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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Guardian goes "Digital First"

I have not had time to post about this until now but it promises to mark a huge change in the way that the Guardian and Observer deal with content. Whether it has wider implications for the future of the UK newspaper industry, or is just a drop on the blood trail that leads to corpse of the Guardian remains to be seen. For those who missed it the Guardian have announced that from now on they will have  a policy of digital first. This is a dramatic change, and one prompted one suspects, less by a conviction that the future for newspapers is purely digital but instead by the huge losses the Guardian and Observer make (£33 million in the last financial year). After all GMN spent £80 million on brand new Berliner presses just 6 years ago and it wasn't as if anyone thought the web was just a fad back in 2005.

As part of this shift it has been announced that the GNM group will make £25 million worth of cuts over the next five years, so there will be a reduction in staff. Shifting direction like this is always difficult for any company that has an existing and long established business model. If you were to start an online publication from scratch you would, I am sure, begin with a very different management and staff structure. Unfortunately GNM have to adapt their existing print led structure to this new direction; shedding staff, retraining others and taking on new ones with brand new technical skills.*

There has been a lot said about the financial difficulties that GNM face but not much about what a digital first Guardian will be like. I wonder how this move will change how they deal with content. If they are not introducing a paywall what other measure of success will they use? Ad revenue of course, but page views and comments? We are endlessly told that only "real journalism" offers the expert analysis needed to make sense of the world, and that amateur bloggers don't have the experience and skills a "proper" news source can offer. Possibly true if you still have a full staff of credible journalists left and are not chasing web traffic by any means necessary. The Guardian has a passion for blogs but predictably those posts that get the most comments are either the most general or those that provoke most outrage. I can imagine a future where generating comments is seen as a measure of success, which inevitably will change the type of stories they pursue and the nature of the coverage. Certainly where commenting becomes a significant part of the plan it naturally has an impact on the tone of the site (as all you secret readers of the Daily Mail website will know).

What else will a digital first Guardian be like? Well there will be more video for sure. In fact, for the arts not having video, or at least enough images to create a gallery will put you at a distinct disadvantage I'd have thought. As to the impact this shift has on the amount and nature of reviews on both website and newspaper, we will have to wait and see.

*This change process to adapt to new technology and falling revenue is very interesting and theatre in many ways faces some similar (though less threatening) situations. After all if you built a theatre today what size phone room would you have bearing in mind over 80% of sales might be online anyway? Would you even have one at all? If you started a theatre company today where would digital fit in the business plan? As an old timer I find it funny that knowledge that was once essential for all staff (about print production for example) is needed far less now across the communications team. But, we have a foot firmly in the past even as we embrace the future. As digital grows steadily in significance we still produce thousands of leaflets, and to be fair a large section of the audience continue to want their information in this format. 

As I often say when asked about the application of modern non-arts marketing  to theatre, we should not forget we work within a great tradition that goes back over 2000 years, long pre-dating any 20th century ideas of brand based marketing. The issues we face today when selling shows have always been around and theatre marketing is probably the world's oldest form of mass marketing. There was probably a poster outside the Coliseum that said "Lion vs. Christians. Wednesday Matinee. Kids go Free!" and I bet Ancient Roman theatre owners worried how they could get a younger more diverse audience in to see those dull Greek Classics. Interestingly as more and more diverse channels of communication open up, and brands try and turn customers into audiences mainstream marketing comes to resemble theatre marketing more and more. But more on that another time.

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