The article and the future of print

This week, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger declared that the paper would go “digital first,” following John Paton‘s lead and stopping a step short of his strategy at Journal Register: “digital first … print last.”

My Guardian friends are getting a bit tetchy about folks trying to tell them how to fix the institution, but given that it lost £34.4m last year, I’d say the intervention is warranted and should be seen only as loving care: chicken soup for the strategy. So I will join in.

My thoughts about the Guardian have something to do with my thoughts on the article. That’s a logical connection because the means of production and distribution of print are what mandated the invention of the article. So it is fitting that we consider its fate in that context.

But first let’s examine what it means to be digital first. It does not mean just putting one’s stories online before the presses roll. In that case, print still dictates the form and rhythm of news: everything in the process of a newsroom is still aimed at fitting round stories into squared holes on pages. That, as Jay Rosen says, is the key skill newsroom residents think they have (and the skill journalism schools prepare them for): the production cycle of print.

Digital first, aggressively implemented, means that digital drives all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that as soon as a journalist knows something, she is prepared to share it with her public. It means that she may share what she knows before she knows everything (there’s a vestige of the old culture, which held that we could know everything … and by deadline to boot) so she can get help from her public to fill in what she doesn’t know. That resets the journalistic relationship to the community, making the news organization a platform first, enabling a community to share its information and inviting the journalist to add value to that process. It means using the most appropriate media to impart information because we are no longer held captive to only one: text. We now use data, audio, video, graphics, search, applications, and wonders not yet imagined. Digital first is the realization that news happens with or without us — it mimics the architecture of the internet, end-to-end — and we must use all the tools available to add value where we can.

Digital first, from a business perspective, means driving the strategy to a digital future, no longer depending on the print crutch. That means creating a likely smaller and more efficient enterprise that can survive, then prosper post-monopoly, post-scarcity in an abundance-based media economy. It means serving the commercial needs of businesses in our communities in new ways: not just by selling space but by providing services (helping them with their own online strategies — including Google, Facebook, Groupon, craigslist, et al; training them; perhaps holding events with them). It means finding new efficiencies in the collaborative link economy. It means outrunning the grim reaper and getting past risky dependency on free-standing inserts (the coupons and circulars that will one day, sooner than we know — zap! — disappear) and retail advertising (which continues to implode) and the last vestiges of classified (how quaint) and circulation revenue (sorry!). It means getting rid of the cost of the analog business (“iron and real estate,” as Paton says).

Print last. Note that none of us — no, not even I — is saying print dead. Print, at least for a time, still has a place in serving content and advertising. But let’s re-examine that place even as we re-examine the role of the article, the journalist, and the advertisement in digital.

Since I spoke about this with Rusbridger last time he was in New York to herald the coming of Guardian for Yanks, I’ve refined my thinking. As I understand the well-known business of the Guardian — unlike many US papers and unlike at least one of its UK competitors, the Times — its Sunday paper, the Observer, is an economic burden. My thought earlier had been to give it up, just as many American papers are contemplating giving up other days of the week but keeping Sunday (and Thursdays and perhaps another … because they are still useful to wrap around those free-standing inserts). No, they won’t keep publishing on those days for journalistic purposes but because they have distribution value. Cynical, perhaps, but true.

But all this talk about the article has made me contemplate a new future: What if the Guardian became an online-only and international brand of news, multimedia, and comment and the Observer became a once-a-week (who cares what day of the week?) print brand of analysis, context, comment, and narrative? The Guardian has 37 million users, two-thirds of them outside the UK. Going online-only would enable it to become a truly international brand. The Observer could compete with the master of the article, the one publication that adds great value through the form: the Economist. As a newspaper of depth, this Observer could mimic Die Zeit in Germany, an amazing journal of reporting and commentary that is still growing in circulation. The print Observer could be printed in America, competing with weak-tea Sunday newspapers in markets across the country. Prior efforts to consider a print Guardian in the U.S. have stopped short. Could this succeed? Dunno.

The point is that the article as a high form of journalistic practice could succeed in a high-value print form while the Guardian could become a journal of news and comment in text, photo, video, audio, graphics, data….

What also makes me wonder about this is The New York Times’ proud announcement that it will remake its Week in Review into the Sunday Review next week. Truth be told, I haven’t read the Sunday Times in ages. I used to hang on its arrival at newsstands on Saturday nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but now I find it to be day-old bread, yeasty but stiff. Could The Times turn its plans for Sunday Review into an American Economist? I’m less sanguine about its chances than the Guardian’s. In either case, the winner would be the one that finds the greatest value in the old form of the article.

See, it’s not dead. It just needs a savior.

: MORE: I meant to add a few thoughts on the form the article takes in these media. In digital, articles are still valuable to synthesize a story, to summarize a complex day’s news, to add context, and so on. Again, not all stories need such articles, but many will. In this vision of print, the article takes on a different raison d’etre and a higher calling: It needs to add perspective. Bill Keller says it this way in his preview of the new Review:

Jonathan Landman, who took over the section from Dan Lewis, put it this way: The news sections’ job is to inform. (The desired reader reaction: “I didn’t know that!”) The opinion section’s job is to persuade. (“Yes, I see the light!”) The job of the Review is to help people see things in unexpected ways. (“I never thought of it that way!”)

I’d say The Economist presents the model for that kind of article. It is a high, a very high bar to reach. Can the Guardian attain that? Yes. The New York Times? Yes. The workaday local paper?

: Related: Charlie Beckett on Wikileaks and the threat of new news. Terry Heaton on news and the story.

  • Great thoughts on the whole matter.

    I think your idea of a quality weekly publication – on whatever day of the week – is a far stronger rebranding/recreation of the Guardian organisation, compared to “digital-first” (which we all know has been their focus fo some time, official announcement or not).

    I’m very much of the opinion that by the end of this decade, print will be dead – however this article highlights for me frequency of print issues, something I haven’t really considered. Perhaps future broadsheet journalism will focus on detailed, weekly analysis, leaving the daily print market to the tabloids that wll still have high enough readerships to pull in profit.

    I’d like to see an online-only Guardian, however, dedicate itself not to becoming an “international brand” of news; if crowdsourcing and user-generated content is going to play a major role in future “digital-first” strategy, I see local news making a reappearance in Guardian plans, alongside any other broader editorial concerns. Thoughts?

  • Caitlin

    News junkies might want to participate in news as it unfolds but the general public only wants to do that for really big stories , especially live events that are particularly suited to TV. For most stories, I think most people would prefer to read something more or less complete – an article.

    I am very taken with the SMH iPad app and would certainly pay to subscribe to a Guardian one. I wouldn’t pay for access to a website though – the browsing experience isn’t as nice and I’m more likely to be following links from social media.

  • Caitlin

    Sorry, didn’t mean that to be anonymous.

  • Caitlin

    OK it seems to be Jeff’s site that is forcing my anonymity, though not for Jamie above. Odd.

  • Al Pittampalli

    Great post, Jeff. You’re right in that many are just converting their print publications into digital, without realizing that the digital world is a fundamentally different ball game. I love your idea of making Guardian online only, and the Observer a once a week article driven publication. It seems so simple. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine a traditional media company like theirs to embrace such a change as easily…sigh.

  • EB

    I used to get a paper in the mail once a week, The Washington Post Weekly. I adored it. It met it’s demise a year or so ago. When I got the letter about them going “belly up” they included the information that they would mail me Newsweek magazine to fill out what had been my original subscription and I found it lame. even though I read a lot of news online, I would love a weekly paper newspaper. It could come in the mail, not from a newspaper delivery man/woman/child. Whoever invents this, thanks!

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  • Joe

    Doom and Gloom Jarvis. Yawn.

  • Joe

    This is the same guy who said five years ago newspapers would all be dead in two years. You’re wrong an awful lot Jeff

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  • Boulle

    Hello Mister Jarvis,
    I’m a big fan, but sorry, your proposal is from far unrealistic.
    What if the Guardian became an online-only and international brand of news?

    Ok, let’s make a quick and very rough calculation. Let’s say The Guardian average wage is 70K£ / year including taxes. Its 1200 employees cost 84,000K / year.

    Given 37,000K unique visitors / month (Nielsen), they probably end with around 100,000K displayed pages (site centric). Let’s reckon that they display 5 advertising spaces per page sold at a £10 average CPM (which would be undreamed-of). They would get (100,000,000 x 5 x 10 x 12 monthes)/1,000 = 60,000K£

    There are 24K missing to pay people and I did not count all charges (rentals, expenses, running costs, etc.).
    Do you really believe that an additional Sunday paper will cover losses or did I get you wrong?

    Kind regards,


    • Andy Freeman

      > Ok, let’s make a quick and very rough calculation. Let’s say The Guardian average wage is 70K£ / year including taxes. Its 1200 employees cost 84,000K / year.

      How many of those 1200 employees are journalists or editors?

      I ask because those are the jobs that Jarvis cares most about. He doesn’t care nearly as much about the truck driving jobs.

  • Steve R.

    The Guardian’s online metrics have skyrocketed, yet it lost 34 million pounds? What does that tell you?

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  • Hi Jeff,

    That’s a really interesting piece. Two thoughts:

    1) Your point about presenting news in the most sensible form is well-made. Is that though more of a challenge to newspapers who don’t have the skill/resources/experience to produce audio and video content themselves? Do you expect consolidation in the industry between print and broadcast media creating both cost efficiencies and a new business model (a smaller rival to the BBC if you like)?

    2) I think where online really adds value (and the Economist and its Economist Intelligence Unit are great examples of this) is in providing credible depth to a story. So it’s not necessarily any more about breaking a story first (that’s no longer the sole domain of journalists), but charting it accurately and providing links to other data (often which must be paid for). I think that’s a slightly different business model to the one you are predicting, but tell me if I’m wrong.

    What you are alluding to for the Guardian (an internet of trusted online news sources) is possible, but a hard and exclusive group for that paper to break into. Do you feel that there is a future in an ‘article marketplace’ driven by micropayments? So readers choose the article to read based on the first couple of paras and the style they like? That might really be a case of ‘the newspaper is dead, long live the article’!

  • Martin Huckerby

    As ever, there is much stimulation here, but digital first and last seems to ignore the idea that print readers have needs worth serving.
    A quarter of a million people buy the Guardian daily, and most of us are pretty keen to continue doing so.
    (For instance, I read much news online, but I actually want a daily upsum of considered reporting and analysis – not running news commentaries which all too often are incomplete and ill-informed.)

    You and others posting here seem to believe all will be well when daily news is solely consumed online. Yet look at the stats for unique users of US newspaper websites – the vast majority of readers spend only minutes on those sites each month.

    The tough task for the Guardian is finding a way to pay for the package of journalism which can be marketed in multiple ways. Throwing away the print edition is a daft solution.

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  • John

    Print has more impact than digital. For example, put a mildly risque advertisement in print and you will receive hate mail like you’ve never seen before. The same advertisement in digital format or seen on television; acceptable. Print makes an impact that digital cannot match for one reason or another. Perhaps its because consumers are barraged with digital messages and they’ve become numb? At any rate, I would argue as more and more printed publications convert to digital, the impact of print will increase exponentially. Advertisers who invest in print will gain market share unmatched by advertisers who invest in digital alone.

    • Yes, there are more differences between print and digital than meet the eye. This is why print will never completely die because no matter how much we go to digital for information, print is our backup for definite information. We trust print so much more than digital, hence its greater impact.

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  • Steve


    The Observer was threatened with closure a year or so ago and a new monthly news magazine touted as a possible new role for the title. Instead it was slimmed down and is basically just less good value than it used to be, seeing its print circ fall rapidly compared with competitors.

    Rusbrdiger discussed it on BBC Radio 4’s “The Media Show” today- first item in, on the iplayer if you folks can get that.

    There he made clear he wants to reduce the amount of news in print, have more analysis, and that research shows this is what existing/remaining print readers want. He also plans to fire journalists and hire more software types. The Guardian often runs 4 separate sections most weekdays- main, G2, Sport and a specialist one such as Education. With the collapse in job ads, the specialist sections will surely disappear.

    My only hope is that the analysis comes from a range of experts rather than just know-all columnists- cut the total word count but make the remaing words interesting and valuable!

    BTW, The Times (London) with its paywall is losing print readers just as quickly as The Guardian which you can all read free across the pond.

  • Hi Jeff,

    I agree with your “digital first” perspective. Whether it’s 5 years, 10 years, or 25 years, the car-delivered 1/2 pound of disposable cellulose will be a thing of the past. It’s just too inefficient and too impersonal.

    There’s one thing I always keep in mind about media. When a talk show celebrity asked a group of broadcast students at Emerson College what business they were in the all answered things like “to inform”, “to expose the truth,” “to ensure impartial coverage,” “to entertain” and “to encourage debate.” The celebrity (I wish I could remember who it was) admonished them all and pointed out that they are all in the business of selling advertising.

    Assuming paywalls don’t hold up very well (my belief) and that ads continue to be the primary driver of revenues, doesn’t it make sense to start with the question of how media companies and journalists can help create economic value (revenue) by providing benefits to commercial entities?

    I realize it’s blasphemy to suggest this type of thing to traditional journalists, but imagine a new marking model where editorial appeared along side of sponsored interviews of local and national business personalities – in both video and print format. It doesn’t have to be 100% fluff. In fact, the more detailed and subject-specific the interview, the more authentic and valuable it would be for readers, the company and the paper. It’s advertorial produced for the digital age that will fit nicely into the web of company created content, user generated content, and self initiated journalism.

    The other thought is for regional papers to ensure they retain their position as the curators of the local frontpage. A publication doesn’t have to write every article. They just have to focus attention in one place to get people taking about it. Although personalization is pushing us towards different experiences, we still enjoy a shared experience of taking about what’s on the morning paper’s frontpage. It’s still much more exciting to be featured in the Boston Globe than it is to be written up on a random local blog.

    Unfortunately these ideas mean there will be fewer staff positions for pure journalists, but that maybe necessary and OK. Pure journalists have all of the tools they need to create compelling content on their own (like you do). If they’re good, they will have growing readership and will likely find their work curated to the top of focal points — which if planned well, will be what the papers of today become over time.

    There have been remarkable changes since we first started thinking about how to combine digital and print (just a few years back) and I’m sure there are more remarkable changes ahead.

    It’s an exciting ride, if someone unsettling.




  • Nanker Phelge

    The real story could be that this will mean layoffs:

    Assuming this is true, I can’t figure out how layoffs will make the Guardian more competitive. As an editorial product, I’m not sure how it can stay competitive with the NYT with fewer reporters doing more work on more products. In terms of raw hits, I’m not sure how it could challenge the HuffPo, which has better SEO, more free labor, and a still-big portal that locks in a steady stream of traffic.

    The Guardian is a great paper. But it will now have less of what makes it great – reporters.

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