There is a pervasive trend in some big media organizations—especially in my home country Canada, with two national dailies and two major national broadcasters, one public, one private—to become more “relevant” by offering content perceived to be attractive to a wider circle of readers/viewers/listeners. The public Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has for example in recent years moved toward producing ratings-driven drama programs on their main television network (and has been quite successful at it, although one wonders what the underlying reason is for this approach when the other private network broadcaster CTV essentially provides the same programming, and has done for years), and revamped their classical music channel to include more “indie rock,” singer-songwriter content during the work day for the underrepresented urban hipster office set.
Similarly, the national newspaper The Globe and Mail moved to a new print design closely resembling the Guardian, although with what seems like about half the written content, a greatly expanded Style section, and more knee-jerk editorials and graphical tchotchkes masquerading as columns. In both instances, the redesigns seem driven more by zealous MBA graduates more attuned to reacting to data from group studies, telephone surveys, and demographic shifts, the kind of people who obsess over reading the widest possible tastes of media consumers.
The Guardian online meanwhile is still figuring out what to do with a mass of readers from outside their borders, particularly in Canada and the US, who have fled ugly, floating cursor video ads, anti-intuitive layouts, or the multiple page newspaper article redumps on nytimes.com, and found a new home at guardian.co.uk. With a wide variety (emphasis emphasis!) of interesting international stories, blogs and articles tailor-made for internet reading (and a nice, well-spaced font), careful, non-intrusive use of video embedding, the Guardian site seems designed by people who use the internet—again, it’s not just an adjunct to the newspaper, or an over-monetized flash ad animation dumping ground. Once more, it’s worth returning to Alan Rusbridger’s excellent Hugh Cudlipp lecture (although the video links are all broken in a nice bit of irony). If you haven’t already, take the time to read the whole thing. But let’s focus in on this quote:
During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40% more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company – you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape – has grown its audience by 40% in a year. More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times. This readership has found us, rather than the other way round. Our total marketing spend in America in the past 10 years has been $34,000.
Nor is all this being bought by tricks or by setting chain-gangs of reporters early in the morning to re-write stories about Lady GaGa or Katie Price. In that same period last year, our biggest growth areas were environment (up 137%), technology (up 125%) and art and design (up 84%). Science was up 81%; politics 39% and Comment is Free 38%.
I think it’s worth having a look again at that figure once more—$34, 000. In addition of course to the growth percentages in areas of the news other online news sites have long neglected (science, design etc.) And if you want to point to the Guardian’s healthy endowment as proof others could not have gone down this online content route, here’s Rusbridger again: “Our first decade of digital growth wasn’t subsidised by the Scott Trust – it was relatively modest and covered by the profits of the paper.”
In other words, the Guardian’s online success is largely built on old fashioned content. But not, importantly, content merely transferred verbatim from print to online. Guardian Football for example works to provide content tailor made for online readers who already share a good deal of knowledge of their subject, and the key features of Guardian Football—the Joy of Six, the Knowledge, the Chalkboard analysis—reflect the reality that most online readers already know what they’re looking for. These readers are in perpetual search for more specialized content in one or more areas—politics, sport, science, whatever. The Guardian is successful because it provides content that assumes a particular level of knowledge on the readers behalf, i.e. it respects that its readers have sought the content out, rather than glanced over it after picking up the paper off a subway seat (this respect is perhaps one of the reasons why it employs few of the patronizing football analysts found in other UK broadsheets—you know who they are).
Therefore, a partnership between the Guardian and the more reliable, independent specialized football bloggers makes a lot of sense. While this relationship has been ongoing at the Guardian, in part through the “Favourite Things” section on the Football main site and through the Observer Premier League fan round-up, during the 2010 World Cup it came to fruition with the “Guardian Fans’ Network“, an attempt to have bloggers fill in content gaps inevitable in covering a thirty-two nation tournament. I asked Guardian Sport editor Sean Ingle for his thoughts on the project:
We had two primary objectives when we launched the Guardian Fans’ Network: first, to tap into the talent and expertise of our readers and second, to build a network of experts in all 32 countries. We have long realised that guardian.co.uk is a global news organisation but it’s only more recently that we have made the logical next step … ie given our finite resources, we can’t cover everything so therefore it makes sense to involve our readers more often. For the World Cup it was always going to be impossible for us to cover the reaction in, say, Honduras if they beat Spain or in Ghana when they reached the quarter-finals.
The fans’ network enabled us to do that – our network of 125 supporters in all 32 countries represented in South Africa tweeted regularly, sent us leads, pitched for paid commissions and even sent us photographs of how the World Cup was celebrated where they were. The whole process wasn’t perfect; some of the blogs were patchy and I wish we had had more time to suggest tweaks and rewrites. Also some of our planned graphically wizardry didn’t come off – we simply ran out of time. But on the whole it was a success.
In other words, the network built on what was already one of the key strengths of the Guardian Online: specialization. But here you can already see some of the drawbacks with this kind of partnership. First, there’s the unavoidable lack of editorial control that comes with ceding online space to outsiders. Second, while I think a successful newspaper/blogger network would have to respect the autonomy of bloggers in choosing what they write about and how they write it (more on that tomorrow), there are legal issues about what gets published, issues that could be insurmountable, especially in the UK with its stringent libel laws. Third, while a blog network on a newspaper site might produce more income for bloggers through a number of different schemes (network sponsorships, or “micro-advertizing,” smaller companies selling niche product directly to readers of highly-specialized blogs), newspaper writers could reasonably argue to their bosses that these kinds of networks erode wages for staff and freelancers.
These drawbacks need to be very carefully looked at, and some could be insurmountable stumbling blocks to any projects of this type. But there is good reason to think this route might be inevitable. Here’s another little bit from Rusbridger’s lecture that Ingle specifically highlighted to me:
We are edging away from the binary sterility of the debate between mainstream media and new forms which were supposed to replace us. We feel as if we are edging towards a new world in which we bring important things to the table – editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers. The members of that community could not hope to aspire to anything like that audience or reach on their own; they bring us a rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.
Ingle elaborates a little on this when it comes to Guardian Sport:
There will be always be some difference between papers and bloggers – the latter are unlikely to be able to go to every big game, get off-the-record briefings from managers and club staff etc – but the gap has narrowed considerably over recent years. For instance, Michael Cox from zonalmarking.net does our chalkboards and has appeared on our Football Weekly podcast while the Observer have a fans’ network in which you can read what supporters of Premier League teams made of their team’s latest performance.
The gap has narrowed, the format for a growing partnership already exists. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Michael Cox of Zonal Marking and discuss some of the advantages and drawbacks from the perspective of bloggers, and Wednesday we’ll conclude the series with a summary and a look at where we go from here.
Image Credit: Mike Bailey-Gates.