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The Guardian of the Web


Editor in Chief Emily Bell says the success of the Guardian Unlimited didn't happen overnight. Britain's second most popular source of online news matured through consistent investment, international word-of-mouth and a commitment to innovation.

The Guardian newspaper in London is the second smallest national daily broadsheet with a circulation of 369,482. But this modest-sized paper's online edition, Guardian Unlimited, is the most successful newspaper site in the UK, attracting 7.5 million unique visitors a month -? more than 2 million of them from the U.S. and many others from around the world.

Only the BBC News Online tops The Guardian Unlimited for online news in Britain.

The Guardian was founded in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian. The paper's most famous editor, Charles Prestwich Scott, believed independence was key to a newspaper's mission: "Whatever its position or character, at least it should have a soul of its own."

The Guardian's independence was cemented in 1936 when ownership of the paper was transferred to the Scott Trust, a charity that reinvests all profits and leaves all responsibility for the running of the newspaper to the editor -- currently Alan Rusbridger, who has been at the helm since 1995.

In 1998, Rusbridger decided to start a Web site -- now called Guardian Unlimited -- for The Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer, published on Sundays. It went live in January 1999 and concentrated on soccer in the beginning.

Since then, investment in the online operation has been modest but steady. Brian MacArthur, media commentator for The London Times, estimates that between $24 million and $32 million has been spent on the site to date.

The Guardian Unlimited employs 70 journalists, including reporters, editors, copy editors, designers and production staff. It produces between 70 and 100 Web-exclusive stories a day across a family of 14 Web sites.

Emily Bell has been editor in chief of Guardian Unlimited since 2001. The site has become a national and international success under her stewardship. In a one-and-a-half-hour interview with Online Journalism Review, Bell discussed everything from the practicalities of Web journalism to the future of newspapers. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Online Journalism Review: What's it like to be the editor in chief of the most successful online newspaper in Britain?

Emily Bell: It is very exciting. When I came here about three years ago to set up, I had been business editor of the Observer, and people genuinely thought I'd been sacked. "Hang on a second, you're leaving quite a good a job on a national newspaper to go and do what?"

My background is reporting, a media business reporter doing technology reporting from the business side. At some point it's quite nice to go and do something different. You don't often get an opportunity to sit somewhere in publishing where things happen at a faster rate than they have for the previous 40 years.

Written journalism will increasingly rely on the Web. And if you are not on the Web, then you are missing a vital phase in the development of journalism.

It's a fab office -- full of really, really enthusiastic, very bright, very motivated people. But also, on a broader scale, the daily business of not quite knowing where your next bit of competition or where your next bit of innovation is going to come from is actually exhausting! (laughs) But it's also invigorating in a strange and slightly scary way.

OJR: Well, it's worked?

EB: It has so far, but that's the thing on the Web. Everything changes so quickly. There's always so much to do. That's one of the problems of the Web. At least in the paper you're restricted entirely by the margins of your newsprint, whereas when you're dealing with something like Hutton, you realize how many dimensions you can take a story into -- and there is literally no end.

(Law Lord James Hutton -- the UK equivalent of a Supreme Court justice -- was appointed by the British government to hold an inquiry into the death of scientist Dr. David Kelly, who was at the center of allegations that the British government exaggerated claims that Iraq was developing nuclear and chemical weapons.)

OJR: Why do you think you're attracting so many visitors? The Web site dwarfs what your print publication is doing.

EB: I think it's because we've kept the site free from registration. I think it's because, in terms of the blogging community and in terms of Google, you do get linked to. And once you get linked to, you hit all sorts of maps that help you enormously. And then hopefully -- and this is where, you know, the sort of alchemy comes in -- when people pass through your site they will, by osmosis, start to recognize The Guardian as a brand.

But it's interesting. Overseas it's taken a lot of people a while to realize that we are a newspaper as well. Also, the culture of the paper has been to have a fairly well supported network of overseas correspondents and a fairly high level of political debate on its op-ed pages, which, you know, have always had an internationalist flavor to them.

And since September 11, 2001, we produce a kind of journalism -- from a slightly more liberal perspective -- that isn't that easy to find. And we encourage [readers] to talk about it on our talkboards -- which is something else that a lot of the other online publishers, including the BBC, do, but not in quite as free a way as we do it.

OJR: You have 7.5 million unique visitors a month. Why aren't they buying the newspaper?

EB: Well, the overseas readers aren't buying probably because they can't get it (laughs). In the UK, there is evidence that some people do buy it and they still go online.

I think that this is where the argument falls apart, which says, "If you produce a good enough Web site which puts all your content on it for free, you will inevitably cannibalize your readership." If you look at daily newspaper sales in the UK, you'll find that, of the broadsheets, The Guardian has held its share as steadily as anybody in the market -- and certainly ahead of The (London) Times.

It is harder to get online (at the Times) now that they've put registration all over the site. Their circulation has been dropping, while ours has been holding steady -- and yet our Web traffic has been growing much faster than either the Times or the Telegraph online.

You could argue on that there is sort of brand reinforcement so that a strong online presence means interest is stimulated in the offline product.

I think Mondays to Fridays are going to become increasingly difficult in terms of newspaper publishing. People are at work, they are busy, and stopping to buy a paper is a lower priority. Getting those people to up the frequency of purchase is very, very difficult. In the meantime, there are so many other outlets available that I think if you didn't have a Web site, those readers would go altogether. They would almost forget that you were there, because they've gone from an offline world into an online world -- and once people are in the online world, then they lose the habit.

People have become used to a breaking news environment. There's a certain expectation for news during the day. You want something that moves and breathes and lives. On the weekend you want something more reflective, bigger features. I think that's reflected in big rates in Saturday sales, and a relative decline in Monday-to-Friday sales.

OJR: What content do you produce there? Is that 70 to 100 stories mainly breaking news?

EB: A lot of that is breaking news. You'd be surprised by how much comment and analysis is produced. We use, for instance, a lot of our overseas correspondents. We said to ourselves that we've got a lot of overseas correspondents that are not really being used all the time. They'll find that they are running into a brick wall with some of their stories just because the space on the foreign page is limited. And they might have something really fascinating that's happening in Canada or Paris or wherever. But because it's all about Afghanistan this week, they're not going to get space in the paper.

So we have this thing called World Dispatch, where people file from around the world, which is Web-exclusive copy. It used to be the case that you were cajoling slightly reluctant paper journalists to occasionally file online. But they found that when they filed online they got a massive response, particularly in the areas of the world they were writing about.

I think a lot of correspondents experience The Guardian in the same way that our readers do. As far as they are concerned, Guardian Unlimited is The Guardian. Differentiating between the two makes no sense. That's an enormous tribute to everybody here and the quality of the work they do. But also it's an enormous headache as well. Things that have been good for the Web because they're dirty and fast, you now have to say, "Hang on a second, let's just examine our process on this."

You don't want to choke off what is vital and good with online journalism, but you don't want to be slapdash and haphazard and completely discordant with The Guardian philosophy. Because that way leads to a great deal of embarrassment and, probably, looking for a new job.

OJR: How does the Web site reflect The Guardian philosophy -- which I understand as independent, irreverent and left wing?

EB: I think we're all of those things in measure. Like the paper, we're very cautious that our news must be news, and our comment is comment. This issue of having a trusting relationship with your readership translates online as well as offline. We try to be as objective as we can in our reporting, and we try to be as forceful as we can in the edginess of the comment that we carry alongside it. I think the culture of this place is subtly different from the newspaper. It is a younger staff, they are more interested in what the technology can deliver.

One of the things that's been most helpful to me is that the editor, Alan Rusbridger, is so fantastically interested in the Web and reads the site everyday. Some of my peers will go and talk to their newspaper editor, who has absolutely no interest in it, and it's an incredibly disheartening place to be.

What happens here is that we do have a very high level of contact between the staff here and the staff on the paper. Increasingly, newspaper journalists are not dismissive of the Web and they want to find out about the Web and are quite interested in what we're doing. We're just another department of the paper in some ways.

Increasingly newspaper journalists are not dismissive of the Web and they want to find out about the Web and are quite interested in what we're doing.

OJR: What are some of the things that you're able to do online that you can't do in print?

EB: Our minute-by-minute reports on football and cricket are uniquely well-adapted to the Internet. It's a chance to use the written word in an instant format. We've connected our minute-by-minutes to the audience. In the World Cup, we asked people to e-mail in and we got this absolute torrent of people e-mailing from their desks because they couldn't go down to the pub to watch South Korea versus Italy. But they were absolutely gripped by the minute-by-minute account of the game. They wanted to talk and see what's happening, and we actually get people now who sit and read the minute by minutes while they are watching it on the telly (laughs).

There are dimensions to it that three or four years ago we would have never thought about, like how [the Internet] develops journalism, develops the dialogue the journalists have with the readership. We're seeing with the proliferation of blogs and people being used to using things like talkboards, that now it's a two-way conversation that's going to increase rather than go away.

OJR: Why did The Guardian go so heavily into the online edition? How much have you invested in it?

EB: We haven't invested that much. Our losses -- because we still do make a loss -- our losses are quite small. And when you look at the site and the commitment we've put behind it, I think that people are quite shocked that we haven't lost 30 or 40 million quid ($47 million or $63 million) a year.

A lot of publishers have washed in and out of online with buckets of money one year and "tuppence ha'penny" the next. Whereas the level of our investment has been pretty modest but very steady. And the reason for that is because there are people who genuinely believe -- and [newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger] is one of them -- that written journalism will increasingly rely on the Web. And if you are not on the Web, then you are missing a vital phase in the development of journalism.

I think that the belief was that we have some very big classified markets to protect -- like MediaGuardian or Public Sector advertising -- and some of the move online was defensive, to protect that. But I think if it was just defensive, if we didn't have a clear editorial vision and a belief in [online journalism] we would have a much, much less good Web site than the one we have.

We've invested in it because it's the right place to be, and now you find that you've got an international audience that we haven't marketed to. We didn't try to get 2 or 3 or 4 million overseas readers. It just happened. And we're right at the beginning of thinking about that relationship and where does it take us as a brand? Where does it take our journalism? Could it or should it change us?

The parameters of publishing are changing very rapidly, and if we weren't in this area we may in five years have more to fear from The New York Times than we do from The Independent.

And it is much better to be in the game than out of the game. You can either sit in the corner of territory that you occupy, invest everything in that, hope that the market stays the way it is and ignore the fact that the market is changing and readership is changing. Or you can say this is the future, we've got one opportunity. The Guardian has one opportunity to make inroads into America and this is it. If we don't do it now, then in 10 years time we probably won't be able to afford to, or that opportunity won't be open to us.

Everything is currently up in the air, and nobody really knows where it's going to land. I think our parachute is properly packed.

The Guardian has one opportunity to make inroads into America and this is it. If we don't do it now, then in 10 years time we probably won't be able to afford to, or that opportunity won't be open to us.

OJR: What do you think of the government's review of the BBC Online, and whether they're overspending or overreaching their mission?

(The BBC benefits from nearly $3.2 billion in public funding generated from the British television license, which all households have to pay. Some newspapers argue this creates unfair competition. The BBC argues that it is supplying a public service. BBC News Online is by far the biggest British news Web site, regularly attracting 10 million unique visitors a month. A recently launched government review of the BBC Online will assess the impact that the site has had on the Internet market, and whether the BBC Online's funds should be cut and its scope limited.)

EB: I still think some of their written journalism isn't particularly great, but some of their innovation and their Web presentation is absolutely fantastic. And so it should be after spending ?110 million ($174 million) a year on it. It ought to be bloody awesome! (laughs)

Nobody at the BBC is really encouraged to draw lines. They are just encouraged to spend the money. At some point they either have to do it or somebody will start drawing those lines and the online review is part of that. On the other hand, the BBC has done other content providers many, many favors in terms of the development of the market -- and in terms of showing what could be done.

I think they should have a Web site. I think that the standard they set is something for the rest of us to follow. It's great that somebody is doing that from a British perspective. I know there will be other publishers and possibly even commercial divisions within The Guardian who would feel strongly that it should be curtailed, but I have to say on the whole I welcome it and encourage it.

OJR: What about comments by Ashley Highfield (BBC's director of new media and technology) in The Independent recently, that papers like The Guardian -- national broadsheets -- shouldn't bother with subscriptions, that they are in a losing game?

EB: Well, that is something that the BBC affects, and I think while the BBC is online it is very hard for us to run subscriptions. We have started to experiment with subscriptions. We've put it against services where we try very hard to add value, but also that were very expensive for us to produce.

I'm a journalist. If journalists had their way then we would have no subscriptions and no registration anywhere on any site. We would always rather have an audience than a revenue stream. Having said that, I've got a duty to the people who work here to make sure their wages are paid, and we've got a duty to the board of directors to have a look at these things and to see whether they work.

One of the problems of charging is the technology and the micropayment systems have not evolved as quickly as the content. What's really interesting is that some of the progress is being made outside written content. I think what iMusic (Apple's online music store) has done is absolutely fascinating.

At some point, if it were possible to have a wireless technology where people look at 24 hours of Guardian material for a few pence and registration takes no time, if it was phone-number dependent or something like that, everybody will do it.

Everybody will charge. But it's a long way in the future and I would much rather have a site that was as free as possible. In terms of how readers view Web sites and how they use it, it's not the time yet. Maybe in five years time things will be different.

I think the way forward is subscriptions on new products. If you can find cooler, more innovative things that nobody has -- then somehow the online market is much more ready to pay for that. If they pay 25 pence for a newspaper, there's no reason why people shouldn't pay for online content. It's just completely inappropriate for the market with the vast majority of what we do at the moment.

OJR: What's the future for advertising on the Internet?

EB: Two years ago, we were all writing off the advertising model. Online ad revenues were in double-digit growth last year when everybody's ad revenues were down. We saw a really steep rise in our revenues while the paper saw a flattened decline.

It's far too early in the game to start making absolutist predictions whether advertising will ever fund the Internet. It will never fund most of the Internet, but there is an application for it.

The market is so immature. You have to keep improving your site and increasing your traffic. I think that's absolutely key.

I think the way forward is subscriptions on new products. If you can find cooler, more innovative things that nobody has -- then somehow, the online market is much more ready to pay for that.

OJR: You mentioned earlier there were a few things you'd like to change, what are they?

EB: I just think there's a lot innovation available. And so many interesting things have happened outside of newspaper Web publishing -- things like blogging software and thin media.

I think that now is the time to accept that, if you're in the game of online publishing, you have to be much more open-minded. I saw a comment that wouldn't it be great if a newspaper bloggerized all their content? Or if you could attract comments on every single piece you wrote? Supposing your leading columnists had blogs rather than columns?

There are so many things that -- to the Web world -- are old hat, that are still quite new to a lot of our users -- and a lot of our journalists. We've started thinking about it internally. It's not a case of ripping the site completely.

There was a time five years ago when everyday was an experiment and you could tear everything up and do it again. What comes with the weight of traffic and the maturing audience is that you've got to innovate at the same time you've got 7.5 million people who might be pissed off if you changed anything too radically.

OJR: What about delivery to wireless or PDA? You have an SMS service already.

EB: Wireless is undoubtedly the future. I was at the Edinburgh TV festival and someone asked, "What are you going to do next when it's all audio-visual clips and you haven't got any and you'll be finished?"

But the thing about audio-visual is that they are not as good as text for certain things. There's always a wave of change that makes you think maybe you're going to be obsolete. But I'm fairly comfortable that whatever happens to digital platforms, text won't be obsolete. Searchability is all. The newspaper business is almost ideally suited to it because newspapers have such a good text archive.

In terms of the nature of journalism, blogging -- self publishing, whatever you want to call it -- is probably the most interesting challenge that we've got, and what it does to the orthodoxy of journalism is really interesting. We haven't seen long term what those effects will be.

OJR: Can you see a day when the paper will be subsumed into the online operation? When the online newspaper will, to all intents and purposes, be the newspaper?

EB: Yeah, I do. I'm not saying anything that I've not said privately before. I think that it is impossible now not to think about five, 10, 15, 20 years hence. There will have been an essential shift in how people consume written journalism. And it will be a shift to online.

Things will be much more in real time and the newspaper product will end up being still extremely relevant, but the way that most people consume it will be online.

Related Links
Apple's iMusic
BBC News Online
Guardian Special Report: Attack on America
Guardian Special Report: The Hutton Inquiry
Guardian Unlimited
Guardian Unlimited Football
Guardian Unlimited SMS Service
Guardian Unlimited Subscriptions
Guardian Unlimited Talkboards
Guardian: World Dispatch
History of the Guardian
Independent Review of BBC Online
More on Alan Rusbridger
More on Ashley Highfield
More on C.P. Scott
More on Dr. David Kelly
More on Emily Bell
The Independent
The London Times
The New York Times
The Observer
The Scott Trust
The Telegraph
World Cup

Emily Bell: "We didn't try to get 2 or 3 or 4 million overseas readers. It just happened. And we're right at the beginning of thinking about that relationship and where does it take us as a brand? Where does it take our journalism? Could it or should it change us?"