Skip to main content

John Kelly writes:Roger Alton is a newspaper man at a time when the world is deciding if it still needs newspapers. When the former editor of The Observer spoke at a Reuters Institute seminar on May 14, he argued that it does.
"There are few things," he said, "more beautiful and important and significant than a very well-edited newspaper: carefully laid out and written, witty, serious, and telling us about the issues of the day - the great issues and sometimes the not so great issues. For me this is a marvelous organism and it has been for all my life."
The owners of The Independent apparently agree, since after editing The Observer for 10 years Alton will in July take over the reins of that newspaper. He admitted that there has been a revolution in the business, with a media today that's less hierarchical and consumers who are now able to choose when and how they'll get their news. We've moved, he said, from an "age of deference," where consumers listened to what editors wanted to tell them, to an "age of reference," where they take the news they want and pass it along to friends and colleagues via such avenues as Facebook.
Alton acknowledged the difficulties papers are having - declining classified advertising, dipping circulation, competition from freesheets - but he took comfort in the fact that more than 11 million people buy papers every weekday in Britain, with 12 million sold on Sundays. On top of that close to 2 million free papers are distributed daily. "That's an awful lot of people getting information, opinion and taste from print," he said. "I think we hould not be wholly suicidal."
Alton noted that circulation at quality titles such as the Financial Times and the Economist is up and that newspapers continue to produce good stories. The poor treatment of British soldiers, the drive to ban plastic bags, the MP Henry Conway and his "exotic family" - these are all stories that got traction in the press, he said. (He also lauded Andrew Gilligan's controversial work in the Evening Standard, but said Gilligan shouldn't have written commentaries at the same time he was covering the London mayoral race.)
The landscape has changed, though. What is journalism for, he asked, beyond just selling papers? It raises in his mind the debate over assertion, like what goes on in the blogosphere, versus verification, which is what journalists should be doing. "It's the wisdom of the crowd versus the authority of the expert," Alton said. He was silent as to how that debate would play out, though he said that when it came to deciding what film to see he'd prefer the opinion of a proper movie reviewer to a fellow at the bus stop.
Alton said he hadn't read "Flat Earth News," the book by Nick Davies that is sharply critical of the Observer's support of the invasion of Iraq. He called Davies's charges that he directed the paper to parrot Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell's line during the lead up to the war the "biggest load of nonsense...It's an insane assumption."
As for what it will mean to have Roger Alton at the helm of the Independent - a scrappy paper that has seen its once-healthy circulation plunge - he said he'd like to make it "less marginal. It's slightly on the side of the main players and I think it should be slightly attacking the main players a bit more." The challenge he said, would be to strike a balance between being mainstream enough to matter and different enough to stand out.
"I hope I can do something," he said. "I might be absolutely useless."
It sounds like whatever Alton does, he intends to go down fighting.