The Observer: Weekly drama

The world's oldest Sunday paper was saved 10 years ago by The Guardian. But it was a traumatic start, says Donald Trelford
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The Independent Online

When Lord Goodman, as chairman of The Observer Trust, offered me the editorship of the paper in 1975, he added cautiously: "Before you answer, I think I should tell you that there may be no Observer for you to edit in six months' time."

When Lord Goodman, as chairman of The Observer Trust, offered me the editorship of the paper in 1975, he added cautiously: "Before you answer, I think I should tell you that there may be no Observer for you to edit in six months' time."

I was reminded of that conversation, 28 years later, at a party last week at the Saatchi Gallery to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Guardian's acquisition of my old paper. Survival was still in the air: "There were several times in the past 10 years when I didn't think we'd make it," an old colleague muttered into his glass of kir royale.

Such intimations of mortality about the world's oldest Sunday paper, founded in 1791, may seem surprising in light of the professional accolades it has collected in recent years. It was much the same in my time. Even though our journalists won more awards than any other paper throughout the Eighties, we were always perceived by the media as a basket case.

That could be seen as a backhanded compliment in a way - a recognition that The Observer has always been motivated by higher considerations than mere commerce, as it had shown famously twice in 1956, at the very moment it was poised to overtake The Sunday Times - once over the Suez crisis, when it nearly destroyed itself by espousing a deeply unpopular cause (albeit one subsequently shown to be right); then by throwing out all the news pages to publish the full text of Khrushchev's historic denunciation of Stalin.

That was David Astor's golden age and it is the fate of every Observer editor since then to be judged, and inevitably found wanting, against that ideal. The fact is that, in the Alice in Wonderland world that newspapers inhabit, profits, rising sales and prestige do not always march together. Indeed, in three of the years in which The Observer has won the Newspaper of the Year Award - in 1983 under me, in 1993 under Jonathan Fenby and in 2000 under Roger Alton - its sales were crashing and its losses mounting ever higher.

Ten years ago, when The Guardian moved in, as Alan Watkins put it, "like a conquering army", The Observer was generally perceived as an editorial failure. It is now hailed as a success. In my time, however, the circulation never went under the magic figure of 500,000, while in August 1999 it fell to 381,000, which must have seriously tested The Guardian's resolve (it is now back to around 450,000). And the paper's trading losses must now be twice as high as when it was taken over.

The Guardian's stewardship of The Observer is not a story of unbroken success. The takeover was badly managed, forcing some star writers, such as Hugh McIlvanney and Watkins, to move swiftly elsewhere and leaving the remainder of the staff deeply demoralised.

The management's analysis struck me as faulty. While the newspaper's circulation had, admittedly, fallen sharply since 1990, that was largely because of two newcomers to the market - the short-lived Sunday Correspondent and The Independent on Sunday, both aimed directly at The Observer's heartland - and the massive investment in new sections in The Sunday Times after the Wapping revolution. The Observer's journalists needed a boost to their confidence, not to be treated as wastrels and failures.

The Guardian's lack of respect for The Observer at this time was symbolised for me by the curious incident of the skip. I was summoned to the paper one day by an old friend, who told me The Observer's files were being junked. These included letters to and from various literary editors by distinguished figures like Bertrand Russell and HG Wells, which were being thrown, literally, into a skip, along with the paper's commercial records. I arranged for the documents to be shipped to Sheffield University. Ironically, the papers I saved have since been sold back to The Guardian for a small fortune.

Fenby, a highly regarded foreign affairs specialist with a good deal of desk experience, was essentially a news man - and indeed won an early award with a scoop on Northern Ireland - whereas Sunday papers require a features approach. I favoured Alan Rusbridger, who had worked for me on The Observer. He became editor of The Guardian two years later.

The Guardian-isation of The Observer was an option at this time - sharing resources in foreign news, sport and specialist reporting, while maintaining some distinctive Observer voices. Having been deputy editor of The Guardian for five years, Fenby was well placed to oversee this process. But he had also been in at the birth of The Independent and turned instead to his former colleagues for support, possibly as a way of distancing the paper from The Guardian's influence. The effect was to create a three-way set of tensions, as Guardian journalists, Independent journalists and the surviving Observer journalists eyed each other warily, while The Guardian's management looked on balefully at the cost of it all.

Fenby was replaced in 1995 by Andrew Jaspan, the editor of The Scotsman - who was chosen, I suspect, because he was seen as a tough Andrew Neil-figure who could bring order to the newsroom floor.

Jaspan was caught in a hard place, between journalists who didn't respect him and a management that failed, in his view, to give him the backing he needed. He asked me once for lunch. When he started jotting down my suggestions, I couldn't help thinking: "I had 18 years to put my ideas into The Observer - if this man needs me, he must be desperate."

After a year, he was replaced by Will Hutton, the economics columnist, whose books had become bestsellers. I asked Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor, if Hutton was really an editor in the sense that he and I understood the job. His silence made me think that Hutton's appointment was a holding operation while The Guardian made a serious policy decision about The Observer's future - if any.

In 1998, Alton became the paper's fourth editor in five years - compare that with the three editors, J L Garvin, Astor and me, who between us had covered 87 years of the 20th century. Alton has proved an excellent choice, energetic and bounding with ideas. He had worked on The Observer before and, unlike his predecessors, understood its personality. I had tried to recruit him twice from The Guardian, once as sports editor and once to run the colour magazine.

The Guardian management, having made strategic errors early on, made amends with a major policy decision to add value for readers and relaunch The Observer as a more competitive product. The thinking seemed to be: if we have to lose money on the paper, let's at least have one we can be proud of.

The introduction of high quality (and high cost) monthly supplements on sport (2000), food (2001) and music (2003) have revived the circulation. The Guardian has also built an archive building in which, I'm glad to say, The Observer's history is accorded as much respect as that of the daily paper.

Finally, after 212 years, The Observer is in the care of a sympathetic media group, not a mad proprietor (Northcliffe, who owned it 100 years ago), an American oil company or an eccentric business tycoon with his own agenda. For that, at least, the ghost of David Astor must be glad. Would he like, admire or even recognise the present Observer? I think he might, though the question is irrelevant. The paper is there to cater for the interests and needs of a new generation of 21st-century readers - and is making a pretty good stab at it.

Donald Trelford was editor of 'The Observer', 1975-93. He is now visiting professor in journalism studies at Sheffield University and Chairman of the London Press Club and the British Press Awards

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