The Guardian just announced that it will publish stories online before it publishes them in print. Now on the one hand, that may not seem like a big deal. Quality papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post have long had good continuous news desks that feed the online maw with the latest (and too many other papers do not bother). And some papers, like The Times and the Wall Street Journal, put up their complete papers soon after they close late at night. [See my full disclosures here.]
But I think the Guardian’s move of releasing newspaper stories before they release the newspaper is a very big deal that it will end up transforming the business. A few reasons:
First, this aggressively drives readers from print to online. It is one matter to put content online after it is in print, to allow people to find it there eventually, or to give them the bulletins everyone else has so you can remain competitive. It is quite another matter to give advantage to online, to let the public know that stories will appear there first. I believe this is a crucial strategic change for the news business. It says that we know the future is online and so we will serve readers there at least as well — and when possible better — than we serve them in print, no matter that the current margins and revenue of print still beat the hell out of those online. The future is online, and so it is vital that we get ahead of the audience and draw them there, to our own places and brands, before they decide to go elsewhere. Rusbridger has talked about the green blob newspapers are stuck in, between the old, declining, but still rich medium of print and the new, more popular, but still less profitable medium of online. This, I believe, is an aggressive effort to jump over the blob.
Second, I think this will radically change the culture and operation of newsrooms — and even the very essence of the news story. I asked Rusbridger via email what the reaction of the newsroom was to his decision. He replied right after the big news of the killing of Zarkawi:
It’s a recognition of reality. As we talked about it in the morning conference today: I asked the doubters “does anyone believe we shouldn’t publish anything about Zarkawi until tomorrow morning (the news had just broken) in order to suit the newspaper publishing schedule or for fear of cannabalising our own readers”. No one said yes. Of course, it’s also about competition — if we denied readers information on the grounds we were still fixated on newspaper deadlines they would turn elsewhere.
Reaction in the newsroom is largely very positive. Ninety-five per cent of foreign correspondents are fully enthusiastic. Some staff worried by logistics and how you keep quality control. A few are asking (not unreasonably) about cannabilisation and revenue. In the end you have to ask: what’s the bigger risk: doing it, or not doing it.? Lots of reassurance a) we’re not going to get into the running news game and b) all copy will go through same editing process as before.
On the Guardian’s media podcast this week, one of the paper’s journalists worried that this might turn them into broadcast (read: cable news) reporters. It’s a legitimate concern. But I think the Guardian, in particular, can avoid that because it has largely ceded the business of breaking news — that is, the commodified news anyone can give you — to others by concentrating on perspective, writing, and original reporting.
Still, I think this can change what a news story is. Imagine a reporter putting an edited story online in the afternoon and then hearing more questions and facts from online readers. So the reporter updates for print; putting it online improves the story. And after it is in print, more information comes from readers, so the online version is improved again, perhaps even by trusted readers. This needn’t be the never-ending story, the bottomless edition. But neither does it need to be news on a stone tablet.
Yet it changes more than just the story. Another smart editor I know said recently that newspapers have to involve readers in the news but not necessarily the news process. At an Aspen Institute thing a year ago, a former network news executive said that readers should judge us by our product, not our process. No, for many reasons, the process becomes the product. The public can now question our work and contribute to it and by opening that process, we improve the news. So throwing out the newsroom clock with one time on it — deadline time — is a very big change, indeed.
And so this potentially changes the role of the reporter and editor as orchestrators of that process. See, once again, Gruner + Jahr chief Bernd Kundrun on the role of the journalist as moderator.
Warning: Metaphoric madness ensues:
Newspapers have long thought of themselves as bakeries: They gather the raw materials, measure them carefully, mix them up, let them rise, cut and shape them, bake them to a golden crisp, slather some cherry goo on top, and then put them on the shelf, waiting for someone to buy them. News was a product. No more.
So what’s the better metaphor? Try a garden: Anyone can plant seeds in it (reporters’ ideas, editors’ curiosities, the public’s questions) and many can tend to them (insert fertilizer gag here). When the fruit is ripe, it’s plucked and published; the farmers live by the garden’s schedule. And if you keep tending the garden, it continues to bloom. News is a process.
Metaphoric madness ends.
The Guardian’s change is also a tactical business move. I asked Rusbridger what the commercial side thought of the change, since they’re the ones selling the more expensive ads in print. He replied, “So far commercial side utterly on board. They see this as next logical step and appreciate the balance of risks (see above).” Having spoken with many folks on both the editorial and commercial sides of The Guardian, I see that willingness to make the next step and take the risk; it’s in their culture.
I also asked what impact their American expansion plans had ton this decision. He replied: “Certainly in our minds as we made this switch. Can you imagine east coast Americans logging onto Guardian Unlimited this morning and finding nothing on Zarkawi? Why would we want to drive them elsewhere?”
That, after all, is the key to online. It lets you serve a much larger but still focused public (once newspapers themselves focus). Guardian Newspapers Limited chief Carolyn McCall recently said that the company’s ambition is global and its focus clear:
“Our ambition is to be the leading global liberal voice…. There’s a real market for liberal journalism in America, given that there seems to be a large group of people that are very attracted by our coverage on the web, and part of that is because they cannot really get that kind of voice from their own media for a variety of reasons.
The opportunity is for the Guardian to reflect what the world is saying about America but also to bring [blogging website] Comment is Free into America so that you can get an engaged discussion on things that interest America in an intellectual and intelligent way.”
The UK’s quality national papers are approaching their strategies in very different ways. The Times of London is now publishing a print edition in New York (complete with ads for refrigerators in pounds; more on that later). The Telegraph, antimatter to the Guardian’s matter, announced that it will delay putting stories online to try to drive readers back to the dinosaur editions. [[UPDATE: See correction to this above.]]
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes about the Times’ and Guardian’s American ambitions, making vague reference to plans to publish new Guardian editions in the U.S. as well:
But newsstand sales aren’t really the point here. The Times has three million or so American unique visitors (out of a global total of 8.8 million) to its website each month. Waving around a physical copy makes that presence more tangible – and arguably ad-friendly. It is a reinforcement of presence and intent.
The Guardian, meanwhile, has 13 million unique visitors on tap, some 6.4 million of them American. That’s as solid a haul as most big city US papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, can claim. It puts the British Guardian (and Observer) Unlimited well up among the top 50 most-visited American news sites, with an advertising revenue stream already showing concomitant signs of surge. There’s commercial ambition in this mix, too.
See, too, Peter Cole in The Independent on British colonial ambition stirred up in the media world. The British national papers, with their unique voices and perspectives, stand a strong chance at gathering audience and influence around the world.
It all comes back to that apparently simple decision to put newspaper stories online before the paper is printed. It is a brave move and a big deal.
: LATER: Here‘s the Guardian’s “readers’ editor” on the shift.