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May 6, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:15am

Alan Rusbridger shares lessons of Guardian’s success: News sells and purpose should go before profit

By Alan Rusbridger

Not many companies these days survive more than 20 years before they are gobbled up or die. Yet here’s the Guardian – mocked, loved; vilified, treasured – putting 200 candles on its birthday cake and raising a glass of Prosecco on Zoom.

How does a newspaper last so long? The Guardian was not put on earth to make huge profits, and it seldom has – at least for its owners, the Taylor/Scott family who have, in one form or another, presided over the title since it first hit the streets on 5 May, 1821.

The original backers weren’t in it for a quick buck, or – as naturally happens today –  a swift IPO. They gave the first editor, John Edward Taylor, the money “for public advantage”. If Taylor couldn’t make the paper work, they were happy to lose it.

The background was Peterloo, the massacre on the streets of Manchester 18 months earlier. Taylor, a Manchester businessman who dabbled in journalism, was there and – seeing the Times’s correspondent out of action – dashed off a report which caught the night coach to London.

It was, according to the Guardian’s centenary history, the début of the reporter in English public life. And it worked: thanks to the steely editing of the Times’s Thomas Barnes the fake news pumped out by the town magistrates and the Home Office never managed to drown out the truth of Peterloo.

Long story short: the Taylors married the Scotts. At the age of 25 CP Scott – Taylor’s nephew by marriage – fresh out of Oxford, was made editor. By the time he retired 57 years later he not only owned both the Manchester Guardian and the Manchester Evening News, he had turned the Guardian into a paper with a huge national and international influence.

Three months after Scott’s death in 1932 his son, Ted, was drowned on Windermere. The double set of death duties would have crippled the family finances, so CP’s other son, John Scott, decided to give the paper away. Beaverbrook or Northcliffe would happily have made JR Scott rich beyond his dreams. But, no, he placed the Guardian in a trust: to secure the future of the paper  in perpetuity “as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to its liberal tradition; as a profit- seeking enterprise.”

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And here it still is. The Guardian itself last made a profit in 2004, but the Scott Trust – through astute commercial managers in the parent company, GMG – have been able to put aside a £1bn endowment to help sustain the paper through thick and thin. Purpose before profit.

The six editors since the Trust was set up in 1936 are given just two words: “as heretofore”. There’s no proprietor to tell what that means: it’s up to each generation of Guardian journalists to work out how the spirit of Taylor and Scott should be reinterpreted for the times.

(Read more: Press Gazette talks to editor Katharine Viner about 200 years of The Guardian)

The outsider

It’s always been the outsider: in Manchester when the rest of the heavy-hitting press was in London. Then in Farringdon Road, not Fleet Street. Left-leaning, where most of the nationals tilted to the right.

Its most regular readers are ferociously loyal – and, often, laceratingly critical. When I was editor, I was acutely aware that I was viewed as a caretaker, passing through. The sense of “ownership” by core Guardian readers was off the scale – and baffled many a consultant brought in to brush up the brand.

The paper is frequently a disappointment to the Left, for whom it can never be left enough.  It is loathed by some (though by no means all) on the Right. Tony Blair was not the only Labour leader who wished it could be as accommodating to his party as he perceived some other papers were to the Tories.

James Murdoch famously stipulated that profit was the only guarantee of independence. (He probably doesn’t think that any longer about the highly lucrative  Fox News). Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre mocked what he called the “subsidariat” – “a self-appointed elite [which] imposes minority values on the great majority.”

And yet here it still is – now reaching well over 1.5 bn browsers a year across the globe and doing well enough financially – with income from more than a million supporters and subscribers – to return the furlough money taken during the pandemic.

Editions in the US and Australia – once mocked as imperial overreach – are in profit.  The company that began life being cranked out by hand, 125 copies an hour, has a global reach and influence the Taylors and Scotts could barely have imagined.  The readers-as-members model, first hatched in 2012, has been transformed in recent years.

There are many lessons one might draw from the paper’s astonishing resilience.

Here are two:

Firstly, news sells.  One of the earliest employees was John Harland, a Hull-based reporter who had simply formidable shorthand.  In the information chaos of the 1830s there was a hunger to read the exact words of the politicians caught up in a time of such great upheaval.

In more recent times, the paper has ploughed on with the most expensive, uncertain, difficult and nail-biting form of journalism: investigative reporting.  Phone hacking; tax avoidance; torture and rendition; undercover policing; Trafigura’s toxic dumping; BAE’s arms sales; Wikileaks; modern slavery; the Snowden revelations. More recently; Windrush, Cambridge Analytica and Noel Clarke.

It’s fraught and costs money. But when it comes to asking readers for support it’s also a business model. “If you keep on reporting like that,” they respond, “we’ll keep backing you.”

Public service

Second, the “purpose before profit” model feels a rather contemporary one – if only because the profits are harder to find. News companies that once threw off cash are now perilously close to edging into loss. If you’re no longer there to make consistent returns, then what exactly is your point?

The answer is, surely, the one that motivated the Taylors and the Scotts: public service. We have, in recent years, had a taste of what it must have been like in communities in the early 19th century: no shortage of information, but, equally, no clue who to believe. In the past decade we’ve experienced how societies that have no agreed facts become dangerously ungovernable.

The “public advantage” in giving all citizens – not simply an informed elite – reliable, accurate and timely information is unarguable. The news companies that are well-placed to provide that much-needed information may become more philanthropic in their outlook and governance:  they are likely to include Benefit Corporations (B Corps), social enterprises, educational organisations, even charities.  The highly successful non-profit Texas Tribune is one model. National Public Radio or ProPublica are another.

A recent Financial Times series has been predicting the company of the future: one that thinks beyond profit to purpose.  In one 2019 article the FT’s associate editor, Andrew Hill, predicted: “Businesses that combine profit with a wider purpose will benefit from the reinforced commitment of employees and customers. Those that fail to do so will not survive to become the companies of the future.”

How many companies launched now will be celebrating in 2321? What might they learn from the Manchester Unitarian founders of two hundred years ago?

Alan Rusbridger edited the Guardian between 1995 and 2015. He is Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and is a member of the Facebook Oversight Board.

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