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.

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Hasn’t it struck ‘lefty’ bloggers that the observer etc shutting down is in your own interests so you can capture a larger audience?

by Thomas Byrne on August 5, 2009 at 11:12 am. Reply #

Think of it this way: if nobody was interested in reading the Daily Mail, and so few people bought it on a daily basis that it was in dire financial straits and needed to be shut down, would you shed a tear? Would you want it to be propped up and supported?

‘The Left’ can only save the Observer by buying copies of the paper, and they’ll only buy it if it produces content they’re interested in reading. So,really, the question is not ‘should we save the Observer’ but ‘can the Observer save itself by finding an audience again’. There’s no point printing a paper that nobody wants to read, after all.

by Stu on August 5, 2009 at 12:10 pm. Reply #

It would be a disaster for political discourse, and democracy, in this country if we only had right-wing newspapers.

by Steve on August 5, 2009 at 12:22 pm. Reply #

I had a subscription to The Observer until it decided to back the invasion of Iraq.

It didn’t even use the good arguments for going in!

It became a shadow of its former self years ago and I certainly wouldn’t shed any tears if it went.

Its demise might also help the IoS, at least for a while.

by Liberal Neil on August 5, 2009 at 12:28 pm. Reply #

Hang on there, the Observer has better circulation and loses far less money than the Guardian.

The GMG business is being bled dry by the expenditure involved in building the Guardian’s online presence and meanwhile the Observer has suffered from under-investment and wholesale plundering of it’s editorial staff and direction. The Observer was known as the benchmark of investigative, overseas and in-depth reporting, but this has been consistently downgraded under recent ownership – so this is only one more notch on a whole list of absolutely scandalous developments at the paper.

It is also a particularly bad business model to sacrifice sales for a more unified brand, and it sparks more of political chicanery to crush a strong reputable voice within the industry before it frees itself and becomes a competitor.

The editorial policies of the social-democrat Guardian and the liberal Observer never meshed because it was an unequal relationship from the start – so now the Scott Trust’s management has failed to kill-off the Observer after repeatedly attempting to strangle it and by stabbing it in the back they pronounce they want to put it down humanely! Pah to their high-mindedness!

So if it were up to me I’d sell the Observer to the Economist Group, officially install Andrew Rawnsley at the helm and follow a similar business model by expanding across the English-speaking world.

by Oranjepan on August 5, 2009 at 12:38 pm. Reply #

I bought the Observer last weekend, and wasn’t very impressed. There was one story in the whole thing that was remotely interesting and large parts of it were the sort of thing I go out of my way to avoid reading about. But that isn’t really the point.

Newspapers are commercial enterprises and if they don’t make money, out they go. If GMG don’t want it maybe a co-operative of “left-wing” bloggers can buy it off them 😉

by Chris Keating on August 5, 2009 at 12:57 pm. Reply #

GNM should hire Lionel Barber, who has kept the FT making profits, as a consultant.

by Frank H Little on August 5, 2009 at 2:07 pm. Reply #

If it went I would miss it.

by Meandyew on August 5, 2009 at 2:27 pm. Reply #

The Observer closure by year end followed within the next couple of years by the Guardian when it loses all that government advertising revenue for public sector non jobs.
Lefties will still have the misnamed Independent with the wonderful prose of Alibai- Brown to get off on and the New Labour ‘Times’ house journal if the Independent is a bit too far left for their views.

by john zims on August 5, 2009 at 2:47 pm. Reply #

From a personal POV, I buy the Obs and not the Graun. I think it is more balanced than the Graun and not stuffed with Pollyannas.

by Tabman on August 5, 2009 at 2:47 pm. Reply #

I gave up buying newspapers years ago and hardly, if ever, read one. Newspapers (which for the most part have become viewspapers) survive by reflecting the views and prejudiices of their readership. Makes you worry for the human race!

by Stanley Theed on August 5, 2009 at 8:13 pm. Reply #

The Observer has always been a disappointing newspaper, but it has always had the potential to be good, so for that reason I am sorry about it’s demise.
There are only 2 liberal newspapers; the Independent and the Guardian/Observer. The rest are Tory. So the end of the Observer means even less choice for liberals.

by Geoffrey Payne on August 5, 2009 at 10:09 pm. Reply #

Can’t help but feel that the rumoured demise of the Observer is because its not very good, ditto the money-leaking Graun, the struggling Indie and the diabolical IoS.

Its a shame that the four left/liberal papers are all struggling, but they only have themselves to blame; the articles and content just aren’t that compelling any more.

by The Other Mark (again) on August 6, 2009 at 12:34 am. Reply #

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