MEDIA: FORUM; Does another relaunch really help the Observer?

The Observer had yet another facelift on Sunday. Is this the last throw of the dice? Does it face an uphill struggle no matter how good the editorial tweaking? Guardian staffers know a thing or two about turning a dull but worthy title into a winning product. Alasdair Reid asks why it has yet to succeed in the Sunday market

The Observer had yet another facelift on Sunday. Is this the last throw

of the dice? Does it face an uphill struggle no matter how good the

editorial tweaking? Guardian staffers know a thing or two about turning

a dull but worthy title into a winning product. Alasdair Reid asks why

it has yet to succeed in the Sunday market

When the Scott Trust acquired the Observer three years ago, there was an

almost palpable sense of relief in many quarters. This was the ideal

solution, the perfect fit. The Observer had been all but brought to its

knees by Lonrho - it lost all credibility when it was used as a personal

mouthpiece by Tiny Rowlands in his feud with the Al Fayed brothers - and

needed tender loving care.

Where better than at the Guardian stable? The politics were right for a

start. And Guardian staffers were making all the right noises. Marketing

and sales would be merged, but the Observer would be edited

independently and would retain its separate character.

And no-one doubted that it would benefit from the Guardian’s marketing

and product-development expertise. After all, the Guardian had turned

itself from a worthy-but-dull house journal for the muesli-eating,

sandal-wearing brigade into the sexiest paper on the newsstands. Doing

the same for the Observer would surely be a piece of cake - and, indeed,

when the first revamp appeared, there was no disguising a sense of smug

satisfaction among senior staffers at Farringdon Road.

It didn’t work. Nor did the second revamp. Editors have come and gone

but the Observer’s circulation has drifted down to the extremely

unsatisfactory 450,000 mark - that’s a loss of 50,000 since purchase.

Last Sunday was the third attempt at a relaunch and the title is gearing

up for yet another marketing push this autumn, including a new

advertising campaign through St Luke’s.

Is this latest package likely to succeed? The title’s Preview supplement

- its version of the Guardian’s Saturday offering, the Guide - is to be

dropped and editorial commitment to features, sport and mainstream news

will be increased. This last point is perhaps the most confusing.

Isn’t the Guardian revamp technique all about features? And anyway,

isn’t that what the Sunday market is all about? The Observer’s problems

in recent years have been caused by news-obsessed editors. Surely we

want less news on a Sunday?

‘I don’t think that’s true,’ Stephen Palmer, the marketing director of

the Guardian and the Observer, states. ‘A Sunday newspaper has to have

many facets, each of which must fulfil the demands of its readers. Our

key signings in terms of personnel are on the features side, including a

new editor for Life [the paper’s review supplement]. We continue to take

a rounded view of the product and this is another step in moving the

Observer in the right direction.’

Is this the paper’s last chance? If this fails, will the Observer be

folded into a newly created Guardian on Sunday? ‘I don’t have a crystal

ball,’ Palmer admits, ‘but we are very clear about the fact that we have

two distinct brands and two distinct groups of readers making their

choice of daily and Sunday newspapers. Certainly, lessons have been

learned. One of the biggest is that there is far more inertia in the

Sunday market than there is in dailies. When you tot up the number of

issues we’ve published of the Observer it is the equivalent of only six

months of issues in the daily market. We are still learning and we will

continue to learn.’

Dominic Owens, the marketing services manager of Mercury Communications

and the press spokesman for the Incorporated Society of British

Advertisers, hopes it works. He points out that advertisers are very

keen to see a viable alternative to the Sunday Times. ‘Any monopoly is a

bad idea and these days the Sunday Times is a virtual monopoly,’ he

says. ‘Yet, when you use it, it has so many sections that you’re not

even sure your ad will get seen.’

But he believes that the Observer faces an uphill struggle: ‘People may

point to the Times as an exception, but I really believe that it is

almost impossible to change the readership and style of a newspaper over

a short period of time. Newspapers are brands built up over very long

periods of time.

‘The Guardian has evolved successfully, but the Observer is a very

different proposition. My feeling is that it already has too much of a

weekday feel about it - it’s not relaxed enough.’

Colin Gottlieb, a managing partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, admits he

is surprised that Guardian expertise has failed to turn the Observer

around. He thinks there was more than a touch of complacency about the

attitude of those involved. ‘The two titles reach the same audience

geographically, demographically and politically - they thought they’d

just sprinkle some magic Guardian dust on it and everything would be


‘I think that the big mistake was in choice of editors and the main

thing is that it has the right man now. Will Hutton is awesomely good.

Now he has to get out there and be evangelical about the paper. If the

brand is good and he’s promoting the paper through his presence on other

media, then people will start to get the message. That’s what the paper

really needs - people talking about it. It does have to have a buzz

about it, it has to be provocative and stimulate debate. If a Labour

government gets in next time around, that will help. Hutton is the last

chance for the Observer. If this fails, I really believe that they will

have to relaunch it completely - as the Guardian on Sunday this time.’

Senior Guardian and Observer staffers have always said that this was not

an option. Could they change their minds?

Bill Kinlay, the media director of the Network, thinks they should:

‘They can’t resist any longer. The Observer doesn’t stand for anything

any more. It had such a miserable history before the Guardian bought it

that anyone would struggle to put it right. These days, all of its

rivals have a better positioning. I don’t have a picture in my mind’s

eye of what an Observer reader is any more. Making it Sunday’s edition

of the Guardian would lock in all the Guardian’s weekday readers and

allow it to move forward from there.

‘But whether Labour gets in is neither here nor there. The political

allegiance of a newspaper is nowhere near as important as it once was.’