Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Observer: worth fighting for?

The Observer newspaper is reportedly in crisis, even threatened with closure. I bought it for the first time in a while today and, at a costly £2, it's easy to see why it is struggling. It doesn't have any obviously distinctive character - for example, its editorial line is too conservative (marginally to the right of sister paper The Guardian)to clearly mark it out from papers like the Sunday Times. For example, it adopted a pro-war stance over Iraq, despite many readers being passionately anti-war. It also lacks columnists worth getting bothered about, with the unfortunate exception of the widely despised Nick Cohen.

Some have immediately responded to the paper's possible demise with calls to 'save' it - I notice there's a Facebook group dedicated to that very cause. I have some sympathy: there's an insitinctive wish to preserve press freedom and avoid a narrowing of what is on the market, especially as The Observer is regarded as more liberal/left than others (and, for some, anything that shifts the press a little more towards a Murdoch monopoly is A Very Bad Thing).

However, calling for a newspaper to be saved is - in a free market - obviously futile. It can only be a token gesture, with people actually buying the paper the only solution to its crisis. So why is it in crisis? To answer that requires thinking about why the press in general is in trouble - after all, most newspapers are experiencing significant declines in circulation over the longer term.

The most commonly cited reason is the rise of the Internet, as readers move online. This must be a major factor, though I'd speculate about three further causes. Firstly, the emergence of free newspapers like Metro devalues newspapers - anyone who gets used to picking up news for free is likely to become reluctant to pay for it. The papers have responded to the wide accessibility of news by other means largely by focusing on features, lifestyle, numerous supplements etc.

Another way in which news has become more widespread - and a factor in the decline of the press - is the expansion of broadcast news: digital, cable and satellite channels, including rolling news. Finally, there's the impact of the recession which has two effects - some people make savings and decide they can live without a Sunday paper, and businesses are forced into slashing expenditure on advertising.

So, part of me wants to see The Observer survive, but I'm also aware that it's symptomatic of a bigger cultural and economic shift, one that is probably irreversible. It is perhaps just a question of how long it takes a number of newspapers to vanish, rather than whether or not they will close.

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