The Guardian Quickens Its Journey To A Life With Less Print

Guardian News & Media has announced a “major transformation programme” to de-emphasise print and become “digital-first”, making it one of the first major newspapers to push toward that final, eventual transition.

GNM will, over the next five years, reallocate to digital areas a £25 ($40.24) million investment that was earmarked for print, it is understood. In doing so, it will, by next March, shrink the printed newspaper away from breaking news and in to a smaller, less resource-intensive edition that instead leads on analysis.

Thursday’s announcement to staff by editor Alan Rusbridger and GMG CEO Andrew Miller (see our interview with Miller) may seem familiar to those who have followed Rusbridger’s observations and forecasts in recent years. But it is much more significant – a crystallised, formalised strategy to reprioritise print, which they say is suffering “inexorable changes” of declining circulation and advertising income.

The publisher says this is more about reconfiguring print for current circumstances than exiting print entirely. It is putting no timeframe on such an eventuality. In particular, it wants to grow its base of Guardian Extra print subscribers in order to achieve guaranteeable print income and to learn about its core readers. But the direction is clear.

In 2005, GNM bought for around £80 ($128.76) million a modern replacement printing press that it acknowledged at the time would likely be its last ever. Asked in 2010 when The Guardian would no longer exist in print, Rusbriger said: “I was thinking 20 years at that point (in 2005). I think that might be telescoping quite dramatically now.” In other words, the forecast of going digital-only has been brought forward from 2025.

Rusbridger told staff on Thursday: “By becoming a digital-first organisation, we’re taking the next natural step, one which we believe all newspapers will eventually have to take.” No job losses were yet announced Thursday, but may come later on the print side, as the detail of this strategy gets worked out.

Until now, most publishers have slowly balanced digital growth with print decline. For many, their eventual crossover appears distant. But GNM is now actively pushing toward this goal. Print is currently newspapers’ main earner. Of the £221 ($355.69) million revenue GNM took in 2009/10, about £37.5 ($60.35) million came from digital. GNM aims to double digital income within five years whilst managing the decline of amounts earned from print.

GNM’s decision may have been easier to take than for some peers. It now circulates only 262,937 print copies per day on average, putting it fourth out of the UK’s five “quality” national dailies and ninth in the list of 10 national titles of all stripes. Online, where it has found a global audience, its fortunes are a whole different story, however, with 2.4 million daily unique browsers in April.

The intention for to stay free on the web remains in place. After buying paidContent’s publisher ContentNext in New York in 2008, it is trying for a second time to grow its already significant U.S. audience to the kind of scale at which advertising could truly support It has 67,258 iPhone subscribers and will likely also charge subscription for its delayed, upcoming iPad edition.

But GNM’s heart appears not to be in chargeable apps as much as it is in the present opportunity to court an audience for what Rusbridger calls its “mutualised”, open journalism. So today’s announcement that the print business on which GNM depends will be slimmed makes the success of GNM’s latest U.S. expansion all the more critical.

Until the date when this hoped-for expansion creates a solid business underpinning a digital-centric GNM, ongoing medium-term financial loss looks likely, whether in print or online. In 2009, Rusbridger conceded: “Since 2002/3, our spending on has exceeded revenue by just £20 ($32.19) million.” Last year, GNM as a whole made a second consecutive annual loss of about £34 ($54.72) million after £26.2 ($42.17) million in cost cuts were wiped out by making £32.6 ($52.46) million less revenue.

GNM has two other, sure-fire cash cows it can continue to fall back on – the Emap and Trader Media Group B2B publishers, which GMG jointly owns with Apax and which will be sold at some point in the future for a windfall.