IPA ADAPT: Alan Rusbridger on the Guardian's move from print to 'digital-first'

Just a few years ago The Guardian was a fixed-time, single-country, print publication. Today it is a real-time, global, digital-first, multi-media operation. The shift parallels the changes the advertising industry is undergoing.

Interviewed by Today presenter Evan Davis, editor Alan Rusbridger told the client and agency audience at the annual IPA Members Lunch yesterday (Wednesday 8th May 2014) about the journey.  Rusbridger discussed how he has adapted the newspaper and its journalists to become ‘agile’ in order to respond to a rapidly changing landscape. The annual lunch at Altitude, Millbank Tower formed part of IPA President Ian Priest’s two-day Agility Adaptathon.

The Guardian today is an international, digital-first brand, a case study in agility and adaptability. But it still loses money.

The interview

When he took over as editor in 1995, Evan Davis noted, Rusbridger described The Guardian as a "stultified institution", seeing his task as to "root out pockets of stagnation and grant opportunities to youngsters".

Davis: The Guardian today is an international, digital-first brand, a case study in agility and adaptability. But it still loses money.

Rusbridger: "In this revolution, we all need a bit of money to survive. It is incredibly costly to develop new markets and mobile products. The Guardian is owned by the Scott Trust, which has built up a cash pile of £1bn. It enables the Trust to take a long-term view.

"At the moment, everything is going right. We are smashing some of the predictions we made three years ago. Last year our digital revenues were £70m. "

Davis: The Guardian remains resolutely committed to its free access model; other publishers have taken different routes. Did the Guardian look at other options?

Rusbridger: "It’s good that there are other models. We’ll all learn from each other. The Times is closed, the New York Times semi-permeable. But I don’t know of a single journalist who wants the closed model. You want your work shared, distributed, and not read by a tiny number. Journalistically, the open model is miles better.

"We have a daily audience of 5.4m. The Times has 130,000.

"But financially, we don’t know what is the right way. It’s an experiment. Getting to financial viability is not something that happens overnight. But the advantage of the Trust means we can take time. The only thing I have to do [as mandated by the Trust] is ensure The Guardian is there in perpetuity."

Davis: Leadership of an organisation going through change – moving to agility – is not easy. It requires that you to carry your staff with you. How have you managed that? Do you believe in the cuddly or Thatcherite style of management?

Rusbridger: "It feels like we’re trying to solve a three-dimensional puzzle at the moment – social, mobile, digital, print. You can say: ‘Please follow me, I think I can see the future’. But you can’t promise it. It’s taken four years for us to be able to say ‘it’s working’.

"We put people in groups, threw the same scenarios we had, and they concluded the same.

"What I mean by cuddly management is getting people to think things through for themselves. Lately, I’ve become more Thatcherite.

"But the command-and-control methodology doesn’t work as well. It has to be more about persuasion."

Davis: In an agile business, there’s a tension between speed and care. Taking your move to the Berliner format, how did you decide between jumping one way and waiting to see what happens? The Independent had gone tabloid and the Times was moving that way.

Rusbridger:  "It was a profound time. The Independent was becoming a ‘viewspaper’, not a newspaper, but everyone was focused on the issue of the shape [of the format]. I don’t believe in a ‘viewspaper’ and, at that time, didn’t want to fight a war around the catchiest front page. I made the paper more serious, and put more news on the front page."

All newspapers have looked at print going into the ground. But in the last six months it’s stopped falling. I’m not sure I can explain that.

Davis: Do you have any regrets?

Rusbridger: "Three years ago we realised we weren’t moving fast enough. We were told we had 1/3 of the developers we needed – at the time we had 30 – and now we have 120.

"Also, we have not been moving fast enough on video. It’s where the next generation is. While the grass has been growing under our feet with video, we see what Vice has been doing."

Davis: Do you feel you’re in a state of permanent revolution?

Rusbridger: "There are several revolutions going on. Print to digital. Text to video. Closed to open. Mobile. When everyone can be a publisher, it’s epochally [sic] important.

Interestingly, all newspapers have looked at print going into the ground. But in the last six months it’s stopped falling. I’m not sure I can explain that."

Davis: We need a healthy newspaper industry. Is there over-capacity in the market and do we need a newspaper to go out of business for the market not to be over-supplied?

Rusbridger: "Well, we need the BBC to go out of the market, but as a citizen there is a tremendous public good in having the BBC. Having lots of newspapers is good."

IPA President Ian Priest summed up with: "I love the way Alan is saying that we’re all in the midst of a revolution, it’s an experiment. At this pivotal moment in our industry when our focus is on constantly adapting, he is a great inspiration to us."

Learn more about IPA President Ian Priest's ADAPT agenda here

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