Yes, save the Observer: Why Reuben is Wrong

This post was written by Owen on August 5, 2009
Posted Under: Media

In Reuben’s last post, he argued that we shouldn’t care that the Observer might be facing the axe (or possibly that we should actively welcome it – it’s not quite clear which). His reasons? First, the Observer’s comment pages are a “stream of unoriginal political clichés”. Second, the Scott Trust runs the paper at a loss, supporting it, through the Guardian Media Group, with its other assets. This, he suggests, makes it more difficult than it should be for would-be competitors to enter the left-leaning newspaper market. If the Observer went under, he suggests, this would leave a gap in the market that could be filled by a new centre-left news outlet. And by way of a postscript, this would be a welcome development, because “we have been served for donkey’s years by the same few papers”, so some kind of shake-up is in order.

I haven’t read the Observer’s comment pages in a while, so I’m happy to accept that they’re a bit crap if Reuben thinks they are. But that has little if anything to do with the quality of the actual news the paper reports, and it doesn’t seem particularly controversial to suggest that news-gathering, not comment, should be the primary function of a newspaper (as opposed to a blog, where comment clearly is the primary function). Comment, after all, is parasitic on news – someone needs to report the facts so they can be commented on.

This neatly leads onto my next, and most important point;  news reporting is an expensive business, particularly quality news reporting. It’s all very well to dismiss News International and Guardian Media Group alike as “different sides of the same plutocratic coin” but if you want decent news then unfortunately you need news organisations with a lot of money behind them. Lots of money isn’t sufficient, of course, but it’s absolutely necessary. Paraphrasing press releases and stories from the press agencies is relatively cheap and easy, but reporting for the more investigative and in-depth pieces can be anything but, and doesn’t really bring newspapers any more revenues than the cheap and easy articles. This story, (taken, funnily enough, from last Sunday’s Observer), is a good example. It will have taken quite a lot of money to send a reporter out to Liberia for long enough to write that piece (including paying for transport, a local guide and so on), and I doubt that a story about systematic child rape is really going to do much to boost circulation or advertising revenue. This doesn’t just apply to overseas reporting – this Guardian investigation from a few years back by Nick Davies into heroin use in Britain is another good example. Now, the Observer could just as easily have chosen to run a feature on something much fluffier and less upsetting than child rape in Liberia, and if they had, it would probably have cost the paper much less and been a lot more palatable to their advertisers. But they didn’t. And they didn’t, in part, because the Observer’s purpose is to report the news and keep its readers informed, not just to make a profit.

I’m not claiming that newspapers, even leftish, not-for-profit newspapers like the Guardian and the Observer, are perfect. Nor am I necessarily claiming that we need print newspapers in an internet age. But I am claiming that we need well-resourced news-gathering organisations that aren’t driven solely by profit, and that’s what the Observer is. Blithely dismissing the problem by saying that another news outlet will probably emerge  to fill the gap is simply mistaken – as Reuben recognised, the Observer is run at a loss, which clearly entails that there isn’t sufficient demand to run it at a profit. If it goes, and is somehow replaced by a news organisation that tries to fulfil a similar function and make a profit, it will only be able to do so at the expense of quality journalism. It would be wonderful if there was enough commercial demand for good, in-depth reporting to sustain a news outlet that offered it, but I don’t think there is, and claiming otherwise demonstrates a shockingly naive faith in the capabilities of the free market. If the Observer goes, we’ll be poorer for it.

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Reader Comments

I guess we are stuck in a bit of a vice here. It is possible to object to free markets and to be aware of their inadequacy, while also finding prevailing non-market solutions equally if not more problematic. As I argued in my piece, the non-market solution on offer – whereby a small and financially powerful trust picks winners – is characterised by problems which are different but equally substantial compared with leaving the media to the mercy of the market.

Meanwhile I am not quite as pessimistic as Owen about the market for centre left journalism and its capacity to support a high quality national newspaper. The OP writes that the ‘Observer is run at a loss, which clearly entails that there isn’t sufficient demand to run it at a profit.’ But surely this is surmising the general from the specific.

When we consider what the market CAN support one needs to consider both the number of buyers and what they are willing to pay. The price at which the observer is sold has leapt ahead of inflation, more than doubling 1995-2009 to £2. Meanwhile it sells at £2. Im not taking into account the retailers cut, but nor am I taking into account the enormos revenue for advertising. But this back-of-the-envolope maths gives it £4m a month with which to operate.

I also feel that lefty contempt for the market can sometimes blur into a politico’s contempt for the demos. I don’t think that readers would be more likely to buy a paper because it offered “something much fluffier and less upsetting than child rape in Liberia.” Of course I recognise the problems of modern consumerism. But we do not necessarily need to rely on a bunch of moneyed trustees to make sure worthy stuff gets produced because consumer tastes aren’t up to scratch.

Written By Reuben on August 5th, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

You’re right that the Observer’s being run at a loss doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be impossible for another hypothetical centre-left paper to do better in its place, but it’s hardly a secret that the newspaper market in general is not healthy, and getting worse. Given that, it’s hard to see how a new paper of any political stripe could be expected to thrive. The Observer increased in price because its circulation was dropping, not vice versa. (The price increase might have made the decline in sales worse, of course, but presumably the proprietors factored that in to their decision.)

As to which stories sell papers, from a quick Wikipedia-ing the combined circulation figures for the Observer, Sunday Times, and Independent on Sunday amount to considerably less than a third of those for the News of the World alone. If you have another explanation for that statistic than “worthy stories don’t really sell papers” then I’m happy to hear it. (Not that every story in any of those first three papers is worthy, but a far higher proportion of them are than those in the News of the World.) It might be possible to come up with an explanation as to why this is the case, (the widespread apathy with party politics for which the media is itself partly to blame might play a role, for example) but that’s about it as far as I can tell.

What alternative do you suggest to the current setup, incidentally? I can see that some sort of community-based citizen journalism might work at a local level, but I’m less sure it would work nationally or internationally. State-funded news organisations like the BBC work OK, but I wouldn’t really be comfortable with the BBC having an overt political leaning in the way that newspapers do. The BBC probably isn’t as objective or impartial as it’s meant to be in theory, but it makes a pretty good try at it.

Written By Owen on August 5th, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

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