Save the Grauniad!

London übermayor and professional twit Boris Johnson has drawn a bit of media attention to himself today by launching a campaign to save that mighty organ the Guardian from extinction. While repeating (or instigating) rumours that the Guardian Media Group intends to scrap the print edition and move entirely online, Johnson highlights the cultural and political value contained in Britain’s premier repository of news and liberal-minded interdisciplinary wibbling…

“It’s no use telling us that the content would all be there ‘online,’.”

“Everything is online, a great charnel-house of porn and piffle. We need the Guardian lowering at us from the news-stands in all its highmindedness; we need to see people nodding over it gently on the Tube.”

“We need a paper that is genuinely, viscerally hostile to anything that looks remotely like a spirit of enterprise and competition.”

“We need a paper that believes capitalism is fundamentally flawed; that wishes fewer people had jobs in financial services; that thinks the euro was and still is a jolly fine idea; that dislikes the ideology of home ownership (except for Guardian journalists, who are allowed to have more than one); that dislikes anything ‘elitist’ (except for the schools attended by the children of Guardian journalists).”

This has all the makings of a national campaign.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has via Twitter rubbished the notion of moving away from print journalism, but if Johnson is being scurrilous, he stands on pretty firm foundations.

For example, in the previous financial year Guardian News and Media made an operating loss of £44.2m, and management continues to call for voluntary redundancies among editorial staff. The Guardian is losing journalists across the board, and those who remain struggle to keep up with increasing demands on their time and sanity. One can only fill so many pages with op-ed articles and lifestyle features, and Polly Toynbee is said to be jolly expensive.

As part of its efforts to stop the haemorrhaging of money, GNM has adopted a policy of
‘digital first’, and the relative numbers of online and print subscribers support this strategy. Print sales are falling rapidly, while online visitor numbers are rising steadily. But the majority of online Guardian readers do not pay a bean, and the whole thing rests on advertising revenue. That is a very dodgy foundation when one considers that advertisers are increasingly anxious about the return on their online marketing investment. Do publication-reported clickthrough numbers add up, and are people actually buying advertisers’ stuff?

Talking of numbers, here are some more. GMG has reported that, in terms of cash in hand and investment funds, the company is worth around £226m. This balance has increased from £197m over the course of a year, but the company cannot afford to lose upwards of £40m a year.

Crunch time cometh, and there is talk of “90 days”, with murmurings about “compulsory redundancies”. The National Union of Journalists is in constant dialogue with GMG, with two meetings per week planned for the next three months. During this time the union intends to have its team of crack accountants and negotiators forensically examine the Guardian‘s editorial costs, and look at all the available options. That is how serious it is with the Guardian, and through gritted teeth I welcome Boris Johnson’s light-hearted take on it.

Whether print journalism is sustainable in the long term is an open question. While we focus here on the Guardian‘s woes, other titles face similar problems, even if they are not as acute.

Wherein lies the Guardian‘s salvation? A fundamental problem with its digital first strategy is that the online business model doesn’t work. But an even bigger problem is that the momentum behind the Guardian‘s free-to-access model makes a transition to a sustainable, profit-making business difficult if not impossible to implement. If the Guardian were to charge for online access, I could see them losing most of their existing readers overnight. Building up a new clientele takes time, and time is money – money that the Guardian doesn’t have.

I wish my NUJ colleagues well in their mission to save the national treaure that is the Guardian.