Media: Forum - Would Observer be missed?

Alasdair Reid asks if advertisers would mourn the loss of the newspaper.

No newspaper has a divine right to existence, especially during the media world's equivalent of a post-Armageddon nuclear winter - but the debate about plans, floated by the Guardian Media Group chief executive, Carolyn McCall, to do away with The Observer (as a full-blown Sunday newspaper, at any rate) has been spookily muted.

True, a letter purporting to come from the chattering classes appeared in a rival title, but its most notable signatories were Rory Bremner and Jenni Murray. Where's Joanna Lumley when you need her most?

And, of course, the real reason for the near silence on this matter has been the fact that its sister title The Guardian, which specialises in this type of cause celebre, has not really been available to throw the appropriate sort of hissy fit. Imagine the fuss there would be if the story was about Rupert Murdoch making a complete and utter Horlicks of The Sunday Times.

But then the terrible truth is, arguably, that The Observer, though loved with a passionate intensity by a small but perfectly formed audience (its paid-for sale is now just under 400,000), lost its status as an iconic, broad-based national institution many moons ago.

In 1993, many commentators rejoiced that the title, then a tired shadow of its former self, had been saved as a distinctive voice by The Guardian - a supposed sister-at-arms. Yet there was also an argument that GMG had bought The Observer as a spoiling action - lacking the bottle to launch a Sunday Guardian, the group merely wanted to deny competitors any possible access to the exposed flank of its Saturday product.

GMG was, the conspiracy theorists said, always minded to do away with The Observer. If so, the company has perhaps been attempting to kill it with kindness. It has invested fulsomely in a title that has consistently won awards for its design and its journalism - and senior management has looked the other way when the paper has pursued un-Guardian-like editorial policies, not least in its support of the war in Iraq.

All ancient history now, though - and publishers can ill-afford to act in a charitable fashion. Even if GMG does manage to sell the title - and, last week, an investment group called Capital Ideas made an offer to buy The Observer for a nominal sum - it's likely it would have a future as an internet brand with a weekly magazine attached.

So, would The Observer's demise be mourned by advertisers? Alison Brolls, the head of marketing planning, global marketing services, at Nokia, says it would leave a hole in many advertisers' schedules - but you can't ignore the fact we're living in unusual times. She adds: "The Observer's biggest issue is sorting out its product to stem further decline, based on a business model it can make work. If it can't find a way of doing that, then (complete) closure may not happen tomorrow - but in extraordinary times, extraordinary things happen."

Absolutely, Paul Thomas, Mindshare's investment director, agrees - but the paper's ability to contribute something unique to a schedule is often underestimated, he argues: "Many advertisers like using the innovative supplements The Observer has created because they deliver a hard-core, engaged audience."

But Alan Brydon, MPG's head of press, is slightly more hard-headed about this. "We live nowadays in a world in which clever, innova- tive and brave advertisers always have different ways of achieving any particular communication objective. No media owner is indispensable, and certainly relatively low-circulating Sunday newspapers aren't," he points out.

Harsh, Ivan Pollard, a partner at Naked Communications, responds. He argues that the paper's demise would come as a shock to the system - and could become a catalyst for further major changes in the newspaper market. He adds: "For some advertisers, it's a unique way of reaching their audience. And, of course, competition in any sector of the marketplace is a good thing."

YES - ALISON BROLLS, head of marketing planning, Nokia

"There are still some straight-forward business reasons why the demise of The Observer would leave a dent in some advertiser schedules. A 400,000 weekly circulation still represents a decent audience."

MAYBE - PAUL THOMAS, investment director, Mindshare

"Anything that narrows your ability to access an audience (however marginally) has to be regretted. And there are many advertisers that have valued The Observer for its innovative products."

NO - ALAN BRYDON, head of press, MPG

"In theory, yes, we would rather it didn't close. In reality, there are more significant things happening across the media industry spectrum that, for a lot of advertisers, create new opportunities for targeting and cost-efficiency."

MAYBE - IVAN POLLARD, partner, Naked Communications

"It's true that the paper's ability to stand as the cornerstone of a communications plan has been eroded in recent years. But, for some advertisers, The Observer has a unique set of associations that can be used to add a little bit of a halo to their brands."

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