Tough times at Guardian Media Group where executives have been forced to think the unthinkable in the light of the current economic downturn – and consider axing The Observer.
GMG’s sole remit under the ownership of the Scott Trust is to protect the journalism of The Guardian in perpetuity (not necessarily the journalism of The Observer which it only acquired in 1993).
So in the light of an £89.8m loss for the year to April GMG must look at all the options in order to protect the mother-ship.
The Observer is believed to have been loss-making throughout its Guardian ownership – losing between £10m and £20m a year.
So GMG would be remiss not to at least look at the future of the title.
But the reported idea of turning it into a weekly news magazine, out on a Thursday, sounds incredibly high risk. Surely better to save the jobs of the 150-odd Observer-only journalists by putting if up for sale (it’s been through tougher challenges than this in its 218-year-history and buyers have always come forward in the past).
Here are some other reasons why closing The Observer is a terrible idea.
1. GNM completed the costly merger of the Guardian and Observer teams into new state-of-the-art offices in December. They are currently probably the best-resourced, most integrated seven-day print and online news operation in the UK. When the current tough times are over, owners who hold their nerve and invest in quality could have a huge prize when the economy comes back – because the competition may be a lot thinner on the ground.
2. In circulation terms The Observer has been a far better performing brand than The Guardian. Up until the last few years both titles had historically enjoyed loyal readerships who kept their circulations somewhere around the 400,000-mark. But over the last couple of years The Guardian’s circulation has fallen faster to the current total, in June, of 336,000 compared with The Observer – still over 400,000 – on 409,970.
3. No-one knows what the future of newspapers will be. But it seems likely that anything selling on news is moving online, because an electron will always win a race with a delivery truck. But news has always been a much smaller part of the mix for Sunday newspapers. One possibility is that daily newspapers wither while bigger Saturday and Sunday newspapers remain.
4. Yes, The Guardian’s Saturday edition is to an extent in competition with The Observer. But would killing The Observer on a Sunday to protect The Guardian on a Saturday really be the best way to protect the liberal view of the world that the Scott Trust is charged with upholding? It would leave a clear playing field for right of centre quality titles The Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph.
5. After 218 years does GMG really want to be the owner that decided to close The Observer – the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper – throwing a comparatively healthy circulation of over 400,000-a-week into a skip? It would be PR disaster and a colossal blow to morale for the remaining staff. If crunch-time has come, circle the wagons, get in some more work-experience interns, reduce the pagination, share some more international content with other struggling Sunday newspapers elsewhere in the world, make some compulsory redundancies, start charging for the coffee machine – but don’t for God’s sake close it!