumour-mill has it that tensions over the switch to Berliner has led to a rift between Alton, who has steered his paper to steady circulation rises since taking over in 1998, and his opposite number at The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. One story claimed the pair were "barely on speaking terms" and that Alton was being "bounced" into changing format sooner than he wished. "Horseshit," says Alton. "It's complete and utter crap." So they're the best of friends? "We're colleagues. I don't necessarily want to marry him. Do you want to marry everyone you work with? No, he's a brilliant supporter."

What lessons has he picked up from The Guardian's Berliner experience? Sensing an elephant-trap Alton slips into corporate mode. "What lessons? Well that this [format] is a brilliant mechanism for colour, very good for sport, it has great sense of luxury ..." He's clearly running out of steam. "What lessons? Christ, I have never thought of it like that ... Any teething problems will be fixed ... Clearly there are design issues to deal with and confront."

Alton wanders off to fetch one of the final "live" dummies. He drops it on the table to show me its door-stopper weight. It's not quite The Sunday Times but the table shudders. "I think the whole package is reasonably chunky, it has a good strong feel to it." I ask him why he went for the softer blue masthead? He does a good impression of a baffled camel and points at the masthead. "That's green, isn't it? I'm really not good on colours because I'm getting on." Alton goes out to ask his secretary, Trish, what she thinks. It transpires that Trish agrees with me. As does another secretary. "Jesus!" says Alton, "I ordered green! I've obviously been barking up the wrong tree. I perceive it as a sort of greenish-blue."

Still unconvinced, Alton calls his deputy editor, John Mulholland, who has masterminded the change of format over the past 18 months. "Mulho," says Alton, "I'm looking at the masthead and I'm just talking to old Silver up here and I said 'Look at that lovely green colour' and old Silver says 'No, it's blue'. I would say it's more green." Mulholland clearly thinks so too. "Well," sighs Alton, "you and I are obviously talking absolute horseshit ..." and hangs up. He turns to me. "Are you getting enough here or am I just talking bullshit?"

We move onto what's sure to be more fertile territory - Britain's Sunday newspaper market, particularly the squeeze at the posh end of it. "It's tight as fuck," says Alton. Would he care to elaborate? "You've got The Sunday Times driving away and able to afford movements of 100,000 either way without breaking sweat. You've got the Independent on Sunday re-formatting as tabloid done really well; it's smart and interesting on quite tight resources. The Sunday Telegraph has re-launched right up against The Sunday Times. We've kept The Observer relatively stable, although we have had a slight softening in a tight market. We've put the price up 60 per cent over the last five years. Which is not bad. That's quite a lot of extra money. There's a softening of advertising right now but with a World Cup this year that may change."

Alton's paper is widely believed to lose more than £7m annually, acting as something of a drain on the owners Guardian Media Group's coffers. Production savings after the move to The Guardian's presses mean that he predicts the paper will essentially reach break-even point within 12 months.

So where does circulation need to be for The Observer to make a profit? Alton grabs a piece of paper and a pen.

"It depends on the business model," he says drawing a dispiritingly complex diagram with columns headed "Price", "Ad Revenue" and "Production Costs" and embarking on an idiot's guide to the economic realities of a Sunday newspaper. "I go to bed dreaming of a number and wake up dreaming of a number," he says, "but I am not going to tell you what it is." Half a million? "That would clearly be fantastic. So would 550,000. So would a rock-hard 470,000. But they're really difficult. I wouldn't commit to any of those numbers - and you are asked to by the board sometimes - because you are not working a vacuum. When The Mail on Sunday does a DVD it can go up something like 350,000. So you can be fucked and thrown off course simply by Associated [Newspapers] marketing budget."

Interestingly, despite the tactics of rivals, Alton doesn't bemoan the prevalence of giveaway DVDs. Although he expects the fad to "burn itself out soon", they are, he says, a legitimate marketing tool. "Newspapers are in the High Street. You've got operate like that, you've got to sell, you've got to do special offers and subscription deals ..." He thumps the table. "This idea that we are have some divine right to exist I just don't accept."

When I ask where he envisages the extra readers coming from, he reaches for pen and paper again. "Say our readership buys The Observer two and a half times a month, if you can even that out so people buy us three times a month you have already increased circulation by an eighth." I pretend my mental arithmetic is enabling me to keep pace. "Clearly you want to bring in other people from The Mail on Sunday, from The Sunday Times ... we think we've got a good package, but..." he fetches The Sunday Times and dumps it on the table ... "that's the thing that hits you every week, all their magazines like Style and Culture.

"Look, it's a very strong, mature market and it's not really weakening if you look at our end of it in five year chunks over the last 25 years, it hasn't really softened much. I think multiple buying - buying three Sunday papers - is getting less and less. Sunday in London is actually a fucking nightmare, it's worse than a weekday, so the theory that you just lie in bed and plough through the Sunday papers and have a leisurely breakfast is just horseshit as far as I can see. But on the whole there's still this idea that it is great to go out and buy the Sunday papers." He smiles: "Let's just hope it lasts a little bit longer ... at least until I'm gone."

Alton is no pessimist about the long-term viability of newspapers despite the migration of classified advertising to the internet and the wobbly display advertising market. He disagrees with former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers who recently said the era of "ink printed on dead trees" was drawing to a close. Alton says he has "no doubts whatsoever" that The Observer will be around in its current dead-tree format in 20 years.

But he's less certain about how he would go about dealing with the advertising black hole. "If I knew the answer to that, James, I'd be sitting in a big house in Barbados," he sighs. "Dot-com and 9/11 were the things that really screwed us up, that massive fluctuation in advertising." He wanders off to consult the latest advertising numbers. He returns with a raft of papers and flips a few pages. "Yes, there are some negatives here ... revenues are disappointing for November and December looks weak too."

Alton - who has a 15-year-old daughter from his short-lived marriage to the comic Helen Lederer - was bemused recently to find himself on the receiving end of personal jibes from two Observer contributors. Former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby wrote in theEvening Standard that he saw Alton looking "miserable and distracted" in the street in a downpour and that for a moment he mistook The Observer's editor for "a tramp". Bloody cheek coming from the notoriously dishevelled Wilby, is the essence of Alton's response.

More serious was the broadside from veteran columnist Richard Ingrams, who has quit the paper for The Independent. In a parting-shot he described Alton's Observer as "kind of lost" and lacking "bite". "We didn't fall out," Alton says wearily, refusing to take a swipe back. "I certainly had to spend a lot of my time fending off, on Richard's behalf, gay organisations, the BBC and Jewish organisations all of whom he offended relentlessly. But that's what columnists are supposed to do. He's a great columnist and I'm sorry he went."

Ingrams' principal gripe was Alton's - albeit qualified - editorial backing for the Iraq war. Alton passionately justifies his stance, arguing that The Observer was simply upholding liberal values of "freedom, tolerance, restraint on authority, so you don't have fucking tyrants, you don't oppress people for their race or religion. If other people disagree I don't give a fuck about that. I mean they don't have to buy the paper."

Moreover, Alton says that Hugo Young, the highly-respected though now-deceased former chairman of the Scott trust which owns The Observer, approved of his position on Iraq because it proved there wasn't a party-line across the group. "I think that's important because if you have a liberal publishing outfit not answerable to shareholders it has to be seen to be diverse. Anyway, the notion that there's a liberal consensus on everything is utterly damaging to political debate and freedom of speech."

He reaches for the paper and pen once more and starts drawing another diagram. "I think the world now is about vertical judgements. You take an issue and then you have a set of judgements about them." His penmanship becomes more frenetic. "So if you take Iraq you have The Independent and the Daily Mail taking the same view, so Left and Right are relatively meaningless terms."

Hence the appeal, he argues, of Tony Blair and Tory leader David Cameron - both ideology-free pragmatists. "Blair is fucking good," he says with conviction. "I think the old chatterers will realise what a big loss he really is when he finally goes."

Donald Trelford: 'The Observer has found its own style'

If the dominating colour of the new Guardian is a kind of Oxford blue verging into royal purple, the new Observer comes over as red - though I'm sure no political significance can be attached to either.

What surprised me about the Sunday paper's relaunch was not that it looks so like The Guardian, which was to be expected from the same presses and most of the same typefaces, but that it has found its own way of wearing the same Berliner-style clothes.

One of my doubts about The Guardian front page was the depth it gave to above the masthead 'blurbery' (12 cms), which seemed to be fighting the impact of the main news headline and costing the paper some of its old authority. The Observer, I notice, has cut this to 9cms, even though a Sunday paper, with a higher proportion of features, has a stronger case for parading its goods in the front window.

There has clearly been some tension within the paper about the new format, with some writers concerned about loss of space or that readers won't be able to find them. Kathryn Flett gave us a glimpse into this internal unease in the intro to her television column, where she talked about "the sleek, detoxed, colonically irrigated Frankfurter Observer Review... " I guess I'm just old-fashioned, but my editorial hand would have hovered over that kind of self-indulgence.

Quite rightly, Charles Kennedy's resignation was the only news story on the front page, making a mockery of those dummies prepared in advance. I'll be interested to see if the paper stays with that single-story format. A column of briefs (some cross-referring to items inside) might be a workable compromise.

The sports section is doing a good job, using ideas and strong presentation to compensate for a lack of resources, though I thought the front page of the section was brash, with the top-heavy masthead clashing with the headline on the picture.

These are minor quibbles, however, and it's harsh to make definitive judgements on a first issue. This isn't my Observer, let alone David Astor's or JL Garvin's (though I was keen in the 1980s to make all the sections tabloid inside a broadsheet news section, but was defeated by the cost of converting the presses). For me, the most important fact is that The Observer has succeeded in finding its own style, different enough from The Guardian, even while sharing the same wardrobe.

Donald Trelford was the editor of The Observer from 1975-1993