Does it matter if The Observer closes?

by Stephen Tall on August 5, 2009

Much speculation this week that The Observer, Sunday sister paper of The Guardian (both of which are owned by Guardian News and Media under the beneficent custodianship of The Scott Trust), is on the brink of being closed down, and perhaps converted into a weekly news magazine. This follows some disastrous financial results for the Guardian Media Group, which recorded a pre-tax loss of almost £90m in 2008-09, £37m of which was contributed by GNM. As the Financial Times reported earlier this week:

GNM has started work on a three-year strategic plan, including radical measures aimed at assuring the future of The Guardian, the group’s daily newspaper, a senior figure in the group said.

The plan is aimed not so much at addressing a fall in newspaper advertising revenues caused by the economic downturn but at surviving the effects of a longer-term shift by readers and advertisers to the internet. …
No decisions have been made on the future of The Observer under the strategic plan but closure of the title in its present form has not been ruled out. According to a person close to the management of The Observer, staff became alarmed last week when they discovered a secret “dummy” of a weekly news magazine with their own title’s branding on it.

The magazine, marked as a midweek publication, was run up at Herbal Hill, the former home of The Observer before it moved to the new home of GNM in north London. The magazine had been shown to members of the Scott Trust, the sovereign body of GNM, which “exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity”, according to its charter. The trust holds no such brief for The Observer, which GNM bought in 1993.

Sunder Katwala at the Next Left blog is in no doubt that The Observer must survive as a Sunday newspaper of ‘the left’ (however that’s defined); while Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy is happy to sacrifice the Obs to secure the long-term future of the Grauniad.

Personally, I’m with Sunny. I guess it would be a shame if the Obs closed – I’m enough of a traditionalist to believe that institutions which have survived for two centuries should not be lightly dismissed. But, then again, I don’t buy the paper, haven’t since it was edited by the affably sweary Roger Alton, whose lack of news-nous and disastrous appointment of Kamal Ahmed as political editor sucked the political soul out of the paper, culminating in the Obs’ decision to back the Labour Government’s decision to invade Iraq.

The latest rumour is that threat of closure will be averted at the cost of job losses and a slimmed-down newspaper. It’s hard to see how the Obs can survive in the competitive Sunday newspaper market-place if it cuts back on its offering to readers – there have already been understandably vigorous complaints following its decision to excise the TV listings from the paper. After all, the Independent on Sunday’s attempts to increase profitability by slimming down have not been notable for their success.

Whatever the short-term fate of the Obs it seems increasingly likely that both it and the ‘Sindy’ will either fold or morph out of all recognition within the next five years, which will leave the Sunday ‘quality’ market to the right-wing press in the shape of the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times. We can mourn the loss of plurality. But, ultimately, if your paper doesn’t have both a sound business model and good-quality content then it ain’t going to survive.