Posted by: structureofnews | June 18, 2011

Sustainability First!

The Guardian announced yesterday that it was planning to be a “digital first” organization, “placing open journalism on the web at the heart of its strategy,” according to its statement.   That may come as a surprise to people who think it was already doing that.

But apparently it really wants to do much more – and it says, it’s doing it so it can make money.   Can it?

That’s the £100,000 question – about the amount the organization lost every day, this year and last.  And, according to Guardian Media Group CEO Andrew Miller, the parent company could run out of cash in three to five years at this rate.   No pressure.

Hence, perhaps, this line in the statement:

The Guardian has championed a highly distinctive, open approach to publishing on the web and grown its audience to 50 million unique browsers a month. The new strategy is aimed at further digital growth, and ensuring the Guardian’s long-term financial sustainability.

But what does it actually mean?  What will they do differently, and more importantly, how will they make money from it?

It’s not clear.  The statement talks about changes in print – adjusting to the fact that people access information differently now – and investments in digital.  And the Guardian itself quotes Miller saying they want to bring digital revenues from an expected £47m in the current financial year to £91m in 2015/16.  “Doing nothing was not an option,” it quotes him saying.

Well, true.  But diving headfirst into the slogan-filled pond of Digital First! without a focused business plan isn’t a recipe for success.  Now perhaps they have all this well thought out – but a £33 million cash loss this year (and £34 million last year) suggests otherwise.

Which is another way of saying: It’s great to be a digital leader in news and information, which the Guardian obviously is.  But if it’s not attached to some sustainability model – ad revenues, subscriptions, donations, ring tones if it comes to that – then it can’t survive.  Kevin Anderson, a Guardian alum who blogs at Strange Attractor, dissected the Guardian’s ills succinctly in a recent post.

Feel free to give The Guardian credit for being innovative, but everyone in the journalism community has to be more honest and realistic about its business challenges…

The Guardian needs an intervention. Digital first will not be enough to save it. It needs to remember that although they are supported by a trust, that is not a licence to completely ignore business realities.

Amen.  But not to pick on the Guardian, which arguably is at least trying a host of experiments and ideas.  As is John Paton at Journal Register Co.  No one really has any good solutions.

But to look for solutions to the sustainability question, it’s important that we prioritize our finite resources – and that includes time and attention – towards that goal, and the digital first mantra doesn’t help on that front.  Cool innovations and great buzz are nice to have – and I confess to pursuing nice-to-look-at things as well – but they also have to be understood in terms of what broader goals we want to achieve, both in terms of sustainability and public impact/good.  (Or we’d all run internet gambling sites instead….)

Kevin offers up some useful advice, at least in terms of how the Guardian’s mindset needs to change:

  1. Building a sustainable business is not evil;
  2. Editorial innovation alone is not enough;
  3. ‘Open’ without a business model is an empty ideology;
  4. You’ve got a golden brand. Capitalise on it.

I’d add to that the need to think beyond the current metrics that we’ve set for ourselves – page views, most-trafficked site, prize-winning stories, etc.  Those can be important, of course.  But metrics also lock us into a way of thinking, and now more than ever, we need to rethink almost every element of what we do, from the story to the deadline to the audience to the platform.  As Kevin notes:

The Guardian has time to make some relatively easy decisions to ensure its future, but it needs to get serious, not just about digital but about its business. The Guardian’s often lauded as the future of journalism, but without a sound business model, it doesn’t have a future.


  1. Part one of the business plan was to move to the web with a product that is free. Many newspapers did this so they could be in the “game” about 10 years ago. There seems to be very little business planning done during this time and as a result many newspapers are on the financial ropes. I like the sentiment that the answer should be entirely web-based and that somehow the users of information and news will pay for it and create a break even to profitable business model in the process. I argue for distributed editorial and no central brick and mortar editorial centres as one way to do it better. I am thinking this through at the moment. It is a difficult problem but it may work if newspapers are thought of as brands in the clouds that writers and journalists contribute to from their low cost technologically sophisticated home offices. As I say I am thinking about a business model to try this out. Look for a discussion on this soon on my blog We should all start to think this one through and try to escape old idea. Tom Thorne

    • Another way to look at it may be for news orgs to be loose federations of small newsrooms of say 6 to 10 people each, each focused on some specific area of coverage – and perhaps loosely allied with other, non-competing news orgs. So a city news org ties up with politics-, sports, health-focused teams, and maybe each of those teams tied up with national franchises focused on that particular area. Who knows? The glue might be common standards, CMS, data structures….

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