Inside Story

The Guardian goes for broke

Britain’s liberal beacon is scaling down but thinking big

David Hayes 10 January 2018 3694 words

Where the heart is? The Guardian’s headquarters in north London. John Stillwell/PA Wire 

From the start, a young Michael Frayn’s post-Cambridge stint with the Manchester Guardian in 1957 had the sense of an ending. He imbibed the paper’s taste for “the idiosyncratic, the odd, the whimsical, particularly anything connected with the folk traditions of the industrial northwest” such as “last surviving clogmakers,” while working in a reporters’ room with “two telephones, kept shut away in soundproof cabins, and ancient typewriters on even more ancient desks that were sloped for writing by hand.”

A decade later his sublime novel, Towards the End of the Morning, gently skewered Fleet Street’s vanishing customs. The heart of Britain’s newspaper industry, Frayn would write from the vast retrospect of 2005, “was coming towards the end not just of the morning, but of the afternoon as well, and the shades of night were gathering fast.”

Fleet Street has indeed become a place of ghosts. But they turned out to be, if not exactly friendly, then possessed of dark humour. Newspapers survive as print–digital hybrids, the entangling often contrary enough to recall Bob Dylan’s line, “there’s no success like failure.” And in some ineffable way, the tail wags the body of these strange creatures. If it’s still hard to imagine a London newsstand without the Guardian or the Daily Mail — those enemies-in-arms with soaraway website traffic — that’s surely because their singular political and cultural weight is intertwined with their existence as a material artefact.

The experience of the Independent, which went digital-only in 2016, is negative confirmation. No one regards it as a real newspaper any more, as opposed to a news website (itself a kind description). Once gone, there is no way back. Back in 1967, “a few terminal cases were still coughing their last in odd corners,” writes Frayn: the trade-union backed Daily Herald, “being slowly strangled by its [trade union] affiliation,” and “the poor old News Chronicle, the decent Liberal paper that everyone liked but no one read.” In 1947, these publications had sold 2.1 million and 1.6 million copies to the Manchester Guardian’s 126,000.

Today the Guardian is selling only a third above that number. Yet that printed edition can justly pose as indispensable to the brand’s huge digital reach on three continents. The newspaper switches to tabloid on 15 January. In a sense, that might be a “Small Tremor in King’s Cross, Not Many Care” story. But the paper’s online reach amplifies it into a tale of how a regional newspaper went national, got bigger, changed its spots, and is now going for broke by touching base with its roots.

The Guardian’s change of format is only the second in the history of Britain’s main liberal newspaper, founded in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian. In February 1998, under Peter Preston, the broadsheet had a new masthead and contained G2, a new tabloid section. In September 2005, it chose not to emulate the ex-broadsheet Independent and Times and instead adopted the slim Berliner (or midi) size of European papers such as Paris’s Le Monde and Rome’s La Repubblica. That move was soon followed by its reluctant Sunday stablemate the Observer, founded in 1791, which the Guardian had bought in 1993.

The smart Berliner design, coming ten years into Alan Rusbridger’s long editorship, ticked many boxes. It gave new distinction to a newspaper proud of its freestanding ownership and ethos, took printing in-house, and offered a welcome patina of European modernity to its centre-left readership. It was a time of innovation: three years later a move to sleek offices in King’s Place — a ten-minute walk from its home since 1976, a tired sixties block on Farringdon Road — delivered a cool upgrade to match the product.

Troubled transition: the Guardian’s previous editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger. Alastair Grant/AP Photo

By then the Berliner look and clean Egyptian typeface were conjoined to an expanding online presence, with the launch under Georgina Henry of the “Comment Is Free” opinion section and the web-first posting of selected news. In editorial terms, the redesign was an act of strategic optimism amid the whirlwind that the paper had earned new spurs in tracking: globalisation’s peak, post-9/11 wars, London’s 7/7 bombings, Tony Blair’s faltering hegemony. Its print sales on 12 September 2001 were the highest in its history, as were its page views on 7 July 2005.

The newspaper’s early adventures with the worldwide web had given it an edge and a bank of expertise. Led by Ian Katz, its news, sport and jobs websites had fused as Guardian Unlimited in 1999, and grown from three million to ten million unique users by 2005. A decade later, its free-to-read content — now with customised editions in the United States and Australia — was reaching 155 million unique browsers (the term it now prefers) per month. It has 7.7 million Facebook likes and 6.9 million Twitter followers. This Berliner-era Guardian has proved its own editorial mettle, from the financial crisis of 2007–09 via the phone-hacking scandal of 2009–11 to Brexit and Trump. And it became a pioneer of collaborative data journalism in tracking docu-dumps from WikiLeaks/Julian Assange (2010–11), Edward Snowden (2013), and the Panama/Paradise tax havens (2016–17), and many other big stories.

Over the same period, the paper’s mainstay income from display and classified advertising plunged and daily print sales continued to fall. From a historic peak of almost half a million in 1987, and a still strong 428,000 in 1997, they dropped to 337,000 in 2005 but remained above 300,000 as late as 2010. From there the tapering was abrupt: in December 2017 the number was 146,766. People over sixty-five accounted for 28 per cent, those over forty-five for 58.8 per cent. London is the Guardian’s redoubt: 38.6 per cent of its 2016–17 sales were there, against 20.8 per cent in England’s north and only 4.2 per cent in Scotland.

A third of buyers are now subscribers saving on the £2 (A$3.50) weekday price, augmented since 2014 by a new category of members who pay for masterclasses in photography, novel-writing, data visualisation, flirting, and more. Regular paying supporters, including members, now reportedly number 750,000. Such revenue streams, along with grants for specialist coverage — including from the Bill & Melinda Gates, Rockefeller, and Skoll foundations — helped hoist digital income in 2016–17 to £94.1 million (A$164 million). “More people are paying for Guardian journalism than ever before,” says the Guardian Media Group, or GMG, the company that runs the newspaper.

The GMG is now entering the last phase of an ambitious three-year plan, launched in January 2016, to stabilise its finances after a decade of heavy losses. After the financial crash, these ran to £90 million (A$157 million) in 2008–09, fell to £30.9 million (A$53.2 million) in 2012–13, back up to £68.7 million (A$120 million) in 2015–16. The deficits were made bearable only by revenue from Trader Media Group, engine of the GMG’s portfolio. The company sold its majority stake in Trader in 2014, raising £619 million (A$1 billion), creating a huge endowment to safeguard its future. It was a replay of history. The floating of the Reuters news agency in 1984 had been a windfall for its Fleet Street investors, with the Guardian’s share of £28 million (in today’s money, £87 million, or A$151 million) enabling it to settle all its mortgages and debts.

Figures like these make the Guardian a case study in media-wide trends that it pioneered and championed even as they worked against its own interests as a newspaper. The Berliner format was a bravura innovation whose content was made freely available online, making for a print–online hybrid whose proliferating digital branches far outgrew a withered trunk.

The paper’s domestic competitors, the Times and Telegraph especially, were always in the Guardian’s digital slipstream. These two papers, and the Financial Times, experimented with metered payments in the early 2010s, in each case leading to a subscription model with insiderish benefits. The expensive FT, £2.70 (A$4.60) for a weekday paper copy, now has over 700,000 subscribers, its reputation for quality reinforced by critical, in-depth coverage of Brexit. Alongside the Guardian in staying free of cyber-charge was the fellow centre-left Independent, saved from closure by the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev in 2010 and shunted online after six years as his expensive bauble.

The venerable Times, bought by Rupert Murdoch in 1981 and often aggressively priced, began a paywall in 2010 after its sales, at 508,000, had also entered a long downward curve. A recent bounce to 450,000 (boosted by around 80,000 free bulk copies, a figure-boosting technique the Guardian now disdains) may owe something to footloose ex-buyers of the Independent, which was notionally selling 55,000 a day when it stopped printing in 2016. The Guardian, whose cover price is 30p (50c) more than the Times’s, seems not to have benefited. More germane is that the smart, low-priced tabloid i, an Independent spin-off with 260,000-plus sales since 2012, has quietly cornered the growing market for bite-sized news.

All newspapers had entered the rapids well before 2005, even if their layers of insulation still muffled the sound. What distinguishes the Guardian’s story in the years between its two redesigns is the cunning-of-history element. It saw and reported the dangers but felt itself above them. It sought to become a global contender while neglecting its own roots. Its switch on 15 January is less a wager on the future than a concession to its inevitable diminishment. Britain in a nutshell, it might be said.

Against that fatalistic view is one that stresses agency and opportunity in the context of unavoidably acute financial constraints. At the centre of the GMG plan is the Guardian’s aim to increase reader revenues, expand internationally, and build “a far deeper set of relationships with our audience” — all while reducing the paper’s outgoings by a fifth.

The strategy is co-led by the GMG’s chief executive David Pemsel and editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, who launched the Australian operation and edited the subsequently troubled US one. Viner succeeded Rusbridger in March 2015, after the result of a staff vote was endorsed by the Scott Trust, set up in 1936 to protect the Guardian’s financial and editorial independence. The transition became a rift when Rusbridger was obliged to give up his expected chairmanship of the trust, thus severing connection with the newspaper. He now heads an Oxford college and chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The fumbled passing of the editorial torch accentuated the sense of a publication in flux. Senior staff left, including two applicants for the top job: chief website editor Janine Gibson (Rusbridger’s favoured successor) for BuzzFeed, and digital-strategy director Wolfgang Blau for Condé Nast. Another applicant, Emily Bell, media editor until 2010 when she moved to Columbia’s Center for Digital Journalism, remains non-executive director of the Scott Trust (which in 2008 had turned itself into a limited company). The final choice was between Viner and Ian Katz, who had left in 2013 to become editor of BBC2’s Newsnight and now heads programming at Channel 4.

New mission: Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner. PA Images/Alamy

With Rusbridger’s departure, strategic options expanded. Among them was a cost-saving return to Manchester, which the paper, having dropped the northwest English city from its masthead in 1959, quit in stages for London in the early 1960s. The end of that association had long been a source of bittersweet lament, without its actual revival ever seeming a realistic possibility.

In the event, the tabloid decision had more business logic than the quasi-nostalgic Berliner one. It enabled sharing of printing facilities owned by Trinity Mirror, publisher of a red-top daily and two Sunday titles. The GMG had sold twenty-two regional titles, including the Manchester Evening News, to Trinity in 2010, raising Ј44.8 million (A$78 million), the great bulk in release from a hefty tabloid print contract. The Berliner-only presses the Guardian had built in Manchester and east London, which cost Ј113 million (A$200 million) in today’s money, will now be scrapped. That adds fifty to the 300-plus redundancies already made.

Almost three years after the regime change, the Guardian is still between eras. Depicting retrenchment as a great leap forward makes the best of a complex situation. The approach also plays to the evangelism that lies at the core of the newspaper’s self-understanding, and which found in the internet a perfect contemporary match. From the start the Guardian’s singular relationship with the web — in the latter’s potent Silicon Valley guise as a liberator with ethics — had a soulmates feel. The traces of that origin continue to inform the Guardian’s editorial thinking, as revealed in Rusbridger’s and Viner’s several public lectures and essays on the future of their newspaper and of journalism. These are well worth reading in full.

“As for digital, I am with the utopians,” Rusbridger told a Sydney audience gathered for the Andrew Olle lecture in 2010. The unowned and barely regulated digital space “brings with it an entirely new idea of what journalism is,” which for the Guardian means “an open and collaborative one.” In his Hugh Cudlipp lecture earlier that year, named after the Daily Mirror editor in its halcyon 1950s, he had argued against paywalls and for a newspaper “open to the rest of the web” and becoming “as influential in Beijing and Washington as in Paris or Delhi.”

Viner’s own A.N. Smith lecture in Melbourne in 2013, as editor-in-chief of the new Guardian Australia, was as emphatic about the potential of the “open web” to be “a huge democratic space,” enabling “a fundamental redrawing of journalists’ relationship with our audience.” But a 2016 essay on “how technology disrupted the truth” observes that social media “has swallowed the news” and supplanted the “old idea of a wide-open web.” And the tone of her ambitious new “mission for journalism in a time of crisis” — published in mid November, two months before the newspaper’s resizing — is one of extreme urgency.

The “utopian mood of the early 2000s did not anticipate all that technology would enable”: surveillance as “the business model of the digital age”; Facebook becoming a wealthy behemoth “by replacing editors with algorithms”; the spoliation of “[our] digital town squares” by bullies, misogynists and racists. All this, part of a wider crisis in public life, requires a journalism that champions the public interest; sees readers as collaborators; listens, understands, diversifies; is trustworthy, rigorous, fair; “uses clarity and imagination to build hope.”

Viner’s evangelising prospectus is remarkable in its sweep. It defines the “relationship with our readers” as “not transactional: it is about sharing a sense of purpose and a commitment to understand and illuminate our times.” Her offer is threefold: “high-quality journalism, rooted in the facts,” “our progressive perspective” and a shared belief “that Guardian journalism should have the biggest possible impact and try to change the world for the better.” In effect, the text positions readers as co-protagonists in a life-or-death campaign.

Yet the business pressures underpinning this joint enterprise go unmentioned in a 6000-word essay. That may seem immaterial: few reading the piece can be unaware of at least the broad outlines of the Guardian’s situation. Central is the fact that readers — whether supporters, members, subscribers, donors, or mere everyday purchasers — are ever more the newspaper’s lifeblood. To survive, it must squeeze them close. Viner avoids the topic. In this respect her stirring vision of the future also serves to displace the internal problems that have led the Guardian to this point, and bear directly on its new course.

As significant, Viner weaves her outline of the newspaper’s expansive goals into its two centuries’ experience. This emphasis on the value and relevance of the Guardian’s past is a striking departure from the preceding reign of technocentric neophilia. With equal rigour, the theme of advancing hope also works carefully to screen the Guardian’s troubles from view.

Every Guardian editor, and Viner is only the eleventh in the newspaper’s 197 years, works in the shadow of C.P. Scott, who held the post from 1872 to 1929. This patrician figure was a conscientious reformer, a Unitarian — or rational dissenter — like the paper’s Manchester founders, an advocate in many just causes who also served for ten years as a Liberal member of parliament. Appointed by his cousin, the owner of the paper, he steered the moderate Whig newspaper along the same course for over a decade before converting it into a voice of progressive social liberalism.

C.P. Scott’s example — on his death, Manchester “paid him a remarkable tribute: on a cold winter morning, huge numbers turned out to offer their last respects in what became an unofficial, unorchestrated, state funeral,” says the University of Adelaide’s Trevor Wilson — imbues his name with an aura of piety. Viner’s salute has the rare distinction of placing him in the context of the newspaper’s larger canvas.

The story is well, if selectively, told: how the St Peter’s Fields cull of protesters by sabre-wielding hussars in 1819 eventually led John Edward Taylor and his colleagues to found the Manchester Guardian as an apostle of “sincere and undeviating attachment to rational liberty,” how the paper was sublimated to the city’s free-trader cotton merchants in the Victorian mid-century, how its true spirit was recovered by Scott and his offspring. While noting its occasional “missteps,” such as its backing the Conservatives in the 1951 election, Viner avows a noble lineage:

Our moral conviction, as exemplified by Taylor and codified by Scott, rests on a faith that people long to understand the world they’re in, and to create a better one. We believe in the value of the public sphere; that there is such a thing as the public interest, and the common good; that we are all of equal worth; that the world should be free and fair.

This programmatic view of the Guardian’s golden thread, geared to the present, is naturally open to question as history. Where Viner rightly credits John Edward Taylor and the London Times, it was James Wroe of the Manchester Observer whose inspired subediting branded the carnage at St Peter’s Fields as the “Peterloo Massacre” (Taylor, less radical, abjured both terms) and it was Wroe whose pamphlet series, with its “faithful narrative of the events,” spread throughout the land. The republican Richard Carlile and others played a role. She dates the paper’s “drift from the political ideals that had inspired its founding” to 1844, but already in the 1820s–30s it was scorned by agitators for insufficient radicalism, such as opposition to strikes. From the very outset, the Manchester Guardian was being outflanked on its left.

Jumping a century, A.P. Wadsworth’s reluctant endorsement of Churchill in 1951 as “the lesser evil” was also a judgement on the Labour minister Aneurin Bevan’s fierce rhetoric, the “hate-gospellers of his entourage,” and the soft pro-Sovietism in his wing of the party. A want of imagination aside, Viner’s retrospective disagreement with Wadsworth’s exercise of editorial freedom has the whiff of a red line that elsewhere she is eager to disown.

Such examples are important not just for their own sake but also because too tight a corralling of the past might cramp judgements in the present. The pincer movement in Viner’s manifesto — on the Guardian’s past and its readers — plants a doubt. Will the impact of her missionary journalism, in the context of a mutualised project, threaten the newspaper’s editorial independence?

That is not to detract from the manifesto’s seriousness, sincerity, even anguish — and refreshingly un-Guardian-like absence of knowing, in-crowd detachment. These merits far outweigh its over-crowdsourced, mustn’t-forget-the-kitchen-sink feel. “What is the meaning and purpose of our work? Who are we, fundamentally?” Viner has the courage to ask. At this odd juncture, however — somewhere between long dark night and new dawn — the Guardian’s divided soul is not yet open to true introspection.

Viner’s piercing self-questions might usefully reach to another in the same spirit: “where do we belong?” Of all newspapers, the Guardian, which would always be marked by the transition from Manchester to London, might at least be expected to consider it. Migration, exile, displacement, cultural borders, identity dilemmas, dual loyalties: these, after all, are the newspaper’s foremost themes. Yet the Guardian has never tried to put its own experience here to “beneficial account,” a phrase that Viner is fond of quoting from its founding, 1821 prospectus.

That document’s appeal to “the friends of freedom in this neighbourhood” is a reminder of how much the nonconformist John Edward Taylor and friends were bonded by ideals and by place. It’s easy to overlook the fact that Peterloo was also an intimately local event, pulsating through Lancashire’s towns and villages. The Manchester Guardian’s national status and international influence were won over decades from a foundation of civic and regional attachments, all capacious enough to accommodate the others.

With the move to London, such layers thinned and were not easily replicated. The new Guardian knuckled down and looked ahead, as it had to. The newspaper’s dislocation attracted the easy jibe, handy in north and south alike, that it was a roots-betraying interloper. From various directions — sentimental northernism, populist anti-Londonism, knockabout anti-leftism — the newspaper was typecast as the house journal of an out-of-touch, we-know-best, anti-patriotic, metropolitan (formerly “Hampstead liberal”) elite.

Such formulaic charges have a low-rent currency that trades as much in abrasive Fleet Street rivalry as social prejudice. Alone, the Guardian’s brilliant journalism and the best of its commentary would make them look ridiculous. Regrettably, the newspaper’s tolerance for the smug, indignant and hectoring gives them credence. That manner is a long way from C.P. Scott’s centenary leader: “The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint.”

The strangeness of this moment is that it’s so hard to tell whether the tabloid Guardian will be entering a new morning or joining those clogmakers. A radical change justified by the sweeping invitation to a bright future, taken with reference to an honoured past, where no one, including the people in charge, knows what will happen. The Guardian is on the same page as Brexit. These really are interesting times. ●