The Guardian draws a line in the sand: Digital comes first

The Guardian in Britain has been a leader in taking advantage of the web for some time now, but the management of the paper — including the CEO of the charitable trust that owns the media outlet — made its clearest declaration yet that the future of the organization is online, with a statement on Thursday that it’s going “digital first.” This phrase has been used as a rallying cry by proponents of a new media approach, including Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger, to show that the web should take precedence over print. Now the challenge is for the newspaper to prove that this strategy can be a success financially as well as philosophically.

While The Guardian has been thinking about the web first from an editorial standpoint for some time, Rusbridger said in an interview with GigaOM that the announcement was a signal of a much bigger move. “This is a big shift for the whole organization,” he said. “We’re not just saying we’re going to post stuff to the web first from an editorial point of view; this is about how we have to re-prioritize our resources for the future.” The bottom line, the Guardian editor-in-chief said, is that the paper “will do less in print” — which he said would likely mean layoffs from the editorial side.

Comment Is Free and the open platform

The Guardian‘s love affair with the web goes back several years, from its groundbreaking launch of the Comment Is Free open-blogging network — which former head of digital Emily Bell has said was inspired by the rise of The Huffington Post (s aol) — to the pioneering use of crowdsourcing for an investigative story on expense account fraud by politicians. In an even more ambitious effort, The Guardian launched an “open platform” project last year, which offers newspaper content (in some cases free of charge) to outside developers via an open API, much like Facebook does.

Bell, who is now the director of the Pew Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in New York, has said the approach at The Guardian was always to be “of the web, not just on the web” — in other words, to adopt a web-native approach rather than just plastering existing content from the print edition on the paper’s website. In a conversation earlier this year, she gave credit to Rusbridger for pushing that strategy aggressively, even in the face of opposition, based on his view of what he has called a “mutualised” approach to journalism, in which readers and other players outside the newspaper become key parts of the news-gathering process.

Thursday’s joint statement from Rusbridger and Guardian Media Group CEO Andrew Miller made it clear that it isn’t enough to talk about being digital. Both reinforced the idea that resources will be moved from print and reinvested in digital projects, including mobile offerings as well as a new U.S. unit based in New York, which the company is already starting to build up by hiring key editors and writers.

Miller noted that these changes were driven in part by financial necessity: The Guardian CEO said that the paper could run out of cash in three to five years if the business continues the way it is. Rusbridger, however, said The Guardian is not in a financial crisis — at least not yet — in part because the company also owns a stake in the profitable Auto Trader Group, which to some extent subsidizes the newspaper unit. “We’ve still got time to do something transformative, rather than just sitting around waiting for the crisis to occur,” he said. But despite those subsidies — and despite being owned by the charitable Scott family trust — the editor-in-chief said that on the editorial side of the business, “we have to earn our keep, so in that sense we are just as commercial as any other publisher.”

The Guardian isn’t the only publisher that has focused on a “digital first” strategy. John Paton, who took over as CEO of the Journal-Register Co. — a publisher of small and medium-sized newspapers in the U.S. northeast — after the company went bankrupt, has also championed the digital-first approach since he took control of the company. The Postmedia group of newspapers in Canada, which also underwent a financial restructuring, has taken an official digital-first stance as well.

Riding all their horses at once

For many traditional media outlets, their existing print operations have been a millstone that keeps them from moving quickly enough to take advantage of online opportunities — in part because print still produces a lot of revenue, but also because it has high fixed costs. Rusbridger said too many newspapers and other publishers are hedging their bets by “riding all their horses at once, and backing all hunches — and at the same time, asking people to do more and more.” The idea behind the statement about digital-first, he said, was to “give a clear direction of where we need to go.”

Now all The Guardian has to do is show these new digital opportunities can produce enough revenue to make up for the decline of print, something Rusbridger said he and CEO Miller are confident will happen over the next couple of years. The newspaper has identified “about 10 different revenue streams,” including a recruitment business that’s growing rapidly, as well as more traditional streams such as display advertising, and even a dating site. As part of the announcement on Thursday, Miller said he expects digital revenues will double over the next five years.

The financial outcome of the newspaper’s move may be uncertain, but at least The Guardian should get credit for drawing a line in the sand when it comes to its digital future, something few other mainstream media outlets have had the courage or the foresight to do.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig and Kevin Lim