Guardian Media Group is owned by the not-for-profit Scott Trust, which has an endowment of £1 billion. The return on this investment allows the company to subsidise its news operations by up to £25-£30 million a year and remain sustainable while guaranteeing its independence.
Thanks to a three-year turnaround strategy, the company underwent a push in 2016 to get to a financially sustainable place. It broke even in 2019 and even made an operating profit of £800,000, aided by growth in digital revenues and increased contributions from readers.
Diji Akinwale (Head of Strategy, Guardian Media Group, UK) joined WAN-IFRA’s recent Forum Francophone: Abonnements numériques (Digital subscriptions) event to talk about The Guardian’s growth while it keeps most of its content free.
Akinwale is part of a three-member team, whose primary task is adding value by being a thought partner to different verticals of The Guardian.
Even though The Guardian’s print operations make up a significant part of its revenue, 61 percent of the company’s income in 2020 came from its digital operations.
“We are increasingly thinking about how to turbo-charge subscriptions and contribution related growth. We have learned a lot through trial and error. We need to ensure we are completely plugged in to the needs of our readers,” said Akinwale.
Using clarity and imagination to build hope
Despite having the financial benefits of the Scott Trust behind it, The Guardian is a purpose-driven organisation.
“We are currently trying to move from being financially sustainable and living within our means to trying to grow the digital reader-funded portion of our business,” said Akinwale.
“Starting from impactful and quality journalism, building must-have products around it and ensuring the belief in our purpose is inked into the core of what we do and is communicated to our readers on a regular basis,” he said.
The company’s core purpose is shaped by strong data capabilities, allied with a deep, personalised and trusted relationship with readers, which helps in driving conversions, ad premiums and engagement, and gives it the room to reinvest in the organisation.
How The Guardian faired in 2020
For The Guardian, 2020 was a year of delivery across businesses. It was not a time for experimentation but a challenging year of focusing on executing already planned tasks. It forced the company to cut down on unnecessary distractions and enforce prioritisation like never before, which was made apparent by the numbers.
- The website’s page views were up 30 percent compared to 2019
- Regular visitors increased 55 percent year-on-year
- The company achieved 130 million podcast listens
- YouTube subscribers rose by 63 percent
- The company saw a 34 percent increase (to 961,000) in digital subscriptions and recurring contributions, helping offset lost print and advertising revenue.
- Digital subscriptions were up 46 percent year-on-year to 401,000, recurring contributions were up 24 percent to 560,000, and print subs were up 8 percent to 120,000.
- The brand had more than 100,000 attendees at its virtual events.
- The company doubled its Australian audience to reach almost 50 percent of the population.
According to the latest financial statements released by The Guardian, international revenues now make up more than 30 percent of the group’s overall revenue.
The company also received 585,000 single contributions globally in 2021, up 83 percent year-on-year.
“We’ve also witnessed a number of enhancements to our Editions app, subscriptions and gifting. In terms of UK advertising revenue, we’re in a strong position, and have also inked new commercial and licensing deals with Facebook and Google in Australia.”
Premium Guardian experience
How does The Guardian create must-have products? Part of its product offering is as much about the values and beliefs that the readers are supporting, by either contributing or purchasing a Guardian product, as well as the actual value that they get from that product. The company is guided by its readers’ habits and demands.
“We’re quite good at testing, but we are not great at testing quickly. Being able to create a much faster testing loop is where you get to the must-have products,” Akinwale said.
In getting to the current stage, having evolved a host of products from scratch, the company is focusing on a first port of call.
“You get to the stage where you’ve built a lot of products but you haven’t rationalised them,” Akinwale said.
“There are also a few basic elements that aren’t as great as you’d like them to be. So the first bit for us is ensuring that we put in place the basics that make it easier to onboard a product and encourage you to keep that product,” he added.
In 2019, the company set itself a target of attracting 2 million paying supporters by 2022. “We realised that we had already garnered the support of those many people, except we had lost half of them over time,” said Akinwale.
“With the array of products that have sprung up organically, it is imperative to ensure that they speak to the needs of the reader rather than speaking to a potted history of The Guardian over recent years,” Akinwale emphasised.
Several organisations’ value proposition comes from readers paying for news. The Guardian already gives free access to its news. So, how does the company then add value around those products?
In its next phase of growth and development of its digital subscriptions, the group has been exploring options to offer more value to its readers, such as, tying in audio and video to its packages and potentially leveraging access to print publications like The Guardian Weekly.
With more than 100,000 attendees, the company is also now looking at how it can tie in events more closely into its packages and how these events might play a role in engaging people, leading them towards potentially subscribing.
“A lot of these were previously siloed businesses. We have now increasingly begun to think about how they can add value to our readers’ news consumption experience,” said Akinwale.
Diversity and inclusion
The company has set new diversity and inclusion goals across businesses. The first step was creating a racial action plan with some very ambitious targets. The Guardian CEO chairs a forum on a quarterly basis with people of colour — representatives of various groups from within the organisation.
The job of that forum is to ensure that the company is driving towards the goals of the laid out racial action plan to a tee.
“In the US newsroom, we have hired senior executives with a focus on diversity and inclusion. We hope to do the same in our UK newsroom soon,” said Akinwale.
The Guardian has been monitoring and reporting its racial and gender pay gap publicly for the past few years. These publicly reported figures help in setting improvement targets for the company and keeps employees aware of what is going on within the organisation.
In terms of inclusive content, the murder of George Floyd in the US prompted the company, and many other news publishers, to further reflect on its coverage. The racial action plan led to the hiring of two community affairs correspondents, which helped bolster the coverage around diversity, race and underrepresented communities.
Back to the newsroom
To combat the mental toll brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, teams across The Guardian’s newsrooms have adopted different approaches to ensure a level of flexibility in how the company is supporting its staff to thrive and succeed in these challenging circumstances.
The company’s immediate agenda is ensuring a well-thought through approach to getting people back to the newsroom in September.
“We know we can’t get it right on the first attempt, but we also know it is impossible to please everyone with one decision,” Akinwale said. “It has to be an iterative process where as we learn more, we do better. We also need to plan about what we must do to meet the needs of our staff in the long run.”