The Guardian Media Group yesterday announced its intent to go Digital First. Editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger told staff that they would need to “move beyond the newspaper, shifting focus, effort and investment towards digital, because that is our future".
The Guardian makes this move from a position of strength. Despite a financial loss of £33m, they are among the only newspapers to have seen their print circulation rise in the past year. Of course, GMG have been among the leaders in embracing digital openness and the web for a long time. While others have set their strategies around digital barriers, the Guardian were pioneers in the move to digital. In 2006, they announced a “web-first” service, where news was posted online prior to the print edition. While that hardly sounds shocking today, they were the first UK newspaper to do so.
It’s clear that newspapers are starting to divide themselves into one of three business models:
The Times of London and NY Newsday are probably the best examples of the gated model. The strategy for this model is clear – protect the core business. In the case of the Times of London, the focus is on staving off the erosion of the print product. For Newsday, it’s a mixed strategy. Slowing the print decline is certainly part of the equation, but by providing free access to Cablevision subscribers, they are also using Newsday as a loss-leader to hinder competition from Verizon.
The Metered approach is gaining the greatest attention, with the New York Times and, to some extent, the FT adopting this model. For the Times, the model is pretty clear. They want to remain digitally relevant, but hope to add value to print subscribers and generate digital subscription revenue from their most active users. To strike this balance, the Times has put up a fairly porous pay wall, where users can avoid the meter via Google’s “first click free” and use of social links. My guess is that the strategy will do more to slow print erosion than generate digital-only subs, but time will tell.
While technically a metered approach, the FT model is quite different from the NY Times. Originally, unregistered users could get 3 clicks per month, while registered users could view 30 pages. Over time, that has been cut back where unregistered users get a single click and registered users only 10 clicks per month. Social media links are treated no differently, so there are no easy ways to bypass the wall. Of course, for the FT, which is largely a b2b product, the drivers are very different. A primary goal for the FT are to protect the enterprise sales that they make to large financial institutions and corporations. That’s their core business and they are aggressively looking to protect that.
So, what is meant by open?
Open encompasses more than simply an online access strategy. Yes, it starts with full and complete access to the guardian.co.uk website. But openness goes way beyond that. It encompasses their open platform, which includes free access to their content API, encouraging customers and partners to integrate their content. For partners, the Guardian also provides a MicroApp Framework, which allows partners to add functionality and content directly on the Guardian website.
But openness is more than just a technological framework. It’s a mindset that drives all decision making. And that mindset seems to be that if there is a way to make their content and tools more useful to their audience, they should do so, even if there is risk to an existing business.
Your business model drives your level of innovation. If everything is centered around protecting the print business (as in the gated approach), innovation is snuffed out. Every decision is made through the lens of “will this help us retain our print readers?”
Which brings us to Digital First.
More than anything, I believe that too is a mindset for decision making. The Journal Register Company adopted a digital first approach last year. According to CEO John Paton,
our Digital First transition strategy is centered on the cost- effective creation of content and sales and not the legacy modes of production.
Journal Register set a goal of removing themselves from any process not focused on their “core competencies of content creation and the selling of our audience to advertisers.” Paton adds that “To be in the news business now means you must run your business as Digital First. And that means Print Last.”
Digital First is much more than simply creating an iPad or iPhone app. The market is changing every day and it’s not enough to have a website and a phone app. Today’s publishers must be prepared to publish to n-devices. Today, that may be web, iPad, iPhone and Android. But it’s also Facebook; and Chrome; and Flipboard; and the 10 partner sites where you may be able to reach new audiences. And tomorrow will bring dozens of new platforms and devices and more opportunities to connect with your audience.
Being Digital First means a commitment to creating the infrastructure and the mindset to be able to easily deliver content to n-platforms, in each case optimized towards creating the best possible user experience for your audience. And it means doing so nimbly, so you can explore new platforms and create exciting new opportunities for advertisers and partners.
The Guardian have embraced mobile. While their website is free, they charge a nominal fee (£3.99 per year) for their iPhone app. According to their latest statistics, the Guardian iPhone app has had more than 400k downloads, with an impressive 17% conversion rate. Mobile now accounts for 10% of their web traffic. That iPhone-centric strategy has served them well until now, but in moving to a Digital First world, the will have to embrace a multi-platform, multi-device strategy.
While many publishers have taken the ostrich approach, the Guardian Media Group have shown an understanding of where the media business is heading and a willingness to take the risks necessary to get there. I look forward to watching their transition to Digital First.