Incoming editor of The Independent Roger Alton said this week that he was ‘absolutely flattered and honoured and privileged and extremely doubtful about whether I am up to the challenge”.
He spoke to Press Gazette as he was heading out for a few days of skiing before taking up what is likely to be the biggest challenge of his extraordinary journalistic career. He said he was still negotiating with Guardian News and Media over his start date for the new job.
Alton left The Observer editorship after nine and a half years at the end of December, handing over to John Mulholland ahead of the Sunday’s move to 24/7 working and closer integration with The Guardian when the titles move to a new integrated newsroom at King’s Cross at the end of this year.
Alton has previously dismissed rumours of a rift between The Guardian and Observer and said: ‘Ten years is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to do anything. You get stale: you need to renew yourself.”
Whatever the reason for his departure from The Observer, his move to The Independent shows that, at 60, he has lost none of his journalistic passion and ambition.
He said this week of his departure from The Observer: ‘I didn’t have any idea at all what I was going to do next – I did have one or two different approaches from one or two people, but to get offered a national editing job so quickly was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Alton picked up the British Press Award for newspaper of the year for The Observer in 2007 and is credited with turning the paper around after an unstable period, losing three editors in five years before he arrived.
He had grown the sale, overseen a successful Berliner size relaunch in January 2006 and presided over the launch of its award-winning monthly Food, Music, Sport and Woman magazines.
In addition to his Sunday-paper pedigree he had more than 20 years of daily newspaper experience at The Guardian before joining The Observer. ‘Before going to The Observer I worked in various departments at The Guardian so I’ve done that,’he said.
But he added: ‘At the moment I’m waking up very early in the morning sweating with panic. But all you can do is your best, and I think people that know me know that I will do my best.”
Paying tribute to the paper he will inherit from outgoing editor Simon Kelner, he said: ‘It’s a paper which I think is full of fantastic journalists and is very much loved. My job will be try and get it into a few more hands and get the people who like it to buy it more often.
‘Editing a newspaper is the ultimate ambition for anybody working in journalism – to get the chance to have a go at editing two is beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.
‘Simon Kelner has, for my money, been one of the most influential journalists in the country – so it is obviously a fantastic opportunity to have the chance to work with somebody like that.”
Alton also paid tribute to the team of journalists he takes over, singling out individuals such as features writer Esther Walker, veteran sports writer James Lawton, chief political commentator Steve Richards and foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn. He said: ‘Just to be working with people like that is humbling.”
When asked how he will cope with The Independent’s relative paucity of resources compared to Guardian News and Media he said: ‘The Observer had been pretty well resourced over the past 10 years, but it is not ridiculously well resourced.
‘The Guardian probably is very well resourced, but there is a downside to being very well resourced. It’s possible to become flabby and you can get lots and lots of people who never get anything in the paper, and that’s not good for people.
‘I’ve always enjoyed working in tight organisations – it concentrates your mind more, you have to work harder and try harder.”
He described Independent owner Tony O’Reilly as ‘very generous, who cares about his titles”.
When asked whether a redesign will accompany the paper’s move to full colour in September, he said he thought that people can get very bored with redesigns, but that he will be ‘looking at some of the moving parts”.
Alton said he may look at doing fewer of the ‘concept’front pages which have become current editor Simon Kelner’s hallmark in recent years, ‘but without losing any of the campaigning brio and pizzazz that this is part of”.
He added: ‘There’s nothing wrong with putting news on the front.”
Alton’s own politics are perceived by some to be to the right of The Independent, which has pursued a broadly left of centre agenda in recent years. This was particularly the case with the Iraq war, which Alton’s Observer supported, but The Independent campaigned against.
When asked about this he said: ‘On Iraq, The Indy was opposed to that, but that was five years ago.
‘I don’t think the right and left label has any real meaning. I take issues and say what I think.”
When asked how the daily and Sunday Independent titles, and their website, will interact under the new regime he said: ‘You want to get the best out of a news operation without sacrificing the things that make it distinctive.”