Updated: May 10, 2020
First thoughts time after today’s announcement by The Guardian that it is to become a “digital first” organisation. In short, I get the theory, but I don’t see how the business plan stacks up.
The basics are that digital audiences are growing while print readership is declining. If the 10% a year average decline in print readership of The Guardian continues it means that the time when there will be no readers at all is within sight. There’s a very clear and stark graphic explanation of what this means from the point of view of an individual punter on Malcolm Coles’s blog. The announcement also said that those people who are still reading the print edition are reading it in a different way. Editor Alan Rusbridger told staff in today’s briefing that
“Half our readers now read the paper in the evening: they get their breaking news from our website or on mobile”
While that’s initially being characterised as ‘The Guardian is now an evening paper’ I think it’s more likely that the observation signals a move towards a greater level of analysis and background in the paper. So does the plan mean that The Guardian’s management reckon they can get enough people to pay for background analysis by demonstrating the quality of their news journalism for free online? Because however you look at this, and it’s going to be analysed to death over the next 48 hours, the question of how you make the money keeps coming up.
Insiders tell me the plan is to try and double revenue from digital in the next five years. But with The Guardian committed to an open and free model, the ways this can be done are limited. There’s talk of ‘paid-for services built around editorial’ but is this really going to make up for the decline in paying customers? This is the big question, because The Guardian is saying it is moving its focus from the product that fewer people pay for to the one more people don’t pay for.
What this doesn’t mean is that The Guardian is getting out of print. Rusbridger said as much today. But it does raise again the idea of the Rusbridger Cross – the point at which online revenues rise to compensate for print decline. The announcement also prompts further thought about where The Guardian’s commitment to free and open access comes in, or whether that consistently runs through the whole offer. I pointed out some apparent contradictions in an article for Daily Finance yesterday.
I’m conscious that what media types tend to do when other media types say they are going to do anything is point out why it won’t work. I’m not doing that because I honestly don’t know what will work. But the questions this latest move raises are pretty vital not just for those of us who (would like to continue to) make our living in the media, but for everyone else interested in the flow of information too. Inevitably, there’s more to come on this.