Beyond a customary newspaper to a corporate citizen | Sunday Observer
SUNDAY OBSERVER: THE leading English newspaper for 93 years

Beyond a customary newspaper to a corporate citizen

7 February, 2021

It is with pride and honour that the Sunday Observer celebrated its 93rd anniversary last Thursday.

The Observer was actually founded some 187 years ago as a commercial advertiser by Colombo based British merchants. Thereafter, on February 4, 1928 the Sunday Observer was founded by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL).

February 4 is a historic day for Sri Lanka because the country gained independence from the British on that day, 73 years ago. However, 114 years before Sri Lanka gained her independence on February 4, 1948, and 187 years ago, the Observer was founded in 1834.

The late E. J. Darley controlled the Observer as its founder editor. George Winter was appointed as the editor by Colombo merchants, publishing twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. But it soon became an afternoon daily.

A colonial surgeon in Badulla, Christopher Elliott took over as the editor in 1835. Taking over its ownership, Elliott changed the name of the paper to The Colombo Observer.

Thereafter, Alastair Mackenzie Ferguson joined the staff of The Colombo Observer in 1846 and bought the paper in 1859 after Elliott became the Principal Officer of the newly created Civil Medical Department.

Alastair Mackenzie Ferguson’s nephew John Ferguson then joined the Observer in 1861. In 1867, the paper changed its name to The Ceylon Observer, and John Ferguson became joint-editor in 1870 and a partner in 1875. Following A. M. Ferguson’s death in 1892, John Ferguson became editor of the paper. He was succeeded as editor by his son Ronald Haddon Ferguson.

In 1920, the paper was bought by a company owned by the European Association of Ceylon. The late D. R. Wijewardene bought the paper in 1923, before adding another to his fleet – the Sunday Observer.

The Ceylon Observer and its sister newspapers, the Sunday Observer and the Ceylon Daily News campaigned for constitutional change in the then Ceylon before Sri Lanka gained independence.

The Sunday Observer has remained the undisputed market leader over the years due to the faith placed by its widespread readership that has been with us since the first issue saw the light of day on February 4, 1928.

Ninety-three years as the leading English newspaper is no easy task, especially among the English-speaking population. Yet, the Sunday Observer has come a long way facing many challenges from the post-independence era to the modern day web news on Smartphone and mini notebooks.

Although the newspaper industry the world over is challenged by the electronic media, the Sunday Observer has continued to remain Sri Lanka’s English newspaper with the largest circulation, apart from millions of visitors who visit our website from every corner of the globe.

The newspaper has produced many illustrious editors who had maintained the rich traditions of their predecessors.

Producing a quality and readable newspaper accepted by millions of people around the world is certainly a gigantic task. But the editors, sectional heads and journalists of the Sunday Observer have worked hard during various eras to maintain the identity as well as the quality of the newspaper.

The day the late D.R. Wijewardene, the founder of Lake House, chose to release the first issue of the Sunday Observer - February 4 - ultimately turned out to be a day that changed the destiny of a nation.

It was exactly 20 years after the launch of the Sunday Observer that Sri Lanka gained independence from the British. When the founder of the nation, the then Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake proudly hoisted the Lion Flag in independent Sri Lanka, the Sunday Observer was celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Flagship English newspaper

During its more than nine-decade proven track record as Sri Lanka’s flagship English newspaper, the Sunday Observer has been equally popular among people in all walks of life. It has maintained its position as the family newspaper which has been close to the people of different segments in society.

The Sunday Observer has maintained its own identity as a responsible newspaper which reads the pulse of the masses. Though many English newspapers emerged subsequently and adopted various strategies to win the confidence of readers, they could never pose a challenge to the popularity of the Sunday Observer.

The key to the newspaper’s success is its ability to understand the needs of each and every family member. From its humble beginnings 93 years ago, the Sunday Observer is now enriched with different segments to meet the different reading needs, from kindergarten children to senior citizens.

What is more important is the fact that it has gone well beyond a customary newspaper and established its position as a truly corporate citizen, partnering in many corporate social responsibility projects.

The Observer School Cricketer of the Year has turned out to be an established brand, not only among the sports-loving public, but among all Sri Lankans.

This contest was inaugurated by the Sunday Observer in 1978/79 at a time when there wasn’t a single school cricket awards ceremony to recognise the raw talents of schoolboy cricketers.

Thanks to the premiere role played by the Sunday Observer in the country’s sports promotions, the Observer School Cricketer of the Year has produced many world-class cricketers during the past 40 years.

Sri Lanka’s World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga, the Most Valuable Player in Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup triumph Sanath Jayasuriya, spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan and the Chief ICC Match Referee are among the galaxy of world cricket stars who first entered the big league after their graduation at the Observer School Cricketer of the Year contests.

The Sunday Observer has been associated with many charity projects, beauty contests, business and academic awards. It has provided an ideal platform for the country’s budding inventors, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, artistes and even amateur politicians to make their mark.

There are also important players in the wider spectrum of the Sunday Observer’s success, such as the departments of Advertising, Circulation, Commercial Printing, Web Marketing and others.

Vanquishing the assumption that Opposition politicians do not get an opportunity in the State media, the Sunday Observer has always offered a fair deal to Opposition politicians to take their ideology to the masses.

On this memorable occasion, we salute our valued readers who have reposed their faith in the Sunday Observer. They have been a tower of strength behind the success story of the Sunday Observer.

A great newspaper is hard to define. But readers could identify it at first glance - when they see one.

If being great means having the nation taking note of our articles, having arguments over them, having them reprinted, having them emailed, if being great means holding a paper packed with national, world, provincial and city news as well as sports, features, business, arts, entertainment, together with separate magazines for children (Junior Observer) and the young adults (Youth Observer), then the Sunday Observer is surely among the top in the list.

The Sunday Observer over the years has produced illustrious journalists. Though the list would be long to spell out, among the distinguished journalists, the Sunday Observer produced include the Sri Lankan Editors: H. A. J. Hulugalle (1930-1931), H. D. Jansz (1931-1952), Tarzie Vittachchi (1953-1961), Denzil Peiris (1961-1970), Ernest Corea (1970-1973), Lionel Fernando (1973-1977), Harold Peiris (1977-1988), Leslie Dahanayake (1988-1990), H. L. D. Mahindapala (1990-1994), Ajith Samaranayake (1994), Jayatilleke de Silva (1999), Lakshman Gunasekara (2000-2004), Rajpal Abeynayake (2006), Dinesh Weerawansa (2006-2015), Chandani Jayatilleke (2017), Dharisha Bastians (2018 – 2019) and Dinesh Weerawansa back on board as the Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Observer since December 2019.

Beginning as Sunday Observer and Commercial Advertiser on February 4, 1834, there were many British Editors in the Observer. Among them were E. J. Darley who was in charge when the paper was launched, George Winter, Dr. Christopher Elliott, A. M. Ferguson (1859), John Ferguson (1867), R. H. Ferguson, Charles Tower, C. Drieberg (1923-1924), P. B. Marshall and J. D. Quirk.

One of the significant aspects of the English press in Sri Lanka is that it is read by the academia, artistes, political elite, the members of the Judiciary, business tycoons and the English educated civil servants and teachers.

The other important specialised areas that attract readers across the social strata are Sports and Finance in addition to political commentaries.

Although many rival publications emerged in the newspaper arena over the years, the Sunday Observer continues to retain its position as the most widely read English weekly in Sri Lanka and will proudly march towards its centenary celebrations in seven years.