Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has praised outgoing Observer editor Roger Alton for turning around a paper that was ‘frankly a bit shaky”.
Alton, who has announced that he is stepping down at the end of this year, days before his 60th birthday, presided over a period of consistent circulation growth at The Observer which culminated in the paper winning newspaper of the year at the British Press Awards this year.
While national press reports have suggested Alton’s departure was preceded by questions over The Observer’s journalism and an alleged row with Rusbridger, Guardian sources have insisted he was not pushed.
Rusbridger told Press Gazette: ‘Rog inherited an Observer that was, frankly, a bit shaky and not always the happiest place to work. He transformed the paper, taking it from broadsheet to Berliner and from decline to growth.
‘He’s inspired tremendous loyalty through his leadership and respect for his all-round skills, and led some memorable campaigns – notably on civil liberties issues. The newspaper of the year award was fitting acknowledgement of his achievements.”
Alton’s nine years in the editor’s chair marked a period of stability for The Observer after a tumultuous time.
Prior to him, there had been three editors in five years, in the shape of Jonathan Fenby, Andrew Jaspan and Will Hutton.
Before that, it had suffered periodic financial troubles since the Seventies, changing owners twice before being saved from closure when the Guardian Media Group bought it in 1993.
Alton has sailed The Observer into calmer waters, growing the circulation and then stabilising it at around 430,000, before growing it again rapidly following its relaunch in Berliner format in January 2006.
The Observer has kept more of its Berliner sales than The Guardian and currently stands at a relatively healthy 472,252.
Among those to praise Alton’s editing style this week was Guardian features editor Katharine Viner, who worked with him on The Guardian.
She told Press Gazette: ‘Every day was like a journalism masterclass – how to make the page look good, when to move fast and when to take your time, what really mattered and what didn’t, what to be uptight about and when to throw caution to the wind.
‘It was also fantastic fun. I remember once I bought in a very interesting interview with Jerry Seinfeld from a US magazine, and I got it outrageously cheap – $200. Rog heard about this and rang up the magazine, told them that the piece was fantastic and they’d done a lousy deal, and insisted they take $300. I’ve never laughed so much as I did in that job.”
Alton joined The Observer from The Guardian, where he spent more than 20 years in a number of roles including arts editor, features editor, editor of Weekend magazine, and assistant editor.
Alton presided over the introduction of The Observer’s award-winning monthly Sport, Food, Music, and Woman magazines, and the successful move to the Berliner format in 2006.
He said: ‘It has been an immense privilege to edit The Observer and work with such a brilliant team. For the best part of 10 years, this has been the time of my life.
‘The Observer is in fantastic shape, editorially and commercially, and this is the right time for me now to be handing over to John.”
News of Alton’s departure came just two weeks after executive editor (news) Kamal Ahmed announced he too was leaving the paper.