Hindsight is a wonderful gift, but wouldn’t it have been better for all concerned if, three years ago, The Guardian had lost its battle to take over The Observer?
The Sunday paper has cost it many millions of pounds, two talented editors, a distinguished editor-in-chief and an enviable reputation as a newspaper organisation with high ideals and skilful management. And since the problems still seem nowhere near being solved, further casualties may well follow.
Is the new-look Observer, unveiled last week, any better than the old new-look Observer unveiled last year? Some would say it’s a good deal worse – and not just the former editor Andrew Jaspan, who last week wrote his version of events for no fewer than three publications – the New Statesman, The Times and UK Press Gazette.
Apart from the odd fact that his articles disagree on the date on which he said he was fired, anyone reading them must feel sympathy for Jaspan – casually cast aside by a management and Trust that realised they had made another mistaken appointment only a year after their last one. Like his predecessor, Jonathan Fenby, Jaspan had proved his ability in senior editorial jobs. A successful editor of Scotland on Sunday, he’d just become editor of the Scotsman when he was lured to The Observer.
Unlike Fenby – The Guardian’s deputy editor, who had had a successful spell at The Independent too – Jaspan was an outsider, not just at The Guardian but in London. His abrasive style did not go down well with The Observer’s staff and, though his relaunch of the paper followed months of research and new senior appointments, it was not inspired. Apart from the review section, which looked and read well, the new paper was seen as a mish-mash. Given time, it might have developed – but it wasn’t the instant fix The Guardian seemed to feel it needed.
So Jaspan, like Fenby, was fired – along with a more significant casualty, Peter Preston, who had edited The Guardian with distinction for 20 years.
Eighteen months ago, I described Preston’s position as “well nigh invulnerable”. No longer. Instead of retiring with dignity and the grateful thanks of a group to which he brought huge editorial and commercial success, he too became a victim of The Observer takeover. Some will see justice in this, since he was central in its purchase, the appointment of its editors and its subseq#uent development.
So up popped a new Observer editor, Will Hutton, Guardian columnist and famous author and inspiration to Tony Blair – plus a new overseer, Alan Rusbridger, former Preston protegÃ©, now editor of The Guardian. Hutton had no experience as an editor, nor any clear vision of how he would improve The Observer. Two hours after he was appointed, he was asked by Radio 5 Live what changes he would make. He said his column would switch from The Guardian to The Observer.
Certainly, he gives himself plenty of space. But what of the other changes? From its thin masthead, smothered by the huge coloured blurb that dominates the front page, to the great slabs of small type on the comment and feature pages, it looks like a rush job. The review section has a front-page headline and main picture that bear no relation to the articles on it, as if trying to get the reader to turn over as quickly as possible.
But let’s not be too hasty. The previous new look was given six months to establish itself. In the age of the quick-fix culture, Hutton must have at least a few weeks to get it right.
In the meantime, another writer-turned-editor is trying new things. Andrew Marr, a highly successful columnist for The Independent, has started editing the paper. His front-page policy is radical. Since it does not have the finance to compete with its rivals in news-gathering, The Independent now prefers an agenda-setting front page – mingling comment, illustrations and headlines. “We cannot outspend our rivals,” he has said. “So we must out-think them.”
The policy is a good one, in principle. Unfortunately, in its search for novelty, the paper often gives the impression of being either desperate or too clever by half. Take so#me recent splash headlines: “The present is Orange”, “We’re all going on a summer holiday”, “Labour windfall begins to rot”, “Members tuck into their midnight feast”. Even when seen in context, alongside their articles, blurbs and pictures, I don’t believe they work.
It is tempting to consider what might have happened if, three years ago, Newspaper Publishing – not The Guardian – had won the battle for The Observer. It would have merged it with The Independent on Sunday and that would have cost many jobs. But it might have produced a strong, left-of-centre Sunday paper, better able to compete with The Sunday Times.
That in turn could have reinforced the position of The Independent, removing the need for it to fall into bed with the Mirror Group. And though The Guardian would not have welcomed a stronger Independent, it would not have been saddled with a costly Sunday paper it doesn’t know what to do with.
For The Observer’s real problem is there are too many quality Sundays to be profitable. Until someone comes to terms with that, neither it nor The Independent on Sunday is going to flourish.