After 208 Years, Is Britain's Observer Near the End?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Andy Rain / EPA

The Guardian Media Group has said it will not close the Observer, the world's oldest Sunday newspaper, as part of a cost-cutting drive

Journalists often stand accused of neglecting good news in favor of bad. And on Monday evening, some of the most eminent names in British journalism seemed frankly perplexed at how to handle a piece of good news: namely, that their employer, the Observer, had been saved from the chop. They had called a meeting in London to plot a campaign to rescue the world's oldest Sunday newspaper. Despite news of the paper's reprieve, they assembled anyway. As the room filled to capacity and then filled beyond capacity, one Observer writer wondered aloud at the size of the turnout. "I didn't realize there were so many Observer people," he said. "Perhaps it would be a good idea to sack some of us."

The Observer had already been in business for almost two years when it reported the execution of French Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793. Observer journalists have filed dispatches from two world wars and multiple other conflicts. For more than two centuries, the paper has not only described and analyzed profound social and political upheavals, but also survived them. Yet the twin challenges of repositioning print media for the digital age and a global downturn in advertising threatened to deliver the coup de grâce. In August, word leaked of proposals to turn the Observer into a Thursday magazine. In keeping with the robustly competitive spirit of British newspaper journalism, the story was broken by the Observer's arch-rival, the Sunday Times, a weekly broadsheet owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

The deadliest threat to the Observer has never been the Sunday Times. Much closer to home, the Guardian, the Observer's stablemate and an internationally renowned avatar of the liberal media tradition, was always a bigger challenge. Both papers are run by the Guardian Media Group (GMG), itself owned by the Scott Trust, which was set up in 1936 to "secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity: as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation." Those noble aims were never extended to the Observer after it joined the GMG stable 16 years ago. As executives considered the group's deteriorating finances — GMG reported a pre-tax loss of £89.8 million ($147 million) for 2008-09, with the division that houses the Observer and the Guardian hemorrhaging £36.8 million ($60.3 million), compared with a loss of £26.4 million ($43.2 million) a year earlier, on turnover of £253.6 million ($415.3 million) — the idea of effectively killing the Observer to protect the Guardian arguably chimed with the Scott Trust's credo.

Insiders say that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had another reason to consider axing the Observer: to strengthen the Guardian's brand by making the daily a seven-day-a-week operation like its acclaimed news website. Moreover, the Guardian and Observer cultures have never fully meshed. The Guardian, a great newspaper, sometimes gives off a distinct whiff of sanctity. The Observer is more irreverent. It controversially supported the Iraq war, which the Guardian opposed. There's nothing so bitter as a disagreement between liberals.

And there's nothing more fearsome than the liberal establishment in uproar. After protests from prominent fans of the Observer such as writer Martin Amis, actors Simon Callow and Colin Firth, kitchen goddess Nigella Lawson and musicians Damon Albarn and Dizzee Rascal, GMG issued a statement confirming that the Observer would survive. But the statement also spoke of a "greater degree of integration between the editorial teams of the Guardian and Observer." A "new look" Observer, expected to be leaner, is in development.

At Monday's meeting, some speakers speculated about what this could mean. Nobody can deny that British newspapers are feeling the pinch; there have been redundancies at most titles, and many predict increasing consolidation of national and regional titles. Observer journalists still fear the Guardian-ization of their newspaper. A union representative warned that any attempt to impose compulsory staff cuts would trigger a strike ballot. But the bulk of the evening was devoted to fond reminiscences of past Observer glories and readings from its archive. (Wisely, nobody attempted the 26,000-word leading article published in 1956, a translation of Nikita Khrushchev's famous speech attacking Joseph Stalin.) "Are there any more questions?" asked David Mitchell, a British comedian and Observer supporter, who was drafted to chair the meeting. "Yes," came a voice. "What do we do next?" "Literally," answered Mitchell, "we all go and have a drink." Nobody present offered up a better plan.