Monday 18 April 2016

My plan to Save The Guardian

There was a fascinating article in GQ magazine this week, describing how Alan Rusbridger has brought The Guardian to the brink of financial ruin. According to the article, Rusbridger has shed readers by the hundreds of thousands and racked up annual losses of a staggering £45 million a year, which are at a level which is competely unsustainable. As someone who has bought the Guardian since I was old enough to buy newspapers, I am not surprised. When I started reading the paper in the late 1970's / early 1980's I am not really surprised. I have found that the paper has become less interesting with each passing year. As key writers retire or die, it seems the replacements are less capable and less interesting. A good example is the sketch column. Simon Hoggart was hilarious and worth the cover cost of the paper. He brought parliament to life, with his observations. Whilst his replacement John Crace writes a perfectly acceptable account of the days activities, he doesn't notice the detail that made Hoggarts column unmissable. He is not interested in Michael Fabricants wig or Nicholas Soames girth. He gives the odd perfunctory nod to Hoggart, but it is clear he's not that interested in such tittle tattle.

In the early 1980's the paper had some excellent cartoons. They had Posy Simmonds, Steve Bell  and Doonesbury. All were, in their own way cutting edge. Bell is still there, a rather aged enfant terrible. He is the best thing in the paper. Posy is long gone and Doonesbury is mostly flashbacks from the 1970's. Although Bell is still the first thing I read in the paper, it is telling that he was the last flagship cartoon strip to be recruited. I can't believe there is no new talent out there looking to be given a chance. It is symptomatic of a paper that hasn't moved with the times.

All papers are having issues with circulation, but The Guardian are unique in the size and scale of losses. I believe that The Guardian still has an inportant role to play in our society. It is the only serious source of information in the UK for those on the centre left. If it was to go to the wall, there would be a huge gap in the quality of information available to those of us who don't want the views of the likes of Rupert Murdoch rammed down our throats.

The Guardian will not survive on sentiment. If it is an organisation that we all think is a worthy, but we don't actually buy it, then it doesn't have a future. All businesses have to continually adapt. Things change. Institutions such as newspapers have been run the same way for centuries and all of a sudden the old rules are out of  the window. The digital age and social media has fundamentally changed our relationship with the news. The challenge for the newspapers is to find a new niche in our society. Sadly reporting on hard news is not going to be their primary role. When there are serious news stories, we primarily look to TV and the web for information. The papers role is now far more analytic. By the time we get the papers, we know most of the ins and outs of the facts of a story. But newspapers have a role to dig up stories, expose wrongdoing and help us form our opinions.

So where would I start if I was charged with turning The Guardian around, the first thing I would ask myself is how could the paper engage with a generation that is not interested in print. Can this be done? A paper such as The Guardian is seeking to build a long term relationship with reasonably well educated individuals with a left of centre viewpoint. My guess is that most people start reading papers at University age. If I was the Guardian, this is where I'd be investing. I'd be looking at a new generation of journalists who get the digital age. The Guardian makes a fair bit of its income from the Educational section. There are rich advertsing pickings to be had. Sadly the education section is one of the most boring sections in any publication anywhere. I know a few young teachers and whilst they will scan it if they want a job they tell me there is absolutely nothing of interest in it. Talking to the teachers I know, there are a wealth of subjects they'd find interesting, but the stye and content of the Guardians education section, is like the rest of the paper, stuck in the 1970/80's.

Another area is the Society section. Again this brings in good revenues from public sector advertising. Again the younger members of these professions tell me it is dull and of little interest. Again this needs a proper makeover and fresh blood. The people in the teaching and public sector professions are a key target audience for the Guardian. They need to reengage with the up and coming members of these professions.

There are many other things I'd do to improve the offering. The Guardian has a daily page which has reviews of music and drama. This is totally unfocussed. Again it is unchanged in style and format for decades. Much of the content is rather worthy. Very occasionally there is something of interest to me, but this is the exception, not the norm. The format is in need of a radical overhaul. This is yet anoother area where a bit of fresh blood would work wonders.

The one area which I do enjoy is the sports section. This has been revamped a few times over the years and is far superior to the offerring in the 70's and 80's. I get the impression that this had thrived because it is off the radar of the main editorial team. I suspect that Rusbridger isn't that interested so there is a bit more freedom.

The G2 section is another area of the paper that seems to me to have lost the plot. When it first came in, the idea was that this would be the place for the more in depth stories and analysis. I am really not sure what the purpose of it is anymore. There are agony aunt columns, regular features, some of which I enjoy such as the best photograph section and other bits that don't ( I tend not to read them). I get the feeling that Rusbridger just shoved all the stuff he wasn't that interested in onto G2. I think it is a real missed opportunity. I'd revamp it and make it far more focussed. I'd have the reviews in G2 and make them more diverse and far more interesting. Many of the regular columnists seem to me well past their sell by date.

The Guardian seems to be believe that supermarket money off vouchers are a bit beneath it. If  were in charge of the commercials, I'd definately try and make such things part of the paper. I'd work with supermarkets to try and focus these on offers that the next generation of Guardian readers at college may be interested in. Maybe offers in conjunction with bookshops and rail companies would help, as students would be tempted by these.

I'm not altogether sure that the Berliner sized paper is great. It always struck me that they did this for the sake of it. The Times works fine as a tabloid and I see no reason why the Guardian shouldn't. For people like me who read it on the train, this would be a big improvement. I do wonder if the Guardian do much market research to see what their readers think. I doubt it.  A few years ago they dropped the Doonesbury cartoon and there was uproar amongst the readership. It confirmed to me that the editor didn't really understand the readers.I'd like to see more of the Doonesbury and If style cartoon strips. These are a highight of the paper, but I'm not entirely sure that the paper get this. It wind me up no end that there is no If cartoon on a Friday. It also irritates me that the new Doonesbury strips are not on the back page. I often forget to look at them.

The Guardian is at its best when it is a campaigning paper. It seems to me to have lost some of its edge in this respect. That would be the first thing I'd set straight. I'm guessing that lengthy investigative stories are expensive. Is this why we see ever fewer. In general the quality of such stories seems to me to have diminished. It also seems that the Guardian has moved its stance and is becoming ever more celebrity obsessed. I find this mindnumbingly boring.  I doubt Guardian readers are that bothered.

I'd be interested to see what has caused the £45 million loss. Without seeing the accounts I can only guess, but I do wonder if anyone has ever sat down and gone through what is in the paper and said "do people buy it for this, is it worth spending money on it". In this respect things like the cryptic crossword are great value for money. I think this is the main rerason many buy the paper.  I am not sure this is properly recognised and if it is, it is done rather sniffily/ I think the Guardian has many great constituent parts, but they don't sell these. I've often thought I'd base a TV advertising campaign aroud the Guardian Crossword if I was running the paper.  I think it is a real USP and one which works very well in a printed format.

I believe there is a future for print media,  but I believe that the people running the industry need to get their heads out of the sand. The likes of Murdoch have multiple agendas running in their papers. I doubt many readers convert from The Sun to the Grauniad, or even from the Times. The Guardian needs to connect with its next generation of readers. I don't believe this can be done simply by doing what they've been doing since 1979.

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