Roger Alton: Gimme a job!

In his first interview since leaving the editorship of The Observer on 1 January, Roger Alton has said he supports closer integration between Sunday and daily sister titles and revealed that he is in the market for another job in journalism.

He has also revealed that there was no feud between him and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, staunchly defended the reputation of former executive editor (news) Kamal Ahmed and admitted there is too much 'duplication'between journalists on The Guardian and Observer titles.

Explaining his reasons for leaving The Observer after nine years, he said: 'You think that you've done it quite a long time, you're going on to a slightly new area where you've got to merge aspects of the newsroom, and that sort of operation is much better in the hands of a more creative, younger bloke like John Mulholland, who is brilliant."

Alton, who turned 60 last month, said moving the paper and its sister daily title The Guardian to a new home in King's Cross, which will see most staff working across print and online editions, will be 'a two or three-year operation", making now a good time to hand over.

'Anyway, 10 years is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to do anything,'he said. 'You get stale; you need to renew yourself.'

Of the reports in the Telegraph, Independent and Mail titles that his departure was prompted by a row with Rusbridger over plans for Observer journalists to spend large amounts of time writing for the website Guardian Unlimited, he said: 'I've never had any conflict with anybody.

'If I were doing the move to King's Cross, I'd be wanting merged teams in a whole set of areas. It wouldn't make sense to me at all to be separate.

'If I was still there that's what I'd be doing – if I was at any other paper I'd be doing that, I'd be bringing things together so you don't get too much duplication. We have people doing the same thing.'

When Press Gazette suggested that he is one of the less enthusiastic editors when it comes to the internet Alton was indignant: 'I'm not remotely on record as saying that! Not remotely. I never ever said that, I just don't believe it.'

But he defended the traditional publishing model as 'an enormously powerful part of our world and our democracy".

'I heard on the radio Britney Spears has been taken away; I haven't been near a computer or a TV all day and I'm looking forward to tomorrow's papers. It's there, it's easily digestible. Also, newspapers make money and advertisers go for it. But I'm not remotely against the internet.'

The paper's Whitehall editor, Jo Revill, health editor under Alton, made Observer history last February by being the first of its journalists to publish an exclusive story online midweek. It was on the origin of the outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk.

'Rather than sit around and wait we put it online and it was nominated for scoop of the year at the What the Papers Say awards. That's clearly the way we've got to go.'

He stopped short of saying Sunday papers should be web-first news operations, but admitted that if an exclusive story broke on a Friday night he would now be very tempted to put it online. Is that the future for Sunday papers?

 

'Probably that's right. But you have areas where you say 'this is Sunday', 'this is Thursday', 'this will be big on Saturday','he said. Is there a danger that The Observer will lose its very separate identity as it is absorbed into The Guardian's online brand?

'That's true, but I don't think it will necessarily happen. The question is whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the Sunday market – there are pressures on it from the twin bombs of freesheets and the migration in advertising to online.

'I know people who think it will just be Sunday Times, Mail on Sunday and News of the World as the three market sector leaders, but I don't think that will happen.'

40 years in journalism

Press reports of a rift between The Guardian and The Observer were prompted by news that Guardian journalist Nick Davies was publishing a book analysing bad practice in the national press, which includes a chapter on The Observer.

The book questions Observer coverage of the 'dodgy dossier'and Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and criticises the role of then executive editor (news) Kamal Ahmed.

Alton said: "Kamal is one of the best journalists I have ever worked with and of the highest integrity, so if anybody impinges his integrity I'll go and punch his fucking face in."

He added that he doesn't care what people write about him.

'We in the media we analyse, kick about and discuss people all the time, so I think we should be prepared for it. People can say all the horrible things about me that they want.'

Alton has had an unbroken 40 years in journalism, but speaking just days after leaving The Observer, he said he 'would love to be back in newspapers again", saying his top foreign stories would be: Pakistan, Kenya, and the US Presidential primaries – and he even suggested a campaign idea on the decline of civil society.

In the past few days he has had to master the more mundane tasks in life. 'You get really well looked after on papers,'he said. 'I have to do things now like find dry-cleaners. It's a nightmare.'

Of his successor at the Observer, Alton said John Mulholland would be an 'outstanding'editor who is loved by staff, and that his biggest challenges would be 'integration – the role of a Sunday newspaper in a seven-day operation; multiplatform journalism and finding multiple revenue streams in an increasingly fractured media age".

And would he, at 60, have another go as editor somewhere? 'I'd love to."A few days after the interview Alton called to say he thought last Sunday's Observer, the first without him in nine years, was 'fantastically good".

When asked if he missed it, he said 'Sure; everybody misses it. Journalism is fucking terrific.

'Anybody who wants me, I'm ready and willing."

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