Media Headliner: McCall takes Guardian into uncharted territory

The Guardian's chief executive is all set to boost the paper's fortunes with next week's Berliner relaunch. Jeremy Lee reports.

Even despite the unbearable stuffiness of her airless office, Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Newspapers, appears completely unfazed by the prospect of The Guardian's relaunch in the Berliner format next Monday.

It is the culmination of nearly two years of intense work for McCall and the stakes could not be higher. The Guardian has just recorded its lowest circulation for more than 27 years (358,345 copies) and its parent company is investing £80 million on new printing facilities in a bid to reverse this trend.

So the relaunch is crucial to The Guardian's future as well as being a landmark in UK newspaper publishing history - it is the first time a Continental format, used by titles such as Le Monde, has been adopted by a UK paper.

The previous night, McCall watched as The Guardian's new presses in East London underwent a trial run, printing 100,000 Berliner copies in parallel with the broadsheet to check everything is ready for the big day. Proudly brandishing the finished product, she seems pleased with the result.

There is little doubt the decisions by The Times and The Independent to go tabloid forced McCall to act rather more quickly than originally planned. The Guardian was tied up in a long-standing contract with West Ferry printers until 2008 and McCall had only just begun to consider the possibility of a major redesign when The Independent made its bold move.

McCall says she thought about following The Independent down the tabloid route at that time. "All of the newspapers were looking at their formats," she says. "We dummied a tabloid version but it became palpable that this was going to change the journalism. We wanted to present a hierarchy of news and the Berliner gives us the ability to do this."

However, when The Times followed The Independent's lead in November 2003, McCall realised The Guardian would have to react more quickly to protect its position rather than wait until its existing print contract expired.

"Standing still was not an option," she says.

Undoubtedly, The Guardian's circulation has suffered as a result of The Times' and The Independent's moves. The most recent ABC figures show a slight fall for The Guardian while The Times registered another small rise. The Independent's month-on-month figure fell for the first time in 15 months (to 255,603 copies), showing the difficulty in consistently attracting new readers.

Most press directors think readers of The Independent are the ones most likely to migrate to the new-look Guardian - The Times fishes from a very different pool - but keeping them hooked will be the paper's main challenge.

McCall is unwilling to talk about the sales targets for the relaunched title, but she is confident that it will grow the market as well as entice back some of the readers who defected to The Independent. "We have done research groups and found that we will appeal to new readers, particularly women, who, for some reason, feel uncomfortable handling a broadsheet."

The new sections, which include Family, which runs to eight pages, Work and Money plus a daily sports supplement, should also help to attract male readers who might have previously been put off by The Guardian's "muesli-and-sandals" heritage.

Although The Guardian is embroiled in a legal dispute with West Ferry over the terms of its contract, it is testament to McCall that it has taken such a relatively short time to convince the board to release the investment, install the new printers and get them working.

She says there is a 15-year plan to recoup this investment, although an increase in advertising rates is not part of this plan.

McCall is something of an advertising expert, having been The Guardian's ad director. She has gained plaudits for the way she and her advertising department, led by the paper's commercial director, Stuart Taylor, have engaged agencies, both media and creative, throughout the redesign process.

While some squabbles are inevitable, McCall and Taylor have been careful to put together a ratecard based on the proportionality of a page and its impact to avoid the sort of uproar that erupted when The Times and The Independent tried to impose new rates on the ad community. Instead, McCall is certain that operational efficiencies and cover-price rises among quality titles will contribute to an increase in the newspaper's profits.

McCall describes the Berliner Guardian as a newspaper that "pulls off convenience without any compromise". The agency community is impressed by the developments - for years the newspaper market lacked any real innovation and then, within the space of a couple years, change is all the rage.

The Berliner Guardian is emulating and even exceeding the excitement generated by The Independent's relaunch. There will be colour on every page and its dynamic new design is in line with the paper's innovative reputation.

With the presses ready to roll on Monday, McCall is already working on her next major project - moving the paper from Farringdon to a new office up the road in King's Cross. Although hopes are high for the new-look Guardian, if things get heated at least the new building will be air-conditioned.

THE LOWDOWN Age: 43 Lives: Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire Family: Husband Peter and children Dan, Max and Emmy Favourite ad: Apple's 1984 launch campaign, "think different", and The Guardian's "points of view" Describe yourself in three words: Very, very busy Greatest extravagance: Holidays Person, living or dead, that you most admire: Nelson Mandela Alternative career: Writer Last book read: The Insider by Piers Morgan