Stephen Glover On The Press

Downsized, down-market - is this the shape of Observers to come?
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The Independent Online

The thing that struck me most about the Observer's relaunch was not so much the paper itself but the way in which its editor, Roger Alton, spoke about it. He told Press Gazette, the journalists' magazine: "For editorial to f*** up now would be entirely my own fault." In an interview with this newspaper a week ago, he used the four-letter word three times, said "c***" twice, and liberally sprinkled his reflections with "s***" and "bull****".

From a cultural and sociological point of view, I am fascinated (and appalled) that the editor of what was until 25 years ago this country's most high-minded newspaper should talk in public as the editor of the News of the World might be expected, but would not dare, to. What has happened? It is not as though Mr Alton was brought up in a trailer park. His father was a distinguished Oxford don. He was privately educated at Clifton College before going up to Exeter College, Oxford. Life has strewn advantages and privileges in his way. The only time I met Mr Alton he struck me as a most delightful, charming and even cultured fellow. And yet the editor of the Observer talks like a yob - in a week in which yobbery has been exercising the Government and the media.

Perhaps you don't agree with me. Possibly you think that these days even the most extreme swear words can be blamelessly uttered in public, and that their frequent use does not impoverish the language. But I am sure that most people would think differently, including many readers of the Observer. Richard Ingrams (who recently left the newspaper) once said that he imagined a typical Observer reader as being a school teacher in Leeds. Why Leeds I am not sure, except that it is quite a long way from London. Such a reader would be a person of rectitude. He or she might have been drawn to the Observer because it had the intellectual confidence and moral compass to chivvy and lecture governments, institutions and companies, and stubbornly believed in the perfectibility of man.

Am I making too much of it? Listening to Mr Alton, and looking at his newspaper, I could not help thinking of J L Garvin, editor of the Observer from 1908 until 1944, who may be said to have invented the modern Sunday newspaper with its discursive columns and reviews. Garvin did not go to Clifton or Oxford. He was born in a terrace house in a poor working-class district of Birkenhead, and educated himself. (He later edited the 1929 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and wrote a three-volume biography of Joseph Chamberlain.) To begin with, Garvin was a radical, but quite soon he became a Tory, though never a dyed-in-the-wool one. Until David Astor succeeded Garvin, the Observer was a staunchly Conservative newspaper, but, Tory or liberal, it was the educated person's Sunday newspaper, a cut or two above the Sunday Times.

Since becoming editor in 1998 Mr Alton has stabilised the Observer's circulation, and produced a highly professional (though still loss-making) newspaper. And yet, although it has spirited columnists such as Nick Cohen, and well-informed ones such as Andrew Rawnsley, one looks in vain to its heart for that old voice of principle and conviction, as well as intellectual distinction. I am not sure that Mr Alton, charming and gifted man though he unquestionably is, believes in very much. Whereas reading the Guardian one can still catch a whiff of its old high-minded liberal beliefs, there are few, if any, traces of Garvin or even Astor in the modern Observer. It has become pretty much like the Sunday Times, though not so fat, bursting with stuff I personally do not want to read.

So I am afraid I cannot get too worked up about the Observer's new Berliner shape. It is obviously technically very competent. As one might expect, it looks considerably more down-market than its sister paper, the Guardian. I wonder whether in circulation terms the change in format will do it any good. The Independent on Sunday (a more serious and principled paper, run on extremely tight resources) has attracted new readers as a result of going tabloid, and the Observer might be expected to make similar gains. But - if I may be allowed to make an anorak-like point - the folded Berliner Observer finds itself at a disadvantage to both (folded) broadsheets and (unfolded) tabloids on the newsstands or in your corner shop. Buyers of Sunday newspapers quite often study the front pages before they buy. In the case of the folded Berliner there is less to study.

Whether he really likes the Berliner shape or not, Mr Alton had no option but to adopt it. The £80m new Berliner presses bought to print the Guardian could not be allowed to lie idle on a Saturday while the Observer continued to be printed on other presses as a broadsheet. The new format appears to have brought little advantage to the Guardian in extra circulation, and my guess is that in a year's time the Observer will be selling roughly the same number of copies as it was before its relaunch - which should give Mr Alton plenty of scope to swear like a trouper, possibly at his colleague Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, who conceived the Berliner operation. In more ways than one, less has changed than you might think.

Price rises will be papers' stairway to heaven

Any lingering doubts that the price war among so-called quality newspapers has run its course should now have been dispelled. Both the Independent and the Guardian have felt confident enough to raise their weekday cover prices - the former from 65 to 70 pence, the latter from 60p to 70p. Having increased its cover price to 65p last November, the Daily Telegraph may feel that it is too soon to follow suit. The Times, which went to 60p in the same month, is also likely to bide its time. Nevertheless, there has been a brisk upward movement in cover prices over the past 12 months. Newspapers plainly feel that there is little danger of the Times re-igniting the price war, and most are anxious to squeeze out some extra revenue, the more so since some titles are experiencing difficulties with advertising revenue.

All this makes the Daily Mail at 40p Monday to Friday look cheap, and it is surely bound to raise its cover price in the near future to 45p or even 50p. It may have been wrong-footed by the decision of Richard Desmond - alone bucking the trend - to cut the cover price of the Daily Express from 40p to 30p. This is estimated to be costing him £500,000 a week or £25m a year. Can he keep it up? Some people suggest that he might be able to if he spends nothing on marketing, but in that case the sales of the Saturday edition of the Daily Express might slip, and so affect its overall ABC figure. I suppose he will wait to see what gains he can make at 30p Monday to Friday.

But the Daily Express, having experienced an alarming decline in sales over the past year, is in a special category of its own. The general trend in cover prices is sharply upward. Since 1993, when Rupert Murdoch slashed the price of the Times, the British have enjoyed the cheapest newspapers in Europe. This era may not last for ever.

scmgox@aol.com

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