NEWSMAKER/ROGER ALTON: Guardian’s everyman lends stability to Observer - Falling sales and factions have yet to deter the new editor, Anna Griffiths says

The Observer has had more facelifts than Zsa Zsa Gabor and the bride of Wilderstein put together. Perhaps some would flinch at being in an editor’s hot seat which has had rather too many occupants. But the latest hand at the helm is a man who has been an institution at the Guardian, with a 24-year stint at the newspaper. Insiders call him a ’good, old-fashioned journalist’ and believe he can reinstate confidence, status and order to the venerable 208-year-old brand which has recently witnessed turbulent times.

The Observer has had more facelifts than Zsa Zsa Gabor and the

bride of Wilderstein put together. Perhaps some would flinch at being in

an editor’s hot seat which has had rather too many occupants. But the

latest hand at the helm is a man who has been an institution at the

Guardian, with a 24-year stint at the newspaper. Insiders call him a

’good, old-fashioned journalist’ and believe he can reinstate

confidence, status and order to the venerable 208-year-old brand which

has recently witnessed turbulent times.



Roger Alton, who is 50, is the newspaper’s fourth editor since it was

bought by the Scott Trust five years ago from Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho. He

takes over from Will Hutton, who last week decided to take on the more

cerebral role of editor-in-chief in order to concentrate on ’several

book projects’ and, no doubt, to maintain his high profile in the media.

Jocelyn Targett, the Observer’s deputy editor, abruptly left the

newspaper amid a swirl of rumour that he had clashed with the

newspaper’s management over the future direction of the newspaper.



Until last week, Alton was features editor of the Guardian, responsible

for the development of the paper’s popular features tabloid, G2. During

his lengthy tenure on the Observer’s sister title his posts have ranged

from chief news sub and sports editor to arts editor and editor of the

Weekend Guardian.



After just two days as editor and in the twitchy presence of the

Observer’s head of PR, Alton is understandably cautious about revealing

his plans.



But under the slightly eccentric exterior you suspect that there is a

wily character who has already fashioned some strong ideas about the

newspaper’s future. This is a man, after all, who puts two sleepless

nights down to the excitement and stress of the new job.



As he clambers over his chair and his powerful frame paces around the

room, he explains: ’With all the jobs I’ve ever done I have had

unbelievable anxiety, fear and I’m sick with nerves at first. I love

climbing and go whenever I can, and it’s a bit like starting on a

difficult climb, just starting up the mountain when you wonder what

you’re doing, but you can’t go back down.’ He strides back to his chair,

cocks his sun-weathered head on one side and asks: ’Am I making any

sense at all?’



Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, is confident that Alton can

steer the newspaper to calmer waters. ’He’s done virtually every job on

the newspaper and therefore is an all-round journalist. If he can’t do

it, nobody can because as well as these technical skills you have a

great player for the story of the moment, plus everyone loves him. He’s

got a wonderful winning way, he appears to be slightly scatty and

appealing for help, but actually he knows exactly what he’s doing.’



Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent and a close friend of Alton’s,

believes he will reinstate the Observer’s traditional strengths. ’He’s a

great journalistic technician, and understands the traditions of the

Observer and respects those traditions. In its most recent guise it

hasn’t responded to its traditional reader base, treating them with

something bordering on contempt which is reflected in the circulation.

Roger has got a great popular touch as well as the breadth of vision and

depth.’



Alton admits that he is puzzled as to why the Observer has found it so

difficult to pull itself up. ’It has outstanding arts, politics and

international coverage. It’s an amazingly good title, but for some

bizarre reason, which I find baffling, it can’t make an impact on the

market a bit more.’



While the Sunday newspaper market in general is desperately trying to

overcome the onslaught of the Saturday newspapers, the Observer also

needs to re-establish its brand and turbo-boost its circulation. It is

teetering dangerously close to the 400,000 mark (the ABC audit for June

was 403,000), a far cry from a high of 900,000 in 1979. Alton concedes:

’Clearly there are parts of the newspaper which don’t quite work. I want

to make people feel comfortable as well as make them excited, interested

and entertained.



I’d like my mum to feel comfortable with it as well as the groovy girl

clutching her Guardian.’ The irony is that Alton, through his previous

incarnation as features editor of the Guardian and his work on the

Saturday paper, has helped to contribute towards the gradual erosion of

the Observer.



With 35 per cent of Guardian readers taking the Observer, there should

be plenty of scope for conversion.



While Alton tackles the problem of where its future lies, he will also

face the delicate task of bringing together the disparate factions

within the newspaper - the result of too many editors in too little

time. Kelner quips: ’He’s moving into the former Yugoslavia. It will be

very difficult for him to bring the Serbs and Croats together.’ But

Kelner points out that Alton is ’a great collaborator’, while insiders

at the Guardian Media Group believe his charismatic presence will help

’bond people from various different groupings’.



Alton is politely dismissive about the existence of editorial tension.

’I haven’t noticed any factions. Perhaps I’m too stupid to have noticed!

On a daily newspaper you can’t be arsed to be involved with intrigue

because you are too busy.’ He must, however, be aware of the resentment

that exists on the Guardian towards the Observer. As one industry source

points out: ’The Observer is wiping out all of the profit on the

Guardian.’ Alton refuses to be distracted from his clear and simple

target. ’I want to see a plus sign on the ABCs and a negative sign on

the losses.’



It is unlikely that he will allow the Observer to become a publication

which shuns news. ’There’s always the argument used that you have to

give much more of the newspaper over to features to give it the USP of a

Sunday newspaper,’ he acknowledges. ’Partially, that is probably true,

but you do want news. You can’t move away from news, or you may as well

call the newspaper Frank, Red or GQ. If you want to cling on to being a

newspaper you still have to retain the basic pattern of news.’



He adds that all the research he has seen shows that people buy

newspapers for good stories. He promises that there will not be another

revamp. ’Everything should be organic in terms of the people and the

product.’



Alton and Kelner are frequently seen drinking together late into the

night at the Groucho, and will no doubt have argued over who has taken

on the more difficult role. Kelner maintains that Alton faces the

toughest challenge: ’It’s harder to turn around a Sunday newspaper than

a daily, because the pace of change is slower on a weekly newspaper.

It’s not to say the problems are worse on the Observer than the

Independent. What we can do in one month will take the Observer seven

months.’



Alton is all too aware of the gargantuan presence of the Sunday Times,

which in July sold just over 1.2 million copies, outselling its nearest

rival by just under half a million. ’The Sunday Times sits at the

quality end, straddling the whole thing like something ghastly out of

Independence Day.’



But the Observer’s critics say it has become too turgid, lacking the

balance between news and gloss which the Sunday Times has managed to

capture.



Mandy Pooler, chief executive of MindShare UK, says: ’People like the

Sunday Times’s Style section which rips out that audience very

clearly.



If I don’t read Style I feel deprived. The Observer is so damn serious

it won’t give me any gossip.’



Yet no-one denies the newspaper has a valuable core of loyal readers

and, in the Blairite 90s, it still possesses an enviable reputation - to

Pooler, the brand represents ’a liberal free-thinking Sunday’. It is an

accolade which should not be sniffed at, but in order to win back

readers and move towards the 500,000 mark, Alton needs to inject

dynamism, humour and hard-core news into the Sunday broadsheet. If he

doesn’t, Pooler warns,’He is the last man in the last chance saloon.’



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