'For editorial to fuck it up now would be entirely my own fault'

Observer editor Roger Alton talks to Dominic Ponsford on the eve of the paper’s historic format change

Halfway
through Observer editor Roger Alton’s interview with Press Gazette, he
makes his excuses to fretfully place £40 on the 2.40 at Ludlow.

Three-to-one
shot Theatre Tinker didn’t come in, but this weekend Alton is playing
for far higher stakes when he relaunches Britain’s oldest Sunday
newspaper as a ‘Berliner’ – a format new to the Sunday market.

The
results of sister paper The Guardian’s Berliner size change (in between
tabloid and broadsheet) are so far inconclusive – after a sharp sales
rise in the first month, circulation flattened out in October and
November.

Arguably The Observer has more to lose than its daily
stablemate, starting from a sales position which has held solid in
recent years between 430,000 and 450,000 copies.

In contrast, The
Guardian was largely bounced into reformatting by the heavy sales
losses that followed the tabloid launches of The Times and The
Independent two years ago.

Acknowledging the risks, Alton says:
“With brilliant marketing, commercial, advertising, promotions and
distribution behind you – it is really up to us not to drop the ball.
For editorial now to fuck up would be entirely my fault.”

He
describes his newly redesigned, reformatted and re-pressed paper as
being like “a high-powered sports car which is a treat to drive, but
you can make a mistake and go straight into a lamp-post”.

As for
whether there was any doubt that The Observer would follow The Guardian
into Berliner territory, Alton says it would have been “ludicrously
expensive” for his paper to stay broadsheet.

It would have meant
The Guardian’s new £60m Berliner-size presses in East London and
Manchester sitting idle on Saturdays and The Observer missing out on
the benefits of full colour and more efficient and versatile printing
technology.

Alton adds: “It’s a revolutionary, brilliant new thing offering a package to advertisers unique in the market.

You’ve
got massive format churn throughout the daily and Sunday market… the
market is changing, we’ve got these new presses, full colour, a chance
to redefine the paper – you’d be nuts not to take it.”

Design
guru The new look is the result of 18 months of work, led by deputy
editor John Mulholland, working with internationally renowned design
guru Mario Garcia and new art director Caroline Roberts.

Most
noticeable is the switch to a masthead colour described as “Observer
petrol blue”. Other changes include the move to five fatter text
columns, rather than the broadsheet eight, and the introduction of a
new magazine supplement called Observer Woman, which will alternate
with the established Food, Sport and Music monthlies to ensure there is
an extra specialist magazine included every week.

Judging by the
dummy edition, Observer journalists plan on using the Berliner shape
and full-colour printing to include more double-page spreads in the
news pages, with photos often going across the fold.

The comment
section has shifted from the back of the news pages to the middle and
The Observer Magazine has been made “slightly more feminine”

according to Alton, with a middle section devoted to style, fashion and interiors.

Seven-day
TV listings, previously included in the magazine, now appear on a
separate newsprint supplement, and new signings include comedy writer
Armando Iannucci, who has taken over the back-page diary slot from
Richard Ingrams.

Describing the thinking behind the new look,
Alton says: “You’ve got to not let people get bored, but also not be so
excited and frenzied they think we’ve gone mad. There are lots of
little places to drop anchor, like comment or a big spread.”

Laddish
character Despite just turning 58, Alton comes across as a more laddish
character than many of his quality press counterparts – evidenced when
he interrupts the interview to send his PA down to the bookie’s and to
check on the international cricket on Sky Sports.

This outlook
appears to be reflected in a news agenda that is often lighter than The
Guardian’s and which can see a big picture of a scantily clad Kate Moss
appear on the front page and a page-three lead about the increasing
popularity of angling among women.

When it is put to him that
some Observer stories would not look out of place in the tabloids,
Alton says: “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.

“I think you’ve got to be inclusive – if people want to come in you’ve got to not have barriers to entry.”

He
admits that the decision to use the Moss picture big on the front last
month was controversial. “I got internal stick from that, people saying
‘I don’t think you should do that’, but I thought it looked fine, the
circulation figure that day was very good,” he says.

He says the “point of difference”

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