Feature

The Guardian's chief of change

Alicia Buller meets Tim Brooks, the man charged with taking the Guardian's online activities to even greater heights. He doesn't look like your average managing director of a grassroots-Liberals media group.

The Guardian's chief of change

But then he's come fresh to the role from IPC where he ran IPC ignite, home to lad-mags Loaded and Nuts. And, in his first interview since he took on the role of MD at Guardian News and Media, Brooks is in a philosophical mood.

"How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans," he offers, chuckling at his own joke. This is Brooks all over - unruffled in the face of a difficult challenge. "A lot of people find it frightening and I'm not one of those people. There's never been a time of more profound change in media than now," he says.

"What I say to people who are worried about change is at the end of your career you can look back and say 'I lived through a revolution in the way that the industry operates'. These changes are even more fundamental than the introduction of commercial TV in the 1950s."

Perhaps the greatest indication of the change Brooks speaks of is his very own appointment to the MD role at GNM. For starters, he's the first ex-hack to take the helm at GNM since its inception. And then there's the men's mag career backlog.

So can we expect to see The Guardian go all 'babes and beer' on us? Not a chance - but Brooks does acknowledge that his appointment is a striking move.

"It's typical of the company's bravery to appoint someone as managing director who they know is going to challenge the norms of the organisation," he says.

"I've come to this job, I suppose, with no baggage, hopefully with a clear perspective, with a different point of view. The company knew it was embarking on a period of change, and I've managed change before. I've also worked overseas, which adds another dimension."

'Overseas' is a word Brooks uses a lot. It's clear that, under his direction, GNM is about to undergo an immense international push. Significantly, when the Guardian Unlimited web site posted 15,703,012 unique users (ABCelectronic - ABCe) in January this year, only 5,393,885 of these were UK-based.

"We now have more readers in Chicago and New York combined than we have in Edinburgh and Birmingham. For a British newspaper, that's pretty wild. Even five years ago that would have been thought a little strange. This company only exists for one reason, and that's to publish independent liberal journalism. We've grown internationally because there is a global hunger for real information," he says.

"During the Iraq war, we were getting so many American hits because you couldn't get real information on what was going on [in Iraq] over there."

Cetainly, a global platform is a boon for a paper that wants to spread its voice to as many people as possible. But Brooks admits it's going to be a long, hard slog. "Ican't tell you how hard it is to get the paper out on a daily basis," he says.

"There is a huge amount of resource and logistical skills that go into the process. But then add the web site, which is run on an entirely different structure, and it's like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time."

Mighty force

As Brooks points out, purely digital organisations don't have that headache. "They don't have 380,000 people paying money for a product that only lasts 24 hours. But we don't resent it because it helps us to employ 750 journalists, who all help to turn the web site into a mighty force."

This year all national newspapers, without exception, have braved UK circulation decline as increasing numbers of readers consume their information online. According to BRB Internet Monitor, the UK population spent only 7 per cent of its total media time in Q3 2006 reading newspapers but, tellingly, it spent 26 per cent of its time online.

This is why GNM - along with the rest of the former Fleet Street paper groups - is scrambling to make itself an all-embracing 24/7 digital news organisation. "We are not interested in what others are doing," says Brooks. "We're not playing a six-month game, we're playing a 20-year game. We're already diverse, whereas others aren't. We're focused on our own future."

As a measure of its commitment to the online medium, GNM has signed up for monthly auditing by ABCe, the online version of the ABC independent circulation audit. Not all national newspapers are following this course and even those that are have been sketchy with submitting figures.

The Times, for example, omitted to submit its February 2007 results after signing up to the scheme. "They would have said something like 'we've had downtime'," offers Brooks. The Times declined to comment.

"But what's important is that advertising buyers can gauge the strength of their investment using a common currency. Currently, online we have a number of competing currencies which measure different things differently; Neilsen/NetRatings, Hitwise, ComScore, and, of course, ABCe. This is confusing for clients, and making your clients feel confused is not good for business. This will sort itself out in the long run."

But, in Brooks' opinion, the real GNM competiton is not homegrown. "Our competitors are international. The New York Times, for example, has a very good web site. And while their audience in absolute terms is larger, it is largely domestic. We have far more users outside our home territory than they do, which is what excites us."

Philosophical

Beneath his down-to-earth exterior, Brooks is deadly serious about two things: taking GNM out into the big wide world and revamping its web site to make it a truly 24/7 news operation. But he looks most excited when he talks of making Guardian Unlimited truly 'web 2.0'. Part of this, he says, lies in keeping online news free of charge.

"The site is advertising-funded and will continue to be so. It is a fundamental decision that we made, philosophically, years ago. In hindsight, it was the right decision. We sell things through our web site too - so we can make some money. But, look at another well-resourced paper, such as the Financial Times and, because they charge for their content, their web operation is spindly. The rate of learning in this industry is proportionate to the size of your audience. And audiences increase if access to your content is free."

Brooks says he plans to hire 100 new people for the organisation's online division this year. "We're relaunching the web site in phases, site by site, rather than buying an off-the-shelf package."

For a trust-owned company that admits to turning no profit on The Guardian, The Observer or Guardian Unlimited, GNM is liberal-handed when it comes to hurling cash at the online department. The annual web development costs are running into tens of millions of pounds, says Brooks, refusing to put a finer point on it.

Some comfort can be derived from the fact that Guardian Unlimited's digital advertising revenues are up 50 per cent year on year, while copy sales are up by 10 per cent. These findings sit well with figures released by the Internet Advertising Bureau, which said overall online ad spend grew by more than 41 per cent in 2006 to over £2billion.

The surge in online spending offset a 4.7 per cent decline in TV spending and a 0.2 per cent rise in newspaper ad spending. The report, compiled with the World Advertising Research Centre and PricewaterhouseCoopers, also shows that Britain has the highest proportion of online spending of any country in the world.

Acknowledging this shift, Brooks says: "Agency structures will have to - and are - changing to accommodate digital; in this respect, mirroring changes in media owners. What we've said to our staff is 'we are now a digital company', and everybody here has the right to gain the relevant skills: we are in the middle of training every single person in our sales force so they can sell digital as readily as print. For marketers, digital is highly flexible and extremely responsive, but I think they know they have only just scratched the surface of what we can do with the medium. It's a very exciting time to be working in media and marketing.'

Guardian Unlimited is currently running a set of video ads, made, for the first time, in conjunction with Guardian Films. The ads are a hook-up between Audi and Observer Food Monthly, playing on innovation in the worlds of both cars and cooking. "It's amazing how they've drawn parallels between the two industries in terms of technology innovation and it's a real example of what you can do with the web."

Video is set to become a major focus for GNM. At a recent Association of Online Publishers conference, Carolyn McCall, GNM's chief executive, revealed that "we know there's quite a lot of revenue in video and advertisers are eager to be associated with innovative publishing, particularly sponsored podcasts".

She even claimed that Guardian Films, the company's six-year-old TV production company, had "broken even" in recent months through supplying video content for Guardian Unlimited. "A major tipping point for The Guardian's online business will be when growth in print and online classified sales begins to offset declining print classified revenue and this could happen in a couple of years," she added.

Brooks agrees that online ad revenues will lead the business in years to come but insists that media owner and agency relationships still need to be well thought-out. "Partnerships need to be formed to deliver rich ads rather than flat ads. The problem is that there are no common currencies at the moment in terms of technologies and platforms. The digital industry still needs to build up its skills. Our audiences and the technologies are growing faster than us - all we can do is learn from them."

Another issue that Brooks says is central to The Guardian's web development is the buy-in of the entire organisation. After all, it's no small feat to bring 750 journalists, some of them old-school Fleet Street alumni, around to the 24/7, interactive news way of thinking - not least the idea of the public being able to comment on their work.

"When we first started the site's Comment is Free section, there was internal resistance. The journalists said 'What? We're actually going to let readers come back at us in the comments column?' and when the comments started coming back, some of them hostile, that reaction only intensified. But looking back, you think: why did it feel so wrong at the time?"

So what's next? "I don't know what the future looks like - you have to manage the present. We don't know what platforms we'll be on in five years' time - which is why we have to be flexible. But, as Alan (Rusbridger, Guardian editor) and I would both say, we simply don't have a choice."