Media: Spotlight On: The Guardian - Rusbridger’s first five years add value to Guardian brand/The paper has dealt with the transition to Blairism well, Alasdair Reid writes

There’s no better time to become the editor of a liberal-left newspaper than when there’s an unpopular right-wing government in power. Alan Rusbridger, who replaced Peter Preston as the editor of The Guardian on 12 February 1995, could hardly have failed, now could he? Sure enough, The Guardian was almost single-handedly responsible for a series of revelations that added the word sleaze to our everyday vocabulary and succeeded in turning the unpopular into the unelectable.

There’s no better time to become the editor of a liberal-left

newspaper than when there’s an unpopular right-wing government in power.

Alan Rusbridger, who replaced Peter Preston as the editor of The

Guardian on 12 February 1995, could hardly have failed, now could he?

Sure enough, The Guardian was almost single-handedly responsible for a

series of revelations that added the word sleaze to our everyday

vocabulary and succeeded in turning the unpopular into the

unelectable.



Though, you could argue that the most difficult time to edit a

liberal-left newspaper is when there’s a (notionally) liberal-left

government in power. Rusbridger may have been at the helm for five

years, but his real strengths as an editor are perhaps only just being

recognised.



Where its critical faculties are concerned, little appears to have

changed since the election - The Guardian is still, to use Rusbridger’s

phrase, ’a radical irritant to the Government’, and its equity as a

product and as a brand has never been higher. Perhaps most tellingly,

you hardly ever hear people sneering about ’Guardian readers’ (ie

whingeing lefties, from bolshie teachers to sandal-wearing social

workers) any more.



Rusbridger is obviously pleased that good old-fashioned scoops have been

such a strong facet of the paper under his stewardship but he points out

that this isn’t the whole story: ’The G2 section has expanded and we

have launched Space and The Editor. So features have been terribly

important too. Of course, it was liberating to be an oppositional paper

to a government as bad as the one in power in 1995.



’Peter Preston struggled with resources and the paper he edited occupied

something of a niche. I believed that things like news and sport needed

building up so that the reader was getting more of an all-round service

from the paper. What we tried to do was to become more mainstream. I

don’t mean that in a political way. I suppose I am talking about a

growing-up process. We recognise that you can be interested in Third

World debt and also be interested in fashion. No-one lives in pigeon

holes.’



But what does the advertising industry think? It’s never going to please

everyone, obviously. And there are those who look at the numbers first

and ask questions later. The Guardian’s December ABC figure was 386,767.

The whole market is suffering these days but The Guardian used to pride

itself on staying around the 400,000 mark.



Does that matter?



Tim Kirkman, the press buying director of Carat, states: ’My impression

is that Rusbridger has definitely stabilised the brand. Before he took

the top job there was a degree of uncertainty around. From our point of

view, the paper is an immensely strong brand, but it’s a slightly niche

product. For many advertisers the numbers do become an important

consideration - some retailers, for instance, can take it or leave it.

For others, like dotcom advertisers, it’s absolutely ideal. While it can

still offer the right sort of environment and audience for that sort of

advertiser, I don’t think circulation will be an issue.’



Graham Bednash agrees with that branding point - and takes it further:

’The Guardian is not just one of the most important print brands, it’s

one of the most powerful overall media brands in this country. Talking

about the number of readers it has is missing the point. It has always

been good at locking in readers and directing them to the different

parts of the paper and now it is one of the most innovative media owners

in its approach to the digital world.’



Rusbridger agrees that this is the way things are going: ’No-one knows

exactly what the important platforms will be in five years’ time. We

already produce five different versions of the paper each night,

including the online paper and an A3 version by e-mail. Nearly all of

the possibilities are optimistic and we believe we are well placed. The

next big push will be a quantum leap.’



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