Interview: Guardian’s Bell Sees Mixed-Model Future On Way To Columbia

They say people who can do, and people who can’t teach – but Guardian News & Media’s veteran digital content director Emily Bell, who has spent the last two decades doing, says she will now marry both industry and academic takes on re-inventing the news business, when she becomes director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism in July.
If you wanted to be a pop musician in 1963, you probably went to Liverpool,” Bell told me in an exit interview. “If you’re in digital journalism at the moment, the East Coast is a really exciting place to be — it’s where a lot of the conversation and action is taking place.
“I’ve been a hands-on practitioner for 23 years. One of the things about my current job has actually been to think about the same things that journalism colleges, especially in America, are leading on now – researching and thinking about problems in a way which can sometimes be more innovative than the way existing organisations think about, simply because they don’t have the same pressures in terms of having a fixed financial model or having a legacy audience or something like that.”

Industry challenge

Bell won’t be short of industry problems to solve at one of the world’s leading journalism schools. Online newspapers have now built large audiences – 1.8 million a day, in’s case – but, pressured by ongoing structural change that’s been compounded by flatter advertising growth, many are reassessing the models they’ve operated for 15 years.
“We all know what the issues are,” Bell says, including adapting story-telling tools for social and real-time publishing and civic engagement. “There is a whole set of issues around how we make the future financially viable.” is not immune. Widely considered amongst the most innovative web newspapers, and gaining an international profile in the process, online spending has nevertheless exceeded income by £20 million between 2002/03 and 2008/09, editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger said in September.
But Bell is optimistic. “There’s been this constant discussion about the ‘unviability of digital media’. Actually, we’ve got an incredibly healthy revenue stream coming out of digital – which is 10 times more than we were making out of digital even seven or eight years ago. I think we’ll probably see the best financial and audience figures ever in the next 12 months.”

Pay wall scepticism

But don’t expect a web pay wall – which Bell has previously labelled “stupid” – to be the driver. “I’ve been characterised as rampantly oppositional but it’s just not true – my position is more nuanced,” she says. “I launched the iPhone app here, paid into a largely free market – that wasn’t against my will but in thinking it was the right thing to do.
“My scepticism is about the suggestion that there’s only one way forward for the future. If you go back a year ago – quite a lot of publishers were saying ‘the internet has to change – there has to be a market for paying’ – quite a lot of us who had been at the coalface were saying ‘that’s not practicable’.
“Our position is clear from what Alan’s said. If you’re doing important journalism, you really need people to read it. If it’s just about making money, you’re better off in a different business.”
Is everyone at Guardian News & Media, which owns our publisher ContentNext, on the same page with this? “Tim (Brooks, GNM’s MD) has been pretty clear about it, Alan Rusbridger’s been incredibly clear about it in last six months,” Bell says, joking: “I could be completely wrong. I could leave and there’d be a paywall around it in two months – but I kinda don’t think that will happen.”

Advertising bouncing back

While News Corp.’s Times Online and raise their walls and start their metres, Bell, whose Guardian News & Media is protected by revenues from Guardian Media Group stablemates, remains optimistic about the advertising model. “It feels like we’ve all had a kicking in the last 18 months – it’s been an unusual set of circumstances – but the next five or 10 years are looking positive,” she says.
Haven’t web publishers reached a commercial dead end thanks to falling ad prices? Bell disagrees: “If you look at the States, where they’re about 18 months ahead of us in the economic cycle, I’m hearing some interesting things there about certain companies. The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) recorded really good display figures for first quarter of the year – that’s built on building an audience and selling scale.
It’s come back very, very strongly.” In’s own case, Bell didn’t disclose revenue but: “We’ve had quite a strong pick-up in digital. We had a good finish to the end of last year and strong pick-up early this year.
I sat in rooms in 2002/03, when we were having exactly the same debate about digital – online ads being dead, full stop. None of us anticipated Google (NSDQ: GOOG) correctly or the growth in digital display, but now there’s a much more sophisticated display ad market. Advertisers are still going to pay for an audience. Immediate evidence suggests the ad model will prove to be more robust than people have said.”

Divergent futures

But the future will see mixed models, Bell reckons – characterised, for example, by Times Online going paid, while London Evening Standard goes free in print and newspapers launch reader’s clubs somewhere in between…
At least we’ve got a broad range of experimentation going on now. In 2002, we all rushed to subscription and revenue models – and all rushed back again to the other side of the ship. I don’t think there will be a consensus – it will be like traditional publishing.
“There’ll be some businesses that fold as a result and, hopefully, some that start up as well. Some digital businesses are proving to be incredibly successful.
The free model has worked for us. The apps market has worked quite well. The conference model has worked quite well.” Will the paid mobile app switch to recurring subscriptions? “It’s far too early to say. We look at all of these things all of the time. It would be wrong to say we definitely will do that and that we have a solid plan to do that because we don’t. But this is an emerging market and we’ve got to look at what our opportunities are.”
As she bids The Guardian goodbye, Bell says: “It’s really well placed. For an orgisation like The Guardian, people don’t understand how transformational the web has been for it – our journalism is in front of more people than ever. It’s good to be leaving at a time when we’re as well placed as we ever have been in digital.”