Neither of Britain’s two most successful web sites is a conventional market economy business forced to watch daily shareprices. The BBC, funded by a compulsory licence fee, and the Guardian, owned by the Scott Trust whose purpose is the maintained the daily, do not have the financial markets on their backs.
This raises the question of whether the big commercial broadcasting and print organisations around the world are capable of taking the longer view which the transformation of media demands.
Two examples do not prove a case. Yet the evidence is mounting that early investment and belief in the web is paying off for both. There are other factors, of course: liberal America looking abroad for news, the Guardian’s more compact size and the BBC’s success with Freeview digital TV on its home ground among them.
Amid the gloom about shrinking print circulations, the latest year-on-year figures show the Guardian edging up. There are many ways of presenting these numbers but with a few exceptions they show newspaper circulations declining. The Guardian’s regional Manchester Evening News is among them and is to make part of its distribution free. (Papers handed out for free are the current newspaper success story. Two in London and recently in Spain I was handed four on one street corner.)
But to say the web comes first is a big step for anyone with ink under their fingernails. That is what The Guardian is doing with the foreign and city departments introducing a “web first” policy. It means they will put up print staff stories on the web site as they are filed — no more waiting until the print edition is out.
Ian Mayes, the paper’s readers’ editor today, quotes the editor as saying: We have to look at the way in which people are choosing to read the Guardian — younger people are not reading the printed paper — and we have to respond quickly to further changes in digital technology. To put it another way, I’m committing the Guardian to being where the audience, the readership, is.” Read Ian on the converging paths of printed paper and web.
This does not mean print is dead and in another move the paper is to start printing in five US cities, although they do not appear to be thinking of circulations which will worry the American dailies. It seems to be more a matter of building on the brand image their web presence has created on the other side of the Atlantic. The Times (of London) has already begun printing in New York.
And the BBC is launching its advertising-supported BBC World TV service on cable in the US going head to head with CNN and Fox. They have had a limited presence for some time but are building on their audiences in some 200 countries and territories.
At home, the domestic digital service News 24, has marginally overtaken Murdoch’s Sky News, partly because of the the success of Freeview. Another factor has been Sky’s disastrous relaunch which is now being rolled back.
We seem to be seeing a confidence in both the BBC and the Guardian born of their success on the web both at home and abroad. The brands are becoming better known and they are building on that.
The other question is whether they would have had that confidence if they had shareholders breathing down their necks demanding “dividends now!” I suspect the answer is a clear “no”.
Expect the bleatings of “unfair competition” about the BBC to increase in volume.
Post script (Tuesday): Interesting thoughts on the cultural change in the newsroom of the Guardian on Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine blog