Steve McManaman's lovely villa usurps The State We're In

Media - Ian Hargreaves

Put yourself in Roger Alton's shoes. Here you are, out to revive both the Observer and the reputation of its parent, the Guardian Media Group, whose sureness of touch in running Britain's oldest Sunday newspaper has resembled that of a man with greasy hands carrying an ice sculpture across a crowded and overheated room.

Alton is the Observer's fourth editor since the Guardian bought the paper in 1993, and he has achieved some success. At 410,885, the newspaper's sale in the November-April half-year is 1.62 per cent higher than it was the year before.

The Observer, however, still loses almost as much money as the Guardian makes. Alton's improvements have been incremental. He has tightened the news, broadened the features and improved presentation. The paper feels more coherent, more confident. But when you're up against the marketing power of the Sunday Times, that's not enough.

So how does Alton deploy the limited funds at his disposal for new ventures? Answer: he launches a monthly sports magazine (Observer Sport Monthly), which will go on sale on the news-stands, priced between £1 and £2, two days after it has been given away inside a newspaper costing £1.

Where's the business logic? And why sport, when advertisers want more women readers? Why monthly, when your newspaper is weekly? Why now, when sales of specialist football magazines are falling? Even more basic: does the broadsheet-buying public have an appetite for still more sport, given the proliferation of sports column inches in the Saturday and Sunday newspapers? The weekend broadsheets now give more space to sport than to foreign affairs and politics combined.

Alton explains his move as low-cost, high-profile opportunism. "Ideally," he says, "you would like a little bit of something extra every week. I'd like to do a film thing as well. You need ways to draw people into the paper. But it's a question of money. And no one else has done this."

The bottom-line costs will not be large, given that the number of staff is tiny and the advertising potential real: car advertisers will never buy space alongside football results, but they will always buy into a magazine. And even if stand-alone sales are small, they won't cost much to achieve.

Market research also suggests that the magazine will be popular with women as well as men - indeed, it is said to have scored better than any of the Guardian's previous supplements, including the much imitated Guardian entertainment guide. "The first issue probably didn't have enough for women," Alton concedes, although it did have athletes dressed by top fashion designers and Victoria Coren on poker. "I'd like more of the Hello! stuff. Steve McManaman's lovely villa in Spain, that kind of thing." (McManaman is a Real Madrid footballer, formerly with Liverpool, who seems likely to figure strongly in England's European Championship campaign this summer.)

On the other hand, Alton thinks that the first issue, which went out on 7 May, could have done with more of the sports editor's staple diet - football. "Maybe an interview with Steve McManaman" to supplement the cover story on Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football star and manager.

Alton believes that there is still demand across the social spectrum for more sport. What the Observer magazine has to offer is a more diverse agenda, lengthier and more stylish writing, and magazine-quality pictures, although the impact of these is constrained by the use of cheap paper stock.

Perhaps what Alton is sniffing for is a third age of modern sports writing. In the 1970s, writers such as Norman Mailer and Hugh McIlvanney did boxing and other contests as melodramatic social documentary. In the 1980s, the likes of Giles Smith, Jim White and Richard Williams - all of whom spent long periods at the Independent, as did Matt Tench, the editor of OSM - treated sport as popular culture. With novelists such as Nick Hornby and Irvine Welsh, and entertainers such as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner swelling the pop culture crowd, football especially was seen to offer glamour as well as drama, humour as well as muscle. It was the new rock'n'roll, but more versatile. Perfect conditions for the Beckhams to fill the Diana media gap.

OSM swims in these waters, but it also strikes out beyond them, speculating about the effect of genetics on sport, or the need to raise the net in tennis to allow for the probability that, by 2010, most top male tennis players will be over six-and-a-half-feet tall.

Some will abhor this as just another manifestation of dumbing down, but such critics must deal with the point that Alton, sports fan and film enthusiast, is producing a better paper than his predecessor, Will Hutton, who is one of our most engaging writers on political economy. The same goes for the Independent, where Simon Kelner, a former sports specialist, is a more successful editor than Andrew Marr, whose status as our leading political commentator is confirmed by his translation to BBC political editor.

Some of this is down to different aptitudes, and the pattern is not ubiquitous. It doesn't fit, say, Peter Stothard at the Times or Charles Moore at the Telegraph, both of whom prefer history and politics to football and pop. But when headhunters ring me about whom they should approach to fill the latest editorial vacancy - last week, it was the Herald in Glasgow - my first question is whether the client wants Steve McManaman's lovely villa or The State We're In.

The writer is a professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune