Guardian CEO says digital opportunity is “fantastic” but revenues are lagging

There is something ironic about a newspaper publisher discussing its financial travails at an event thrown for accountants.

But that’s what Guardian Media Group CEO Andrew Miller did during a seminar the group hosted at its Kings Place HQ for the Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland (ICAS). According to a journalist employed by the accountancy group (yes, you read that correctly), Miller told the gathering, which was run with The Guardian‘s professional networks business:

“Journalism is very under threat at the moment with the digital transition.

“Digital is fantastic, fantastic opportunities, but only 30 percent of our revenues come from digital format.

“So, to say we can sustain a business for a long time with a high level of journalists with this mix of revenue is very, very difficult.”

In the latest round of staff downsizing, designed to help achieve a £7 million cut and tip the cost base toward “digital-first”, Guardian News & Media has been seeking 70 to 100 voluntary redundancies from editorial but has achieved only around 30, according to the paper.

That means the publisher has now cut about as deep as it can before having to lay off staff against their will. Guardian News & Media’s latest annual operating loss grew 42 percent from £33.1 million to £44.2 million ($69 million) thanks to the costs of digital investment and the staff restructuring itself. Digital revenue, a significant part of which is dating classifieds, grew 16.3 percent to £45.7 million.

But GMG CEO Miller, himself an ICAS member, told the ICAS event:

“Critically, our way of surviving is we’ve assets outside of the Guardian.

“We have a loss-making core newspaper, but it’s subsidised by other assets we can draw on when we need to.”

GMG can absorb GNM’s losses because its remaining assets are healthier. Under Miller, GMG has divested most of its consumer media assets like regional newspapers and radio stations, but it retains its half-shares in specialist business publishers Trader Media Group and Top Right Group, alongside co-owner Apax, yet only as “investments”.

One day soon, GMG will sell those assets for a windfall, from which it will get to finance its loss-making news operation, buying it time to make Guardian News & Media profitable in the digital environment. For this reason, despite skepticism growing louder about its unusual corporate model –GMG’s loss-making core entity and its ability to subsidize that asset with its B2B investments — there are no panic-stations at GMG. The Guardian does have time to continue experimenting with building products that find strong consumer appetite, hoping commercial success follows. Many a start-up also does things in that order, and The Guardian is rightly applauded for following suit.

But start-ups are not lumbered with the costs of a large news publisher. It just means has to find a large audience of U.S. readers and advertisers while its owner identifies new revenue streams at home, including entering journalism training and professional services.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in paidContent’s owner, Giga Omni Media.