It is almost three years to the day since the Observer fell into the
warm and welcoming arms of the Guardian Media Group. Or so it seemed at
the time. The two papers were, we were told, soul mates under the skin,
independent and non-aligned in a left-of-centre kind of way. Best of
all, given little readership overlap between the two papers, the room
for cross-promotion and extra sales was substantial - especially given
the Guardian’s proven marketing prowess.
If only. Sales have actually declined since the takeover. So where did
it go wrong? With hindsight, the most grievous mistake was probably the
non-appointment of the Guardian’s then deputy, now editor, Alan
Rusbridger, as editor of the Observer. One suspects that Rusbridger’s
appointment now as executive editor of both titles is an admission of
this. Instead, at the time, the new owners put in another stalwart,
Jonathan Fenby. A daily newsman through and through, he had many
admirable qualities. But he didn’t have the lightness of touch and feel
for a good feature that distinguishes Rusbridger from his peers.
This is important, for whatever else Sunday papers are, they are no
longer news driven. Yes, the Observer had some great scoops, notably
breaking the story in late 1993 about the Government’s peace talks with
the IRA, but Fenby’s failure to grasp that the game had moved on meant
that the other parts of the paper - arguably the more important parts
for a Sunday title - were never given the attention they deserved. As a
result, the overall package lacked any sense of fun or vivacity. At the
same time, and in their own ways, both the Independent on Sunday and the
Sunday Telegraph have exhibited exactly these qualities and made the
Observer’s deficiencies all the more plain.
Then, given his track record at Scotland on Sunday, where he produced a
stunning paper on a shoestring, one might have expected Fenby’s
successor, Andrew Jaspan, to perform this trick. Clearly he didn’t, but
the question must be whether the failure was his or that of the system.
Certainly if he made one mistake, it was the decision - although it
cannot have been his alone - to splurge most of the marketing budget on
last year’s relaunch. Relaunches always need time to work the bugs out
of the system, but by the time that had happened those who trialled the
paper had given up and there was nothing left in the piggy bank.
One advantage for GMG is that it has an enormous fund of goodwill to
draw on from media buyers, and despite the Observer’s troubles, they
will support it where they can, even if it is sometimes only because
they need a strong counterbalance to the Sunday Times. What GMG has to
do now is buy the new Observer team as much time as it can before the
goodwill runs out. The question then is whether readers have the same
patience and goodwill.