Stephen Glover on The Press

Punters plump for bold 'Observer' as timid 'Guardian' feels the chill
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Roger Alton, editor of the Observer, the Guardian's sister title, may have asked himself what justice there was in the world. For despite having some misgivings, he was obliged to adopt the Berliner format for his newspaper after the Guardian had plumped for the revolutionary new form. And so he knuckled down, and gave it his best shot. In the view of some, Alton and his team have done a better job than the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, and his crew. And yet here was a bunch of judges declaring that the new Guardian is "brilliant. Simply brilliant".

If circulation is any kind of guide, the Berliner Observer may in fact be more successful than its daily sister. The Guardian was relaunched last September and, after an initial surge, its sales have been gradually subsiding. Unofficial figures suggest that during the week ending 19 February it sold a daily average of 371,000 copies. In February 2005 the average daily sale was 367,000. In other words, after spending some £80m on new printing presses, and a further whack on promotion, the Guardian has barely advanced from where it was this time last year. This does not sound to me like a runaway success.

As for the Observer, its circulation may not yet have bottomed out after its relaunch in early January. During that month it sold an average of 542,000 copies, an increase of more than 20 per cent over January 2005. Inevitably, sales have slipped back since then. On 19 February it sold 484,000 copies - this is an unofficial figure - which was the same as the previous Sunday. In February 2005 it sold an average of 445,000 copies. I would not be surprised if circulation were to dip a little further, but it is possible that the revamped Observer will hang on to the extra sales that have eluded the Guardian. In that case I will owe Mr Alton an apology, having suggested here that a year after its relaunch the Observer would be selling the same number of copies.

Its apparent success may partly be a market thing. The Independent on Sunday, which went tabloid last October, posted a year-on-year increase of 16.89 per cent in January. The Observer, as the second Sunday newspaper to change to a smaller format, is also enjoying rich pickings. Buyers of Sunday quality newspapers appear to like a smaller shape at least as much as do buyers of daily ones. Will this give the broadsheet Sunday Telegraph ideas? There may be a disadvantage in being the third title in a sector to change. One cannot help wondering whether the Guardian might have done better if it had preempted The Independent and Times in switching format.

There are other reasons for the Observer's buoyancy. Despite what was said before its re-launch, the Guardian seems to me essentially the same paper as it used to be. The allegedly right-wing columnist Simon Jenkins does not by himself pull the paper much to the centre, and there are the George Monbiots and Seamas Milnes of this world acting as a counterweight. If anything, the Guardian's rather flat front pages, as well as its generally restrained typography, contrive to make the paper appear more upmarket than it was as a broadsheet. Speaking personally, I am getting used to the new format, as I supposed I would. This is the old Guardian we love or hate.

By contrast, the Berliner Observer seems a different sort of paper from what it was. Mr Alton had already popularised it to some degree, and Sunday newspapers are in any case racier than their daily counterparts, but he has given it an extra twist. The headline font is much meatier than the Guardian's. The use of graphics, pictures and headlines often recalls the Daily Mail. There are many more "spreads" than in the Guardian (as you would expect in a Sunday newspaper) and single stories are given much more prominence.

"Totty" is more in evidence, either above the masthead or in the front-page picture. I do not say any of this in any great spirit of criticism since the Observer is a lively newspaper, and Mr Alton expertly mixes the serious and the superficial. What is clear, though, is that it is a less austere - and also somewhat more right-wing - newspaper than its high-minded daily stablemate, and it has at least half an eye on the Mail on Sunday's market.

Admittedly, the Observer is still losing loads of money, and a slight circulation gain is not going to change that very much. But it is a succès d'estime. The Guardian Media Group has hardly reaped the rewards that it must have hoped for from its expensive new Berliner presses, but it may at least be able to point to the Observer as an unexpected triumph.

Oh my God! Too much TV

I sometimes wonder whether the drastic decline in the circulation of red-top tabloids over the past 25 years may not have something to do with their increasing fascination for television. It is as though they believe that for many of their readers television is the only reality. More even than The Sun, the Daily Mirror has been maniacally obsessed with Chantelle (left), the winner of Celebrity Big Brother. Then last Tuesday the paper ran a picture of the actor Johnny Briggs as he "shuffles aimlessly in his pyjama trousers - in a harrowing scene showing how he is losing his mind to Alzheimer's". No doubt I was being dim, but I had to read the piece carefully before I realised he was playing a part in Coronation Street.

Top brass should suffer too in Northcliffe purge

Everyone agrees that the failed sale of Northcliffe Newspapers by Daily Mail and General Trust is rather embarrassing. Though no one appears to have walked the plank, DMGT's financial advisers may well deserve a kicking. But the embarrassment will soon be forgotten if DMGT succeeds in increasing the profitability of a company it had hoped to sell.

My esteemed colleague Professor Roy Campbell-Greenslade made a wise point in the Daily Telegraph. He said that, however much journalists working for Northcliffe may object to cuts, they would have been worse off had a venture capital company acquired the group. He says they must face up to the fact that some classified advertising is "migrating" to the net. By the way, the widespread use of this word in this context is inappropriate. Migrating birds often come back unless killed by Italian marksmen or felled by bird 'flu. Advertising lost to the net will not return.

Roy is right. But if Northcliffe is going to be a successful low-cost newspaper company, it is no good sacking, say, one in 10 journalists, and hoping everything will be all right. There has to be a complete reappraisal of costs, and management should not escape the cuts.