New Guardian has an air of refinement

Loitering at WHSmith in Charing Cross station, watching whether copies were shifting after The Guardian’s redesign, a woman in a black company polo shirt quietly said to me: "Would you like to buy The Times today? The Times2 section has been relaunched with lots of articles to interest women like you."

Nobody has ever actively tried to talk me into buying a paper before. It was oddly pleasurable to find myself on the front line.

I'm in an interesting position here, as a regular Guardian reader, former employee, weekly contributor to its pages, yet independent media commentator. Here goes, this is my assessment.

The Guardian's relaunch is brave, principled, expensive and mostly thoughtful. The word that sums it up for me is "refined".

This is an upmarket reincarnation for grown ups. Playing brand associations, I'd twin it with Waitrose or with a Nicole Farhi fashion diffusion range, should such a thing exist. There is not a trace of vulgarity. The tone is New York Times transatlantic serious.

You choose what to read first.

Second, the colour is fantastic: daily news photography has been reborn. I was pleased to see the paper publish a congratulatory letter from Brian Harris, one of the best photographers around. That also augurs well for its subsidiary role as an advertising medium.

The Times, Independent and Guardian all carried full-page ads for M&S, featuring Martin Freeman and shot by David Bailey last week. The Guardian's shone through, it looked lovely.

Another positive is the way the so-called G3 sections – media, education, society and online – have been handled and given the full Berliner treatment. They are read for their job adverts, as well as editorial and provide bedrock bread-and-butter income. They are more accessible and less bulky.

But there are drawbacks. While the size is comfy and delivering it ready folded is very considerate, I wonder how well it is playing on the news-stands – where all you see is the above-the-fold section against the full-bodied impact of rivals. The Guardian doesn't have a commanding presence, though its front page treatments are evolving by the day.

Word on the street, as I write, is that an extra 40,000 copies per day or so are being shifted. The point of the exercise is to push up slumping weekday sales towards the 400,000 daily average. To do that, you need new and lapsed readers to sample you and then to stick. Nor am I surprised The Times senses an opportunity and is seeking out women.

The Guardian's daily sports section is a fine idea, but the big loser in the revamp is the once mischievous G2. It seems neutered, cut down in size without being covetable. Doonesbury is being reinstated, but what about the shrunken listings? You need specs to read the TV schedules.

Final point: call me old fashioned, but I had expected something big and splashy with the relaunch, a big-book serialisation, a dramatic piece of investigative journalism, alongside columns from Chris Patten or Simon Jenkins. Oh for the editorial equivalent of Kevin Pieterson, whacking stones into establishment greenhouses.

I suspect that the conditions of commercial secrecy – inevitable internal debates – have tended to absorb much of the creative energy until now, while the 1988 redesign was not an instant success – the paper had to adjust the design before it started firing.

The Berliner is here to stay, but it will take months to shake down.

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