Guardian hires first digital strategy director to grow online business

Guardian News & Media has appointed its first ever digital strategy director to knuckle down on finding workable online business models, two years after its nearest equivalent post-holder left the role.

German news site Zeit Online‘s editor-in-chief and kickstarter Wolfgang Blau will take the role next April, charged with “helping (editorial and commercial teams) to grow global audiences and revenues by developing new digital platforms that deepen reader engagement and provide new opportunities to commercial partners”, GNM says.

Emily Bell left as GNM’s long-time digital content director in April 2010. Throughout the publisher’s new “digital-first” redefinition, its digital leadership has included website editor Janine Gibson, website head Georgina Henry, digital development director Tanya Cordrey, the publisher’s commercial executives and Matt McAlister, the digital strategy director of GNM’s parent Guardian Media Group.

Much of that leadership was editorial. Whilst that is clearly in Blau’s armoury, his appointment is also designed as a business strategy one. GNM has been seeking such a digital leader for some time, paidContent understands. Cordrey was recently promoted to chief digital officer but Blau will report only to GMG CEO Andrew Miller (on the commercial side) and GNM editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger (on the editorial side); Cordey leads the technology side.

A GNM spokesperson tells paidContent:

We have never had a single person in charge of digital strategy. Given the scale of our digital audience (30.2 million monthly uniques, according to the last comScore), it’s clearly time.”

GMG CEO Miller (via release):

“His track record for developing robust business models online make him the ideal candidate to help us make the most of the commercial opportunities generated by our huge and highly-engaged audience.”

What can The Guardian expect from Blau?

The strategy at his current operation is unusual. Despite growing integration between online and print at many other publications, the weekly Die Zeit and its Zeit Online wing are run mostly separately, and even from entirely different cities.

Under Blau, Zeit Online has abandoned apps for HTML5, “tried to find a niche audience in order to charge higher advertisement rates” and focused on doing fewer things better, according to an event write-up from Global Editors Network, of which Blau is vice-president. In commercial, Zeit Online has focused on one big top-of-page ad banner and has tried to innovate even when there is not yet a business logic behind it.

In May, Editors’ Weblog reported:

Zeit Online is not yet profitable in itself, Blau said, be he expects to reach profit soon, with revenue up 60 percent last year compared with the year before. He stressed that, although editorial and business should remain largely separate concerns, editors should understand the business of online advertising if they are to succeed on the web.”

The Guardian continues to stake out its ambition to produce “open journalism” as part of a web ecosystem.

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 of ongoing staff cutbacks. Digital revenue, a significant part of which is dating classifieds, grew 16.3 percent to £45.7 million.

The publisher’s print circulation is shrinking toward 200,000. It operates mobile and tablet subscriptions, appears to still favour keeping its website free and is looking in other nooks for revenue, like professional networks and journalism training. The company is currently trying to make redundant 70 to 100 editorial staff.

Much stall has been set in GNM’s latest mission to grow its US audience, the strategy behind which is to drive up free eyeball counts and court advertisers in the world’s biggest market. Many of The Guardian‘s New York-based editors are transplanted Brits, but their latest hire this week is Marketplace’s respected former New York bureau chief and Wall Street correspondent Heidi N. Moore, who will be finance and economics editor.

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