Guardian needs more sustainable strategy than membership

The media group, set to report record losses, has yet to change its mind about paywalls

The Guardian newspaper offices in London. Its critics say the media group is not just underwhelming at business, it is reluctant to consider itself a business at all. Photograph: Bethany Clarke/Getty

The Guardian newspaper offices in London. Its critics say the media group is not just underwhelming at business, it is reluctant to consider itself a business at all. Photograph: Bethany Clarke/Getty

 

The Guardian will report a record pre-tax loss of £173 million and a higher-than-expected £69 million operating loss on Wednesday, not that anyone has had to wait that long to find out. The story appeared on the paywalled website of the Financial Times on Sunday, and its front page the next day.

What is happening at Guardian Media Group is not pretty, but it is not unique in the media industry, nor is it complicated. The previous administration – led by editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and chief executive Andrew Miller – overspent in times of relative plenty and did not correctly predict the commercial environment in which it would end up.

It is the fate of its current management – editor-in-chief Katharine Viner and chief executive David Pemsel – to make the Guardian behave more like a business, which means responding to record losses with redundancies, other budget cuts and a writedown on an overoptimistic investment. Pemsel and Viner may be keen to “kitchen-sink” the bad news, so that next year’s figures are less terrible by comparison, but they are not making it up.

Paywall phobia

So far, however, there is no evidence that the Guardian has had therapy for its debilitating paywall phobia. Rather than formulating a plan to make as many readers as possible pay for its journalism, it asks them to “support” its continued existence.

One such request came in the feverish wake of the Brexit referendum. In June, the pro-Remain Guardian saw its monthly web traffic exceed a billion page views for the first time, while its monthly unique users crossed a record 167 million. On an average day, it had more than 10 million unique users, up 15 per cent on May.

As confused, appalled or merely fascinated readers dissected the implications of the “Leave” result, Viner took the opportunity to plead that if they valued the Guardian’s Brexit coverage, could they help fund it?

“If everyone chipped in, our future would be more secure,” she wrote.

Notwithstanding the June bounce in traffic, it sounds like the Guardian has about as much faith in translating this extra custom into a digital advertising bonanza as it does in Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of leading Labour to general election triumph.

Membership system

Viner’s direct message to readers has been backed up by regular pop-up messages on screen that tell visitors that “the Guardian’s voice is needed now more than ever”, and that the first rung of the three-tier membership system, introduced in 2014, starts at £49 a year.

That’s to be a “supporter”. Being a “partner”, which sounds very flattering, costs £149 a year and comes with extra bells and whistles, while to show “deep support” by becoming a “patron” will set you back £599. That’s one for those readers who either want niche bragging rights in vaguely left-wing circles or who, for reasons best known to themselves, fancy getting up close and personal with Guardian journalists at the promised special events.

I am not much of a fan of the “please chip in” model. Conscience-stabbing about how “difficult and expensive” it is to produce “in-depth, well-reported journalism” doesn’t seem like much more of a solid, sustainable strategy than a free-for-all.

Its critics say the trust-owned Guardian is not just underwhelming at business, it is reluctant to consider itself a business at all. They have a point.

Some link-followers will define themselves as casual browsers rather than full-fledged “Guardian readers”, and won’t for a second feel guilty about taking what is laid out for them.

Charitable donation

Others will have seen the accounts of overspending and wonder about the destination of their cash, as they would when making any charitable donation. A third group will already be supporting the Guardian’s journalism by subscribing to its apps or, gasp, buying the occasional print copy.

I pay €15.99 a month for the iPad edition of the Guardian and Observer, because I like both the functionality of the app and the idea of being served an edited, finite product.

It’s a lot nicer than random social media clicking or the “hot take” jumble of its infinite website, where articles aimed at US and Australian readers are mixed up with some really quite esoteric thinkpieces, diluting the impact of that in-depth, well-reported journalism. The iPad edition is worth it, for me, though given its content is all out there for free, I do simultaneously feel foolish about subscribing.

Paywalls do not render news groups immune from financial difficulties. But as print circulation declines, charging for online access asserts the worth of the product much more effectively than any fine words about independent, intelligent journalism. There is an honesty in saying “this is how much we think our core product is worth; if you want it, you must pay”.

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