Journalistic organizations

The talk of London — or at least media London — since I got here has been the departure of Roger Alton as editor of the Observer, the Sunday affiliate of the Guardian. I write and consult for the Guardian, but do so at a distance, so I don’t know a thing about Alton’s resignation. Still, I find the discussion fascinating. There has been speculation that the issue was politics — the Observer supported the Iraq war while the Guardian opposed it — but that rationale has been rather widely dismissed.

The more accepted scenario has been that this was about the reorganization of the Guardian as a daily paper, the Observer as a Sunday paper, and Guardian Unlimited, their online arm, into a new and sensible organization. This comes a month after the magnificently named editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Patience Wheatcroft, left under similar rumors and reports. As an American editor, I don’t fully understand the role of Sunday papers in Britain. I was Sunday editor of the New York Daily News and had little staff or autonomy. I’ve become bored by the Sunday New York Times, a paper I used to wait on the street on Saturday nights to buy. Sunday papers here do have a special place.

But I don’t think the issue is Sunday papers. I think the issue is the organization of papers. I do believe I saw this conflict coming last March when I sat in on the Guardian and Observer’s all hand’s meeting and Rusbridger told them that now “all journalists work for the digital platform” and that they should regard “its demands as preeminent.” That forced the organizational questions asked now — that and the prospect that more journalism will be produced independently, whether by professionals and amateurs. What does it mean to work for a Sunday paper or a daily paper — or a paper, for that matter?

  • You’ve gotta understand the English tradition of petering on down to the local corner shop to pick up some milk and a paper on a frosty Sunday morning. Beyond that there’s the regular magazines that come bundled with Sunday papers (my favorite part of the Observer is the Monthly Music Magazine and the more general and light hearted Observer Magazine every week), and all the free CDs and other crap that comes bundled with the other Sunday papers. The free stuff is either a sign of how popular they are, or how much they’re struggling, depending on how you look at it.

    As for the Observer chief leaving, sounds to me like a regular retirement deal. And what better time to leave than just before the uncertainty about the roles of Sunday papers (and papers in general) really starts to bite?

  • Sundays in the UK are really almost entirely separate from the dailys. Different editor, different writers, different journalists, different house style. This is partly still a hangover from the old craft unions. The production workers (printers, typesetters) were all employed on the dailys and no Saturday night working for them. All production was then done by hte same people on casual shifts.
    With the G and the Obs it’s even more different. There’s a very different house style (they were, after all, independent papers for a century or two), the Obs being perhaps more classically liberal, the G more modernly so.
    As to what’s going on? It’s a cull of the Observer people.