Alton: Straight-talking editor who turned Observer around

When Press Gazette interviewed Roger Alton as he relaunched the Observer in Berliner-size last January he gave no hint that he had any thoughts about stepping down.

When asked about the prospect of leaving he said: ‘Oh God, no…I love what I do.”

But today he has announced plans to step down at the end of the year as he turns 60.

His nine years in the editor’s chair marked a period of stability for the Observer after a tumultuous period.

Prior to him there had been three editors in the space of five years in the shape of Jonathan Fenby, Andrew Jaspan and Will Hutton.

Before that it had suffered periodic financial troubles since the 1970s, changing owners twice since then before being saved from closure when Guardian Media Group bought it in 1993.

But Alton has sailed the Observer into calmer waters, growing the sale and then stabilising it at around 430,000 to 450,000 before growing 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.

Straight-talking and self-deprecating Alton was typically blunt when Press Gazette asked him about the circulation risks of taking the paper Berliner last year.

‘With brilliant marketing, commercial, advertising, promotions and distribution behind you…For editorial to fuck it up now would be entirely my fault.”

Alton gave much of the credit for the current Berliner look, which was a dramatic departure, to his deputy John Mulholland.

Under Alton, the Observer’s news agenda has taken a more populist turn – something which Alton admitted to Press Gazette.

He said: ‘I think that’s a good thing – it allows people from other papers to come in and not be put off.

“A good Observer story is a good Sunday Telegraph story, a good Sunday Times story… it’s a good News of the World story – a good story’s a good story. A traditional Observer page-three story might be something grim up North or environmental horrors in the Sudan. Absolutely have your environmental horrors in Sudan, but you might put it on page four.

“On page three you might well have, as we did, inside Sven’s five-star England football World Cup love nest – just because it’s more visual.”

News of his departure comes just two weeks after executive head of news Kamal Ahmed announced he was leaving the paper.

Ahmed had been seen by some as a possible successor and Alton said his departure had been ‘sad moment for me personally”.

Alton’s exit also comes as The Guardian and Observer titles stand on the edge of radical changes to working patterns needed to satisfy a 24/7 internet news operation.

Just under two months ago Sunday Telegraph editor Patience Wheatcroft resigned following ‘strategic differences’over plans to make more demands on her staff to contribute to Telegraph Media Group’s seven-day web operation. There is no suggestion at this stage that such a rift prompted Alton’s departure.

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