Hard times, but no crisis

By Dominic Ponsford

Observer editor Roger Alton has revealed that, in 1998, "hugely expensive" outside consultants predicted that The Guardian would be "fatally damaged" by 2003 because of an advertising drift to the internet.

And he said he was also told then that The Observer had a "brand value" of minus £625 million.

Alton said: "Since then, you’ve had the first collapse of the net balloon, you’ve got The Guardian moving to a spanking new HQ and doing a lot of five and 10-year planning, and The Observer’s steadied down and making a lot of money in terms of sales."

At the second Press Gazette Breakfast Briefing, delivered to a mainly commercial media audience at The Ivy restaurant, Alton made a tub-thumping case for newspapers.

He said: "If they weren’t here, you’d invent them right away. They’re portable, compact, relatively cheap, frequently free, entertaining, informative, hard-wearing… they don’t crash, and they are also a wonderful medium for full-colour glossy, glamorous brand advertising that you can’t then skip with your Sky Plus."

Alton pointed out that sales of newspapers in the quality market had actually grown slightly over the past two decades.

He admitted that Monday to Friday newspaper sales had taken a particular hit, but pointed out that the success of free daily Metro shows that "people like the medium of print".

He said: "I don’t want to be content — these are very hard times indeed — but I really don’t think we should be talking ourselves into a crisis."

On competition from the internet and blogs, he said: "We have an information flooded society — in a limitless environment I think the very limited nature of papers is a great advantage."

Alton said new media had added competition that should drive quality journalism and "punish lazy journalism", adding: "Newspapers are now, I think, miles better than they were before."

Explaining why newspapers aren’t dead yet, and why blogs won’t replace them, he said: "Getting stories is a full-time job that only paid professionals have the time and resources to do. Blogs are basically comment on stories that have been broken by other media most of the time.

"Commentary that doesn’t contain any research or reporting expertise is, I think, going to be blown away. I tend to read Andrew Rawnsley because I know he’ll tell me what Blair or Cameron are thinking and doing, but I don’t necessarily want to read a commentator who’s banging on about what they think about it — just as you don’t want to stand at a bus stop being ranted at by someone."

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