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May 18, 2023

Why a Guardian paywall would be good for journalism

Editor of The Fence argues that a free Guardian stifles independent journalism.

By Charles Baker

For many people, the current British mediascape makes for a distressing prospect. The 2010s behemoth that was Buzzfeed News has just been closed down, and Vice Media has gone bankrupt. Game-changing publications like Gal-Dem have shuttered, and even the ballsy cultural plinth that is The Quietus had to launch an appeal to keep the lights on.

At the same time, what our American cousins call ‘legacy publications’ are flourishing – pre-tax profits at Times Media have risen 115% to £73.2 million. Profits are surging at The Telegraph Media Group as they celebrate a record 740,000 subscribers. The Financial Times now has 1m digital subscribers. These publications are operating with centuries-old brands, well-remunerated newsrooms and, most importantly, a paywall that is helping drive growth as other digital media flounders.

Yet there is one major British publication that’s refusing to leave its lonely free-for-all and join in the money-drenched bonanza enjoyed by its competitors. The Guardian Media Group produces much of the best writing in Britain and is sitting pretty on a cash surplus for the first time in nearly 15 years.

But, having spoken to a number of sources at York Way, and from discussions with other editors at small publications, I can’t help thinking that if the Guardian were to introduce a paywall, it could change the landscape of journalism in this country irrevocably, and for the better. 

I run an independent current affairs magazine called The Fence, which was set up in 2019. Looking over our print subscribers, I see that over 9% of them are American, which is interesting, as we have minimal-to-zero US coverage, and that noble 9% have to pay double (£60) what our British readers have to stump up for an annual subscription.

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It’s very hard to establish an identity and win an audience if people can’t read your content. But at the same time, it’s increasingly difficult for new publications to make any money if they don’t have a paywall. But then why would potential readers, who are already feeling the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis, pay for something they can get for ‘free’ from the BBC, or the Guardian.

Jonathan Nunn, who started Vittles, a food outlet that has scored national plaudits and enjoys over 40,000 Substack subscribers, is bullish on the subject:

“If the Guardian put up a paywall tomorrow, I think that smaller subscription-only publications concentrating on specialisms would probably benefit because although there are many great writers and sections, a lot of the Guardian’s clicks are reflexively done for the sole reason that it is a free online paper.”

Under the Scott Trust’s charter, there is an interesting declaration of “a subsidiary interest in promoting the causes of freedom in the press and liberal journalism, both in Britain and elsewhere”. There is no mention of journalism being made available for free in these core values.

Dispiritingly, according to multiple sources in the Guardian’s senior staff, there has never been any discussion about how their no-paywall strategy affects the wider media ecosystem. From what I have been told, the focus for GMG management for the last decade has been the survival of the Guardian, which is understandable, given that it was losing tens of millions of pounds a few years ago.

But, if there are some senior managers at York Way reading this, then there might be a more relevant point – that if the Guardian were to introduce a paywall, it would amplify their mission and their reach, and allow them to make more money – and hire more journalists.

With paywall Guardian could become New York Times of Europe

Joshi Herrmann runs The Mill, an outlet that has revitalised local news in Manchester in just under three years, and now enjoys over 2,000 paid subscribers. For Herrmann, it seems self-evident that GMG should switch models:

“The people running the Guardian obviously know much more than me about everything, But, surely I’m not the only one who thought they had a chance for world domination after the Snowden and Wikileaks stories?”

Herrman believes that “the Guardian should have five times the income it has now and a staff of several thousand journalists. One of the big European papers needs to become the NYT of Europe, and that only happens if you start scooping up millions of subs”.

The New York Times has over 2,000 journalists, more than double the number they employed in 2011. They are expanding their newsrooms throughout Europe, as they ruthlessly use analytics to target new audiences in the English-speaking world and beyond.

The Guardian’s own data tool, Ophan, is perfectly sophisticated, and it is capable of distinguishing between regular readers and first-time visitors (some of whom come to the Guardian via Apple news) – but I am told that editorial discussions at the Guardian revolve around top-line numbers for page views and visitors, without much effort to discern distinct reader categories.

In my sources’ telling, there is too much focus on traffic numbers at the Guardian, which are prominently discussed at 9am editorial meetings. How this guides editorial vision – or skews editorial vision – is a hotly debated topic among all the employees I have spoken to.

By any metric, the Guardian’s membership model has been a success.  In 2021, it announced it has reached one million members, and its journalism continues to be incisive, comprehensive and witty. But its current cash surplus has been boosted by Covid and making a good chunk of staff redundant during the pandemic.

Will their membership model seem so urgent if the Tories are ousted and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party return to power? Will their reader-benefactors feel that their largesse should be best directed elsewhere? Who knows.

In the meantime, for smaller publications like The Fence, and for people who want to promote the cause of liberal journalism in this country,  we can only hope that the Guardian might change course – and build the wall.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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