Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

The Observer

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

A grim story has appeared, suggesting that the Observer newspaper might be in trouble and could close. God I hope not. Writing a column for them is the toughest thing I do - it’s not coal-mining, but writing a 900 word piece each week is about a million times more arduous and nerve-wracking than playing poker or presenting TV shows, both of which are quite easy and fun and it’s a miracle that I can also make a bit of money from doing them. I also love writing; I’m very proud to scrape a living from it, and would write even if I didn’t have anywhere to publish it. Nevertheless, that column.. I struggle, I struggle. I have nightmares about what if there’s nothing to write about, what if I can’t think of anything to say, what if there’s a blank space in the paper, what if the horrid posters on CiF are right… and sometimes it takes me days to get it finished. If there were no Observer to write it for, I imagine life would be much less stressful and homeworky.

  Nevertheless, it’s a brilliant paper. Never mind writing for it, it’s the one I read. I love its outlook, its liberality, its mix of light and dark, its readiness to include some humour, its supplements, its columnists and staff. There just isn’t another paper as good. I struggle through the homework every week because I’m so proud to write for a paper that I think is so well done. It would be incredibly sad if the Obs didn’t exist; a big sad empty space every Sunday.

  I have no idea whether Facebook groups ever achieve anything - sometimes I worry that clicking “join” on a protest group siphons off cross-energy that people might otherwise spend on something really noticeable like writing letters or going on marches. But Not Wanting The Observer To Close isn’t really a protest, it’s not like taking a stand against wars or bankers. It’s just a feeling that should be out there in the world. So, when somebody sent me a link to this ‘Save The Observer’ Facebook group, I joined it immediately - do join if you think that a world without the Obs would be a sad thing. And far more importantly, please buy the paper! Hurry out for it on Sunday, to show that we do all still like reading things that are written at length and printed on paper, we don’t have to consume EVERYTHING in 140 characters or one soundbite of TV news. We can turn pages, we can read, we can read.


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Carter Magna at 8:52 pm on August 4th, 2009

I can safely, but not proudly, say that at the age of 32 I have never read the Observer. I don’t know why this is and it will be something I shall remedy this weekend on your recommendation. As for worrying about what to write, well, even us amateur bloggers worry about that, but then we pay our fears no heed and spout vitriol and nonsense like a drunken pub philosopher purely because we can.

I’m loving this series of Only Connect by the way.

David H at 10:53 pm on August 4th, 2009

‘I love its outlook, its liberality, its mix of light and dark, its readiness to include some humour, its supplements, its columnists and staff. There just isn’t another paper as good.’

My sentiments exactly. Sunday would be a poorer place without it.


P.S. Will GMG offer a telephone helpline for desolate Observer readers if the closure/conversion to a Thursday magazine (yikes) goes ahead?

LC at 12:27 am on August 5th, 2009

I am a bit rubbish for not buying any of the Sunday papers, usually due to limited funds, but I will be buying The Observer this Sunday.

I’m guilty of reading a lot of the content online (not leaving nasty comments) ... perhaps all of this talk of charging for online content might not be such a bad idea. I’m slightly averse to it in principle (and also because I don’t currently have a debit or credit card, and couldn’t actually pay for it)

But I do want to save The Obs. The columnists are good and i’m a particular fan of Music Monthly. And I just know it’ll disappear the minute I actually have the money to buy it on a regular basis.

Suzy at 1:24 am on August 5th, 2009

I love The Observer. It’s a vital part of my weekend(Sundays are for The Observer and brunch) and I don’t think I could just substitute it with another paper either. The idea that it might not be around anymore is very sad indeed. (Your column is wonderful, by the way.)

AndytheDealer at 12:33 pm on August 5th, 2009

I will try to help by buying two copies this weekend, one of which will be taken to work and left for my colleagues to read.

I will do the same the following weekend and will then miss a couple of weeks, in the hope that by that time a couple of readers will be hooked and will go out and buy it.

I will then repeat the process of Sunday newspaper taste elevation/indoctrination on an irregular basis.

I have also joined the Facebook group, for all the good it will do…

If the Observer goes it will be like the death of a wise friend.  Bloody tragic!

James at 12:36 pm on August 5th, 2009

This is a pity and I do hope that GMG don’t can the Observer - but it is a strong possibility. It is sadly caught in the crossfire of the emergence of “New Media”.

I was once a subscriber to the “E-Telegraph” and a paying one at that - simply because it was so revolutionary to be able to read online. A few years back the papers, collectively, knee-jerked and made all their content available free. Now you no longer have to go out and lug the paper home, you no longer have to bin 2/3rds of it because you only read the Sport, Culture or Business sections.

As delightful as it is to while away Sunday amidst a sea of newsprint it is just as easy to go online and read the stories and columnists that you enjoy.

Newspapers rushed to embrace the internet in the belief that the numbers of readers would make up for decline in physical sales through the increase in internet sales. However, even the “Daily Mail online”, shudder, now the UK’s most read site, still has 80%+ unsold online inventory, or it is on a CPA model bringing down the cost of 1,000 impressions to somewhere c. 15p.

The rise of “Freemium” / inherent belief that free copy is a right is what is mainly damaging the UK newspaper market. While companies will address this eventually it will be a case of too little too late.

James at 12:37 pm on August 5th, 2009

Like many of you I will buy the Observer this Sunday, but I fear it will be like the symbolic final trip to Woolworths before it closed. As much as I will miss having it as an option - wishing to actually physically own a copy / paint-roller (in Woolies case) has never been strong enough to save it. I fear that many are in the same boat.

Recent ABC audits show the Observer down hugely year on year, meaning that advertisers have little or no interest in being there anymore, except at rates that make it untenable to keep the doors open.

Another victim of the “democratising” of media I fear.


David R at 4:07 pm on August 5th, 2009

I think that for purely business reasons, Guardian Media Group should definitely keep the Observer going, and in its present form.

The reason for this is that it looks odds-on that the Tories will soon be in power, and as people become annoyed and irritated by this new government, they will want to read newspapers that will criticise the Tories and hold them to account, and the Observer is one of the main Sunday newspapers that would do this. So in the near future, the Observer may have an opportunity to attract a larger readership, and to play a major role in holding the new government to account.

Victoria Coren at 4:50 pm on August 5th, 2009

“As delightful as it is to while away Sunday amidst a sea of newsprint it is just as easy to go online and read the stories and columnists that you enjoy.”

James, I can see some logic in this, but it just doesn’t work for me. Reading the newspaper in the morning, turning the rustly pages over a cup of tea, is one of the big highlights of my day. Especially Sunday, when there’s time to read it almost cover to cover. It might be “as easy” to do it online, but it just isn’t as pleasurable.

  Reading the papers isn’t all about the acquisition of information - of course not; newspapers give you information pretty late, these days. It’s about analysis, deeper coverage, and a lot about the ritual of reading the printed word. I don’t want to sit in bed with a cup of tea and a laptop! And I certainly don’t want to lug a laptop round the corner to the local cafe on a Sunday morning. I want a newspaper! This is the thin end of the wedge; plenty of people are arguing to get rid of all newspapers and just put news online. It’s a horrible idea and Sunday would be the worst day to start.

  The columnists, especially, I’d see no point reading on a computer. I don’t read columns for the information in them, but the pleasure of reading; you know, for the humour of a funny column, the wisdom of a well-argued column, the joy of a beautifully crafted sentence. Reading on screen dilutes all of that, for me; it feels like it’s all about quick scanning for information, not reading pleasure. I might enjoy quick blogs, short paragraphs, little insights, but reading an article of more than 500 words online is actually quite arduous. All that hunching over the screen, bright light.. call me a Luddite but I wouldn’t go online on a Sunday morning to click on a few headlines, and I DEFINITELY wouldn’t read long think-pieces, I just wouldn’t. All I’d do is watch more TV and be less well informed. And I’d miss the Observer and I’d be sad. I bet a lot of people would.

Now I’ve got sentimental and added this link to the blog post. I mean it though.

MarkP at 8:51 pm on August 5th, 2009

You keep us entertained and for free here on this blog therefore we are obliged to buy any crap, sorry, quality items you endorse. I’m sure it’s in the Blogger’s Rulebook. I will start buying the Observer (it’s a shame you’re not doing an article this week).

David R at 9:15 pm on August 5th, 2009

I’m probably overstating the business reasons for keeping the Observer going (what with GMG suffering big losses), but with a change of government there could be a chance for the Observer to have a revival and enjoy a successful period. So I would keep things the same with the paper and see what happens.

James at 11:46 pm on August 5th, 2009

Thoroughly agree with you - maximum concentration online is 1300-1600 words and anyway, I get enough tea on the paper… shudder to think what would happen to the laptop.

But for many many people the idea of reading the Sunday papers as the highlight of the weekend is totally alien. Our easy access, on demand society has caused a mass amount of apathy amongst the emerging generations (0-30 now) who would have been reading any form of paper.

The free-sheet and the internet has made many papers untenable and I shall mourn their passing.

James at 11:53 pm on August 5th, 2009

The look of bovine in-comprehension amongst my peers (I’m 27) when I mention “Sunday with the papers” is staggering. Or even when I first showed up at my new job with a copy of The Times (easier to read on trains) under my arm, there must have been at least 7-8 colleagues who asked “are they giving out free copies at Waterloo again?”

It is such a pity that this is happening. Yet just how important is the medium over the message? The words are the same, your phrases turn as beautifully on the iPhone as they do in the paper.

I hope GMG remedy the situation, but with pre-tax loses of £90m it’s not looking too bright.

Any chance we can leave longer comments - I keep copying and pasting

adam at 1:07 am on August 6th, 2009

it is true the world is changing, it is also true that people are time poor. i am still reading the saturday gaurdian on wednesday. so perhaps a mid week edition could work. but, it would be tragic to lose any more left leaning papers (i still mourn the correspondent).
the right wing press, however, seems to be simply a lobbying platform for the arms, oil and pharmeceutical industries (think- flu vaccines, cancer drugs, more helicopters & better equipment for “our boys”, cutting tax on fuel) and when they say jump the government jumps. with that kind of money and power behind them the papers don’t need to make a profit. i feel we may be fighting a losing battle but, i promise to buy the Obs if only to save it to show my grandchildren.
sorry to rant but, what are blogs for.

AndytheDealer at 11:37 am on August 6th, 2009

No, James, it’s one rule for the Proles and another for Big Sister!

Oh, how I enjoyed slipping in a reference to Only Connect.

James at 1:45 pm on August 6th, 2009

lol - a pity but perhaps I need to be more cogent in my points

Sam at 5:02 pm on August 6th, 2009

When I was away I did not have a chance to grab a copy of The Observer, so when I got home I read your column and David Mitchell’s online. Which are probably my two favourites. I can’t say I enjoyed either as much, it’s a bit horrible to read things online generally.

Sunday mornings are great, I wake up hung over and stumble to the shops to buy a paper.  When I get home I have a cup of tea and a slice of toast, and read The Observer. It’s brilliant.

Victoria Coren at 7:02 pm on August 6th, 2009

James, sorry the comments section is quite short. It’s part of the original design - the idea being that the comments should be an easy scroll down through pithy remarks; I think the designer worried about essays being posted and nobody getting as far as comment 2. I admit I posted far too long a comment myself on this thread, will try harder. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Sorry for such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

LC at 11:14 pm on August 6th, 2009

“The free-sheet and the internet has made many papers untenable and I shall mourn their passing.”

Free-sheet papers are just RUBBISH though, aren’t they?

Philip at 9:04 am on August 7th, 2009

‘They paved paradise, to put up a parking lot’

“A measure which would have alleviated traffic congestion on the outskirts of paradise. ”

James at 9:44 am on August 7th, 2009

There is no doubt that Free-sheets are woeful. Unfortunately too many people read them as a matter of course now and seem to percieve proper publications as “pointless”... sad

Marty Drury at 12:20 pm on August 7th, 2009

I once tried to buy a copy of The Observer in the rural Worcestershire village where my parents live. The one shop in a ten mile radius had run out so I set about walking to the next local shop. They didn’t have one either so I walked on…and on…got lost, spent five hours going the wrong way and ended up being chased by quite a lot of sheep. Now that’s dedication to buying a Sunday paper.

Why go through all that just to get a copy of The Observer? Firstly, your column. I’m a young journalist still establishing himself and I have my own style but I find it a great help to read columns such as yours, see what good writing is and learn from it. Secondly, it’s a great paper.

Cobbler at 12:29 pm on August 7th, 2009

Good news.

Now let’s hope that the Guardian loses its pathetic government “Public Sector Jobs” subsidy and joins The Observer on the scrapheap.

Ralph Tritt at 1:47 pm on August 7th, 2009

Victoria, perhaps you could write something about the unelected eminence grise and his coterie of champagne socialists and explain what it is exactly that makes their redundant government so appealing to Observer readers.

Blaithin at 4:55 pm on August 7th, 2009

This is scary news indeed, I too would find Sunday empty without the Observer. Bad enough when I thought they were replacing you with David Mitchell, but for the whole paper to go down would be disastrous. I’ve been buying it religiously for 3 yrs, even when I’m away I make sure someone gets it for me.

I’ll join that group next time I have facebook access.

Victoria Coren at 5:12 pm on August 7th, 2009

I love all these positive newspaper posts (Cobbler a little less cheering, but different strokes etc) - especially Marty’s story about the 5-hour rural hike to find an Observer. That IS dedication. You deserve a medal, fashioned out of Nick Cohen’s best columns and then laminated to keep it waterproof on future ventures. Hurray for you.

Rula at 7:30 pm on August 7th, 2009

The Observer’s been on its last legs since about 1822. My money’s on the old hypochondriac pulling through again. Oh God, might even have to switch sides and buy it, I suppose.

Roger at 2:39 pm on August 8th, 2009

No Observer. That’s like saying Earl Grey tea is out of stock, only to be replaced with your local supermarket’s own brand! It’s like replacing Only Connect with naked news-summaries. Sounds and looks good but has little content.  I shall now be buying a copy of th Observer every weekend instead of reading it on the internet!

Montana Wildhack at 8:15 am on August 10th, 2009

I really wish I could help you & start buying the Observer.  Hard to do from Iowa, though.  I’ll join the Facebook group & pray that it’s still around when I finally figure out how to get UK residency, so that I can buy it!

By the way—are all of us Cif posters horrid?

Victoria Coren at 10:09 am on August 10th, 2009

Of course not! MOST aren’t horrid! It’s probably 20% nice and very much appreciated, 60% what it was set up to be - neither nice nor nasty, just people sharing their own opinions on the topic, agreeing or disagreeing but generally opining & sharing views - and then 20% keen to say my column is rubbish, a waste of money (though they usually post so soon after midnight on Saturday that it’s hard to believe they’ve bought the paper anyway) and then making gibes about my father or stuff so grim that it’s been removed by a moderator before I ever see it. But you know how it is, it’s the ones that hurt that stay with you…

Kevin at 8:33 pm on August 13th, 2009

Well, I suppose that, at least, one beneficial upshot of the Observer closing, if this should come to pass, is the positive impact this will have on the environment what with the number of trees saved that would not otherwise be spared the chop.
The online format is far more eco friendly, is it not? Therefore I cannot help but think that perhaps this is one sacrifice we may just have to make eventually irrespective of the present situation, and from an environmental perspective, Every Cloud, etc, etc.

AndytheDealer at 1:23 pm on August 17th, 2009

Kevin, your logic is flawed.

Firstly, you are relying on all the readers of the Observer not to buy another Sunday paper if it closed and secondly, reading a newspaper online uses a great deal of energy in the form of electrickery thereby smashing your ‘greening’ argument for staying cheerful if the Observer ceases publication.

It reminds me of the Philip Seymour Hoffman character’s words in Charlie Wilson’s War…Kevin thinks there could be a silver lining in the possible closure of the Observer…‘We’ll see.’

Victoria Coren

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