Sunday 2 August 2009

Save the Obs!

One of the oddities of the long and turbulent history of British newspapers is that The Observer and The Sunday Times once shared an editor and propreitor in Rachel Sassoon. But that was back in the 1890s.

Today's Sunday Times reports that the Guardian Media Group is considering a plan to close The Observer may not be entirely disinterested.

(The Sunday Times recently managed to run five separate items on one Sunday attacking the BBC over excessive expense; Richard Desmond is not the only propreitor who may occasionally open one of his own newspapers to discover the happy coincidence that his commercial rivals appear to be under pressure).

However, the Guardian Media Group refused to comment on or deny the report that closure plans are under discussion. And GMG last week reported full year pre-tax loss of £90 million, and has warned that it can not sustain the current levels of losses at its flagship newspapers, which were almost £37 million for Guardian News and Media.

"An Observer-branded news magazine that would replace the paper and be published on a Thursday" would be a very poor replacement for the world's oldest Sunday newspaper.

The Sunday Times report says that the alternative will be to cut costs and maintain a slimmed down Sunday newspaper: that sounds perhaps a more likely outcome.

Obs political editor Gaby Hinsliff last night tweeted "Fear not we are in even better shape than sarah palin's marriage".

There are many broader issues here about the future viability of news journalism, the future of British newspapers and what happens to the public interest if an effective business model can not be found for the internet age. I much enjoyed Will Davies' incisive, sceptical review of Chris Anderson's Free in Prospect. A heartfelt rallying cry from the traditionalists has been published by David Simon (of 'The Wire' fame) in the Columbia Journalism Review, arguing for the New York Times and Washington Post to become fully pay-only products online to save professional journalism. The barriers to this are enormous, yet viable alternatives remain unclear.

But the immediate message is much simpler - Save the Obs!

Declaration of interest: I worked for The Observer a few years ago. But, before and since, I have had an irrational level of addiction to newspapers in general, and Sunday newspapers in particular. And, whatever their faults, I think they are more important to our democracy than we realise.

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