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Guardian to build on ‘direct link’ between supporters and journalism with global growth

Deputy editor Owen Gibson on the title's global ambitions and relationship with its audience.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Guardian aims to continue growing the “symbiotic relationship” between its financial supporters and its journalists as it gets “more global” in the coming year, according to deputy editor Owen Gibson.

Gibson said The Guardian’s model of asking readers for voluntary contributions, keeping its journalism free to all, is a “special thing” that has helped the publisher have a “lasting effect” on the world despite headwinds hitting the industry.

Gibson, pictured third from right, spoke to Press Gazette shortly after The Guardian was named news provider of the year at the British Journalism Awards in London on Thursday.

Guardian supporters ‘powering’ its journalism

The Guardian first introduced its donations model in March 2016 but, as Gibson noted, “not everyone was on board with it at the time. A lot of people thought that either we start a paywall, or we die.

“And it was a real commitment to open journalism, to believing in our readers and believing that they would support our journalism.

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“As somebody working there at the sharp end of it every day, it is really amazing to think that it’s our readers who are really powering the journalism.”

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The Guardian crossed the one million recurring digital subscriber and supporter threshold in December 2021, a figure that now puts it in the top ten for biggest English-language news publishers by number of paying digital readers in the world.

Gibson continued: “They’re investing in it because they want The Guardian to uncover new things in the world, to have an impact on the world, to cover subjects that maybe other outlets aren’t covering with real gusto, like the environment, like migration, global inequality, and that’s the reason they’re giving their money to us.

“There is that direct link between, I think, the reader and the journalism that is quite a special thing and hopefully we can build on that as we get more global, get more digital, do more journalism on more platforms. I think that quite symbiotic relationship between the reader and the journalists – hopefully that continues to grow.”

‘Journalism does still change things’

Gibson noted that The Guardian launched a digital Europe edition in July, which he said has “taken off and started really well”, while it has “strong and thriving offices in Australia” where it celebrated its tenth birthday this year.

Meanwhile in the US, he said, “we’re really starting to make real headway in both taking on some of the established US titles and in projecting our American journalism to the world”.

In November The Guardian was the 18th biggest news website in the US, above CBS News and Reuters, while it was the seventh largest English-language news site in the world by number of visits.

Gibson said it had been a “strong period” for the publisher “for all the obvious challenges to the industry” noting that these, which include widespread declines in social media referrals and in advertising revenue, have contributed to job losses at the likes of Reach.

He added that “for all of those challenges to the structures of journalism” the British Journalism Awards was a “good example of how many stories can still be broken, the extent to which power’s being held to account not just by established news outlets, but by trade magazines, by digital outlets,” citing Dan Neidle of Tax Policy Associates as an example after he won the Investigation of the Year category for his “determined and forensic investigation” into tax avoidance allegations against Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi.

“It just shows that journalism does still change things, if that doesn’t sound too grand. I really feel that about a lot of The Guardian’s projects this year,” Gibson said.

In particular Gibson cited The Guardian’s Cotton Capital series into its own ties to slavery and The Bruno and Dom Project continuing the work of Brazilian indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips after they were killed in the Amazon. Both were highly commended in the British Journalism Awards, in the Social Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion Journalism and the Campaign of the Year categories respectively.

Of Cotton Capital, Gibson said it was “probably the most important thing we did this year, and probably what will turn out to be the most meaningful long term”.

“That’s something that we’re all incredibly proud of,” he continued. “It was a difficult thing to do. It’s quite unprecedented among news organisations to turn that lens on yourself and to commit that amount of resource and investment to really investigating our own past and what that means for The Guardian, for the country and for the world, really.

“That sounds quite grand but I really feel like it was a really important intervention and project for us.”

The project, which included a podcast, a supplement with the Saturday newspaper and various long-form pieces, grew out of the aftermath of the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter movement and had the aim of opening up the subject and educating The Guardian’s readership, Gibson said.

Historian David Olusoga’s appointment to the board of the Scott Trust, the owner of The Guardian, in 2018 also became a “big catalyst” for thinking “that we needed to look at ourselves, that a lot of British institutions also needed to look at themselves,” Gibson continued.

“It wasn’t quick – we spent a long time doing that work, delivering the research, it couldn’t have happened if we weren’t owned by the Scott Trust.

“It committed £10m for this restorative justice fund, but also committed to really backing it institutionally. And then Cotton Capital was the journalistic project that grew out of it.” The Scott Trust funding in part led to the creation of seven new journalist jobs to improve coverage of “underrepresented regions and communities” in the UK and the US, as well as the Caribbean, South America and Africa.

Of the Bruno and Dom Project, Gibson added: “Dom and Bruno was another example where that was really paying tribute to and trying to continue the work of somebody whose journalism really meant something and really tried to have a lasting effect on the world and we really wanted to carry that on.

“For all those reasons, it feels like while in some ways the industry is challenged and people are finding different models and different ways to do that, the spirit of journalism, finding new things out, challenging the powerful is alive and well.”

Guardian win ‘brilliant’ for team and supporters alike

Gibson said the News Provider of the Year win was “brilliant for the team. It’s brilliant for our readers and our supporters, and it’s a real credit really to what’s been an incredible year… news-wise”.

Gibson cited the coverage of the wars in both Ukraine and Gaza, investigations correspondent David Conn’s reporting on Conservative peer Michelle Mone’s PPE scandal, City editor Anna Isaac’s investigation into allegations of misconduct at CBI and reporting on Zahawi, and political editor Pippa Crerar “and her lobby team really making waves and chronicling the collapse of this Tory government”.

“Everywhere you look we’ve been great for stories.” Next year will be too, he added, with two major elections in the US and UK and a “really busy news cycle” expected.

The British Journalism Awards judges said The Guardian this year “shone a light on under-reported parts of the world and campaigned for social justice and environmental change with its investigations this year.

“And it has even investigated difficult truths from its own past while delivering a mass audience and achieving financial sustainability.”

Guardian Media Group maintained a four-year run of revenue growth in the year to March 2023, up 3% to £264.4m, although investment in its editorial teams and products led it to swing into the red.

Other than the News Provider of the Year win, Guardian journalists won in four other categories:

  • Emily Dugan – Crime and Legal Journalism – for her work on Andrew Malkinson who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for rape
  • Rachael Healy – Arts and Entertainment Journalism – for stories including the revelation that David Walliams made “derogatory remarks” about Britain’s Got Talent contestants
  • Anna Isaac – Business, Finance and Economics Journalism – for work including her CBI investigation
  • William Ralston – Sports Journalism – for his “in-depth” reporting on Premier League referees

The Guardian was also highly commended in four categories:

  • The Bruno and Dom Project – Campaign of the Year
  • Cotton Capital project – Social Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion Journalism
  • Rachel Salvidge and Leana Hosea (with Watershed Investigations) – Energy and Environment Journalism
  • Simon Hattenstone – Features Journalism

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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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