It is a kind of irony that the campaign to save the Observer has taken off on Twitter. It’s the first time that the venerable Sunday newspaper has had any online impact.
The plans to close the title discussed at the Guardian Media Group’s lovely new modern HQ in Kings Cross have caused a storm in liberal media-land way beyond the real importance of this institution. Newsnight, for example, devoted a major film and a two person discussion to the threat of closure, alone. I bet they wouldn’t do that for the actual demise of, say, The Express or Sunday People (or ITV). Arguably, The Observer is neither a major commercial nor journalistic enterprise.
Much of the outcry has focussed on the fact that The Observer is very old and quite liberal, rather than what it offers editorially and as part of GMG. It feels a bit like those campaigns to keep open a stately home that no-one visits anymore.
I think there is a case for closure – or at the very least, to merge it into the Guardian as a 7-day operation.
The Observer suffers from the same problem facing all Sundays. What does it do that the Saturdays don’t? Nothing. The Guardian Review is much better than Observer Arts, for example. How does it add value?
The monthly magazines are glossy but they are packed with the same lifestyle and human interest that fills the newspaper itself. I have no problem with that if it sells, but please don’t pretend it is somehow an ‘important’ journalistic institution.
Pret a Porter
Just because Henry Porter is allowed to rant every week does not make it a campaigning newspaper. Give him a blog. I read Andrew Rawnsley avidly, but increasingly online. Interestingly, he seems to devote far more time to his online activities at Politicshome. It is months since The Observer had a front page story or investigation that really stood out.
This is not entirely its fault. The Sundays used to stand out as more thoughtful, more critical and punchier. But now everyone is doing it they have lost any added value.
The Sunday Times has countered this by becoming an omnibus and upped its price to pay for it. I think that meant the only option for the Observer was to head upmarket and become a kind of LRB meets Huffington Post. Instead it went for the over-crowded consumerist market.
Leftists like Nick Davies and at places like Liberal Conspiracy bemoan its Blairite values. They may have a point. Perhaps it would stand out more if it was at least as lefty as the Guardian. But that’s an argument for merger, not preservation of the title.
And I don’t think it adds greatly to media plurality. A tepid and hollow liberal newspaper does not really contribute a vast amount to public discourse. Increasingly, we look to the Internet for diversity and the Observer simply does not have an online presence.
Now this all sounds rather hostile or callous. Far from it. Today I saw two TV news programmes shut down that I had helped launch. A few hundred thousand people every day have been denied a little bit of broadcast diversity. It is sad to see any journalistic entity pass over to that newsroom in the sky.
But we are in a period of unprecedented media change. The extraordinary fact is that – so far – no major newspaper has closed. Plenty have shut in the past and new journalistic platforms have opened up.
GMG is facing what one of its senior editors described as ‘carnage’ in a speech to Polis. A few cynics see some kind of Scott Trust plot and Grauniad office politics in the threat to The Observer. There may be some truth in that. But the overwhelming fact here is that all newspaper groups are having to reinvent their businesses and that means pruning as well as planting seeds.
The Observer falling sales are not any worse than the Guardian’s – I don’t have the figures on it’s ad revenue or budget. So I can’t judge if what GMG is considering is wise in accounting terms.
But I do know that those campaigning to ‘save’ The Observer would be better off thinking of new ways of reinventing the tradition of independent, liberal, intelligent journalism. They will have to accept that some treasured (but neglected) editorial edifices are going to crumble when the bedrock is shaken.
The task for GMG and the rest of us is not just to keep particular titles or programmes going. The real task if to find fresh finance and new ways to connect. That is not about preserving all our fortresses, it is about opening up new networks.
That may sound naive, but I think I am being utterly realistic. I don’t particularly wish to see The Observer off the newstands. It may well not disappear. But I believe it is particularly vulnerable and we are doing journalism a disservice by not thinking through what might come after.
two important issues – one you covered – the internet is a vital source of plurality now. yet the 1950’s style DCMS consultation on regional news only mentions it once or twice in passing – which flabbergast me.
the second is what becomes of the old brands after the publication has shut up shop? For The Observer it would be interesting to see if the Scott Trust could see the brand being run online by a sort of co-op to use it to convene news. Either as a framework site convening from say the HP and other left leaning sites or as a meta tag out there in delicious. Would only take one FTE to run and a volunteer corps of Toynbee-ites.
I use ‘convene’ rather than ‘curate’ – the latter has airs of spending hours faffing with labels, positioning in display cases and general job creation, rather than the more rough and ready world of the web where you pile it up and let people rummage. Old media folk use the word ‘curate’ a fair bit as they try to cling to roles.
I don’t think it’s done itself any favours with its hideous, vacuous ‘Woman’ magazine, which is only one step up from The Mail’s Femail (all the other Observer monthly supplements are really good however) but other than that I would say it’s still a distinctive voice in much the same way the Guardian is during the week. If it does go I hope it will be replaced by a ‘Sunday Guardian’ or similar.
And if it does go you can bet some other Sunday’s will follow. The Sunday newspaper strikes me as the one there is the greatest rationale for buying in hard copy: you’re likely to be at home; you’re likely to have the time to read a fair bit of it; you can read it during the following week as there is more general content and less ‘hard’ news that will be out of date. So if that’s not happening for the Observer, I suspect they’re not alone.
I don’t know how much I agree to what extent that much of the outcry is based on the facts that the Observer is ‘very old and quite liberal’.
I do know that recently when I could get hold of only a Sunday Times, I gave up reading it after finding that over the first three or four (or maybe I even lasted ’till five) pages, every headline and every article, no matter what the topic, seemed to carry a single-minded right wing undertow.
It was all written in a way as to try to sublimate the political bias; but it was so coarsely edited that the bias was recurrently evident throughout.For all the world it reminded me of the debased and facile nonsense that is the Fox TV so-called news channel.
The real issue here is that this type of quality-lite paper trash is probably where the UK printed media is heading – as evidenced by the peril that seems to be encircling the Observer.
as a media expert of your eminence will know, charlie, all the content of the observer features on guardian.co.uk, the leading newspaper website in this country. I guess that counts as online presence. Even by Polis’s standards.
Thanks for commenting.
Yes, it has online presence (as part of Guardian web operation which supports the point about going 7 day) but no separate ‘impact’, which is what I said. Apart from referencing Observer paper articles I can’t think of any reason why someone would go to the Observer section.
Follow up response from Tim via email:
Hi Charlie I appreciate that – but your article made it sound as if the Observer had attempted to have an individual online impact and that had failed. It has never been projected in that way. Those of us who work at the Observer have always felt we are making an equal contribution to guardian.co.uk, which has always been presented internally at least as a digital amalgam of the two papers, rather than a Guardian fiefdom. best Tim