MEDIA: PERSPECTIVE; Media buyers can help the Observer given enough time

It is almost three years to the day since the Observer fell into the warm and welcoming arms of the Guardian Media Group. Or so it seemed at the time. The two papers were, we were told, soul mates under the skin, independent and non-aligned in a left-of-centre kind of way. Best of all, given little readership overlap between the two papers, the room for cross-promotion and extra sales was substantial - especially given the Guardian’s proven marketing prowess.

It is almost three years to the day since the Observer fell into the

warm and welcoming arms of the Guardian Media Group. Or so it seemed at

the time. The two papers were, we were told, soul mates under the skin,

independent and non-aligned in a left-of-centre kind of way. Best of

all, given little readership overlap between the two papers, the room

for cross-promotion and extra sales was substantial - especially given

the Guardian’s proven marketing prowess.



If only. Sales have actually declined since the takeover. So where did

it go wrong? With hindsight, the most grievous mistake was probably the

non-appointment of the Guardian’s then deputy, now editor, Alan

Rusbridger, as editor of the Observer. One suspects that Rusbridger’s

appointment now as executive editor of both titles is an admission of

this. Instead, at the time, the new owners put in another stalwart,

Jonathan Fenby. A daily newsman through and through, he had many

admirable qualities. But he didn’t have the lightness of touch and feel

for a good feature that distinguishes Rusbridger from his peers.



This is important, for whatever else Sunday papers are, they are no

longer news driven. Yes, the Observer had some great scoops, notably

breaking the story in late 1993 about the Government’s peace talks with

the IRA, but Fenby’s failure to grasp that the game had moved on meant

that the other parts of the paper - arguably the more important parts

for a Sunday title - were never given the attention they deserved. As a

result, the overall package lacked any sense of fun or vivacity. At the

same time, and in their own ways, both the Independent on Sunday and the

Sunday Telegraph have exhibited exactly these qualities and made the

Observer’s deficiencies all the more plain.



Then, given his track record at Scotland on Sunday, where he produced a

stunning paper on a shoestring, one might have expected Fenby’s

successor, Andrew Jaspan, to perform this trick. Clearly he didn’t, but

the question must be whether the failure was his or that of the system.

Certainly if he made one mistake, it was the decision - although it

cannot have been his alone - to splurge most of the marketing budget on

last year’s relaunch. Relaunches always need time to work the bugs out

of the system, but by the time that had happened those who trialled the

paper had given up and there was nothing left in the piggy bank.



One advantage for GMG is that it has an enormous fund of goodwill to

draw on from media buyers, and despite the Observer’s troubles, they

will support it where they can, even if it is sometimes only because

they need a strong counterbalance to the Sunday Times. What GMG has to

do now is buy the new Observer team as much time as it can before the

goodwill runs out. The question then is whether readers have the same

patience and goodwill.



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