Printless Guardian story panned - but something has to give

Oct 18, 2012
Nigel Horne

Media blogger Greenslade dismisses 'digital-only' Guardian report as 'wholly inaccurate'

A REPORT in The Daily Telegraph that the publishers of The Guardian and The Observer are "seriously discussing" ditching the print editions and going solely online has been dismissed by the Guardian media blogger Roy Greenslade as "wholly inaccurate".

He also denied that The Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger had been left "increasingly isolated" in his desire to keep the print editions, at least for the foreseeable future.

"The truth is - the whole truth and nothing but the truth - is that The Guardian isn't about to do any such thing," says Greenslade.

"I understand [for which read, 'Alan has told me'] that Rusbridger and the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, Andrew Miller, are baffled by this story. There is not a scintilla of truth in the two major facts [the 'serious discussion' and the 'isolation of the editor'] in an article noticeable for the absence of any named source and also for the fact that no questions were asked of Rusbridger or Miller."

So, what's this all about – and, with the news coming through that Newsweek is to cease print publication at the end of the year, might there at least be an iota of truth in it? Doth Roy protest too much?

It is an inescapable fact that the cost of printing and distributing the print versions of The Guardian and its Sunday sister The Observer has made the operation unprofitable for a long time. Last year the company posted an operating loss of £44.2m.

With costly new ventures including the move to swanky new offices at Kings Cross and an ambitious US online-only operation on the go, Guardian News & Media needs a more lasting solution than its occasional redundancy plans and asset sales. (The Culture Secretary cleared the £70m sale of its radio stations to Global Radio last week – but there isn't much left to throw overboard.)

Throughout the British newspaper industry, there is constant discussion about the feasibility of cutting print editions and relying solely on a web presence. It's already happening among local papers and one of these days it'll come to Fleet Street (as was), where the Guardian is not the only one suffering losses (The Times and The Sunday Times are unprofitable too, as are The Independent titles).

But all these papers have readers, many of whom are dedicated. And they still attract advertisers - indeed, the newspapers generate three-quarters of GNM's revenues. And what would become of brand awareness if we never saw someone walking down the street with a Guardian – or a Times, for that matter – under their arm?

The most likely outcome in the medium-term is a halfway compromise that would save money and, in the age of the iPad, keep most readers satisfied – namely, online only Monday to Friday, with print editions, complete with magazines and arts listings, distributed at the weekend.

This actually makes more sense in the short-term at The Times with its website paywall. At The Guardian, free-to-read evangelist Rusbridger still needs persuading that the future is behind a paywall.

Such minor details aside, there are many in the business who see this model as the obvious solution: weekdays on the computer, weekends on the sofa, fingers pleasantly grubby with ink.  

Final point: The Daily Telegraph report illustrates neatly the growing influence of online journalism. Although it is one of the few papers that remains profitable and as such can afford to commission its own journalism, it has lifted its story about the printless Guardian from the blog where it first appeared, More About Advertising, run by former Marketing Week editor Stephen Foster.

Foster, incidentally, is sticking by his sources, and is not persuaded by Greenslade's denial on behalf of the Guardian.

In the course of his piece, Greenslade wrote: "There has not been any discussion suggesting that The Guardian will cease publishing in print any time soon".

Foster responds: "Well, the first point to make is that the board of GNM and the Scott trustees would have to be barking mad if they're not discussing this particular issue."

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