Matter of pressing concern

The news that Peter Preston is vacating the editor’s chair at The Guardian puts it, and sister Sunday The Observer, firmly in the spotlight.

SBHD: The news that Peter Preston is vacating the editor’s chair at The Guardian puts it, and sister Sunday The Observer, firmly in the spotlight.

When Peter Preston came under fire last year for engineering what he called a “cod fax”, during The Guardian’s expos of Tories who stay at the Ritz, various BBC producers asked me excitedly if he was going to be sacked.

I had to explain that Preston was not only the paper’s editor, but the chairman of Guardian Newspapers and a member of the Scott Trust, which appoints Guardian editors. I thought it unlikely he was about to sack himself. It is true there are other chairmen above him – the parent company, the Guardian Media Group, is headed by Harry Roche, while the Trust is chaired by Hugo Young, whom Preston appointed as a Guardian columnist – but neither of these would be expected to act against Fleet Street’s longest-serving editor.

After 20 very successful years, Preston has made himself well nigh invulnerable at The Guardian. Even a second embarrassment – the Richard Gott Affair, in which one of the paper’s most senior journalists was unmasked as having “taken Russian gold” in the form of free trips and expenses – failed to damage him.

Preston established his position by ensuring the paper was successful commercially and editorially, its coffers bolstered by a huge volume of classified advertising. A measure of that success is that The Guardian has emerged from the broadsheet price war with sales unscathed and without having had to cut its cover price.

A few years off retirement, Preston has decided to kick himself upstairs, leaving a vacancy for an editor at The Guardian, to coincide with that at The Observer, where Jonathan Fenby has decided to call it a day “by mutual agreement” with his bosses. The Scott Trust has begun the task of selecting the two new editors, a process that in the past has involved wide consultation among staff. At the time of writing, The Guardian job is widely expected to go to the current deputy, Alan Rusbridger, while Ian Jack, the editor of The Independent on Sunday, remains favourite for The Observer.

Preston will become editor-in-chief of both papers, with the stated aim of “maximising the editorial talents and resources available to the two newspapers, while retaining their separate and different editorial identities”.

Anyone who thinks the new editor-in-chief is about to relax, is mistaken. He will now be aiming to help The Observer achieve some of the success envisaged for it when The Guardian bought it 19 months ago, wrenching it from the clutches of The Independent.

While Preston’s move caught everyone on the hop, Fenby’s departure has been predicted for some time. Though an excellent news editor, as the rash of scoops that saw The Observer named by What The Papers Say as Newspaper of the Year testify, he was less happy with the other elements that make editing a Sunday broadsheet a complex task.

Why any newspaper that is Newspaper of the Year should want to change editors is an intriguing question, particularly when sales have fluctuated, rather than fallen. Indeed, the sales record of the editor tipped as Fenby’s successor is far less glorious. Year on year, The Independent on Sunday’s circulation fell by 13 per cent in the six months to November, to 316,340. The Observer, by contrast, dropped less than two per cent, to 488,291.

The Observer is also losing far less money since it moved into The Guardian building and started sharing its advertising staff and other central services.

Yet there’s a widespread feeling that the paper has failed to find the impetus it needs, despite the fact that the coming together of the two papers was seen by many as long overdue. The departure of top columnists like Alan Watkins and Neal Ascherson to The Independent on Sunday has left it light in the opinion stakes, plus it has tossed away its colour magazine and replaced it with Life, the inevitable large-format, heavy newsprint colour section. In short, the “package”, as Sunday papers must now project themselves as, does not work.

Preston said last week that “tremendous strides had been made in restoring The Observer’s commercial future” but there was an evident need for a heftier push forward. What that will entail he is not saying, not least because the new editor will have an important say, but there is no obvious solution.

In his 20 years at The Guardian, Preston has managed to refresh the paper more than once. He introduced a radical redesign – a move that was initially unpopular but worked, even if other papers haven’t rushed to follow it. And though it lost some of its confidence during the phenomenal rise of The Independent, its launch of the second section, G2, gave readers a new reason for trying it, just as the novelty of The Independent was wearing off.

But underpinning his position was The Guardian’s commercial success, which was achieved largely through that unsung and distinctly unfashionable engine of the British press – classified advertising. The trick, for which credit must also go to the paper’s ad director Caroline Marland and her predecessor Gerry Taylor, was to turn parts of The Guardian into a series of weekly specialist papers, harnessing strong and readable editorial to the job ads which would appeal to its natural constituency among public-sector staff and those employed in the media.

Are there any lessons here for The Observer? Classified is an area that drives the whole Guardian Media Group. From its early days, the Manchester Guardian was said to survive thanks only to the small ads in the Manchester Evening News. In recent years, the hugely profitable Auto Trader series has provided more revenue. It is possible The Observer could make greater strides in the “lifestyle” areas of advertising for holidays, cars and homes, but it is hard to see how it can tap further into the recruitment market without cannibalising its dominant sister paper.

There are greater efficiencies to be had in merging the foreign affairs operations of the two papers, though attempts by other groups to introduce a seven-day operation across other areas of coverage have had mixed results. Preston insists that maintaining The Observer’s distinct identity remains a priority.

But the real question raised once again is whether there is room for four Sunday broadsheets and, more specifically, for The Observer and The Independent on Sunday. The fact that Ian Jack is still favourite for the Observer job can only reawaken speculation about a merger.

Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent.

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