Observer SOS: 'Guardian management has seriously misjudged this'

Comment from National Union of Journalists general sectretary Jeremy Dear

As a marketing strategy it stinks: Take a world-famous newspaper with award-winning writers, with a distinctive and loyal readership built and nurtured over more than two centuries – and threaten to close it down.

Not only do you upset 1.4 million readers but you anger proud and dedicated staff and instead of reporting the news you become the news as MPs and the great and the good wade in to the row over the threat to media plurality and one of Britain’s most iconic newspapers.

The danger now is the negative publicity GMG has created by threatening to close The Observer outweighs the planned savings and money spent marketing the paper and new subscription packages. Guardian management has seriously misjudged this one.

The retention of the Observer as the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper is vital for the protection of pluralism and diversity in the British media. The Scott Trust must reject the ill-thought out proposal to close it, turn it in to a midweek magazine or gut it, leaving it a shell of a title without the staff to maintain its distinctive voice.

It may be the thinking that hundreds of thousands of Observer readers will automatically switch to a Sunday Guardian – the reality though is only around 50 per cent of The Observer’s readers also read The Guardian. They are just as likely to switch to rival titles.

GMG management has made mistakes – the purchase of the Berliner presses is in hindsight perhaps the biggest one. But letting go many experienced and distinctive writers hasn’t helped either.

Let’s not beat about the bush – things have to change. The state of the newspaper industry dictates that. Already 60-plus local newspaper titles have been closed and up to one in five jobs in local media have gone over the past 18 months.

Things have to change too at GMG. The company cannot sustain losses indefinitely, although one wonders at the undue haste to consider axing a title with a robust circulation of around 400,000 whilst still being able to find cash for corporate bonuses.

It is almost certain that over the coming months jobs will change, skills will need to be adapted to new technologies, even employment levels will change across different GMG titles and media.

GMG is considering a number of other changes to parts of its media businesses. Those changes will be unpalatable to many staff and will generate some heat but axing the Observer title is a whole other ball game – and would be a disaster not just for the company but for British journalism.

In the face of the current financial difficulties the company cannot afford to throw away all the goodwill the Observer has built up. Goodwill is a valuable business commodity. Many other companies yearn for a recognisable brand like The Observer.

The Guardian and Observer staff, backed by thousands of loyal readers and the NUJ, will fight to retain the title but bitter dispute would likely damage business more. We should do all we can to avoid that scenario.

GMG management are right to be conducting a “careful and thorough review of all its operations”. That review should start with a genuine and open dialogue with the union and the paper’s staff and readers.

After all, we have a shared interest in protecting jobs, maintaining media plurality and finding a way to safeguard the future of a great Sunday newspaper. Let’s get to work.

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