Where is The Observer's guardian angel?

Donald Trelford, former editor of the `Observer', argues that the newspaper's circulation problems have been misleadingly reported
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The Independent Online
A FEW months after I left the Observer in 1993, I was called by a former colleague who was beside himself with rage. "You'd better get down here," he fumed. So I drove to the glass palace on Battersea Bridge from which the Observer was being shifted, bit by bit, to the Guardian's more spartan offices in Farringdon Road.

My friend pointed angrily to a builder's skip in which unwanted Observer items had been dumped. These turned out to be files of letters and other archive material and artefacts that were a priceless part of the history of the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world.

Among the dog-eared remains I found a meticulously kept register of advertising, in copperplate handwriting, dating from the 1930s. There were drawings of the paper's post-war staff by Feliks Topolski, a complete set of the Colour Magazine, and letters to the literary editor from reviewers who included some of the century's most famous authors.

I saved them from the skip and took them to Sheffield University to be sorted and catalogued. I then wrote to the Guardian to ask what they wanted done with them. I am still awaiting a reply.

I thought of this episode when I read Professor Peter Cole's article (Media, 9 June) on the fifth anniversary of the Guardian's ownership of my old paper.

One reason the Guardian has failed with the Observer is that it has never understood or respected the paper's history and character in the way its readers did. As a result, the readers have been alienated and bewildered by a succession of radical changes.

When the Guardian high command first addressed the Observer staff, I remember Alan Watkins muttering: "They're like a conquering army. Who do they think they are?"

He had a point (and soon left), for although the Observer had lost sales heavily in the previous few years in a suddenly overcrowded Sunday market, it was still comfortably outselling the Guardian.

I disagreed with very little in Peter Cole's article, but I did object to the circulation graph used to illustrate it.

This was seriously misleading. The starting point on the graph, that of over a million sales in 1980/81, was a freak figure that was achieved only when the Sunday Times was closed by an industrial dispute.

The real circulation figure, before and after our rival's shutdown, was around 760,000. That figure was remarkably steady for most of my editorship. It was 761,000 when I began in 1975 and 764,000 in 1987, 12 years later. Yet the graph, with my face glumly superimposed, suggested that the paper and I careered down a giant slalom of decline.

The Observer's drop in sales and market share began at the end of the 1980s, coinciding with the Sunday Times' move to Wapping, which dramatically cut their production costs and enabled them to launch a stream of new sections with massive promotional fanfare.

A second onslaught came with the launch of the Sunday Correspondent and the Independent on Sunday in 1990, both of which explicitly targeted the Observer's readers (and writers). It was only then that the Sunday Telegraph overtook the Observer. The decline may have been accelerated by negative publicity about Lonrho's ownership.

The circulation fell to 550,000, a higher figure than media pundits had forecast. It never fell below that figure until after I left in 1993. It is now hovering just over 400,000, down 13,000 on a month ago.

Circulation can be a fickle measure of quality. It can be bought by promotional gimmicks and lost by poor distribution. My early years were dogged by industrial stoppages, lousy reproduction and lack of editorial space. In such circumstances, retaining readers can be as much of a triumph as gaining new ones.

It is sometimes forgotten that one of the most successful editors of recent times, Harold Evans at the Sunday Times, quit his editorial chair with a circulation no higher than when he began.

The Guardian's problem was that they had no knowledge or understanding of the Sunday market and an extravagant idea of their ability to master it. They made a false diagnosis and applied the wrong treatment. The paper had not, as the new commercial director told the Guild of Editors, "been in decline for 15 or 20 years".

It was Newspaper of the Year in 1983 and 1993 and its writers won more awards than any other paper in the 1980s. The sales decline was recent and explained by the objective market factors described above.

Peter Cole quotes the the Guardian's Commercial Director as saying: "The Observer is now a better paper." Really? Better than the Observer of Kenneth Tynan, Michael Frayn, Philip Toynbee, Gavin Young, Patrick O'Donovan, Clive James, Julian Barnes, Hugh McIlvanney, to mention only a few of the writers I had the good fortune to publish?

The readers, one-fifth of whom have departed in the past five years, don't seem to agree.

Donald Trelford was editor of the `Observer' 1975-93 and is now Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University