The future of publishing world is digital

The Inquirer

The future of publishing world is digital

Alan Rusbridger

The Guardian is among the few newspapers, which have taken the bull by the horn, and emerged stronger thanks to path-breaking digital initiatives. Traditionally, the United Kingdom’s 10th largest newspaper, the Guardian is now one of the world’s most read online publications.

The editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, shared his print-to-digital experience with Team DH.

Though newspapers in the West started building websites around mid-90s, the internet has now become the centre of their operations. When did you first realise that internet was a gamer changer?

Towards late 2004 someone showed us a chart on how different websites were doing. Websites based on Web 2.0 (tools and technologies such as social media which promote interactivity) were getting huge traffic. At that time, we were preoccupied with revamping our print edition. The chart made it clear that we had to pursue online opportunities rigorously.

How did you go about strengthening the digital avatar of the Guardian?

We looked at each section and tried to figure out how to change the newspaper. We started with comments, travel, sports, arts and few other sections which could be better adapted to the online medium. For example, in the traditional model we would send a travel correspondent to different locations. On the internet there was an opportunity to tap the expertise of the people who knew these locations more intimately. The commercial side also kicked in. We realised that we had a lot of content and built applications to monetise them.

We also figured out a new way to run sports stories and started with cricket. We started providing real-time commentaries and got readers to participate through comments as the game progressed. The traffic went up.

What were the key decisions that helped Guardian make a successful digital transformation?

We decided to build vertical websites as communities were fragmenting around specific subjects. The strategy worked. We also had to choose between buying software and building our own. We chose the latter. This turned out to be a good decision as no packaged software could fully support what a newspaper wants to do.

We picked up the Web 2.0 trends early on and started integrating social media tools with the website. We are doing the same with mobile and cloud computing now.

How big is the Guardian’s technology team? Many of the features on your website indicate a sophisticated collaboration between editorial and technology teams. How was this achieved?

Over the last 10 to 15 years, our technology team has grown to 70 professionals. We don’t see technology as a service and have put it at the heart of our operations. We had to change the mindset of different teams to do this.

How different are your print and online readers?

A third of our online readers are from the UK, a third from North America and a third from the rest of the world. So, the readers are different. Many online readers also come through search engines. They don’t stay on the site for long and it is hard to monetise them. Initially, I used to get irritated with them, though I now see them as part of the game.

Mainstream newspapers are facing competition from different types of online publications. There are grassroots level hyper-local sites. Then there are smaller media companies with hugely successful publications. Even the likes of Yahoo and Google have begun to hire journalists. Who will survive 25 years from now?

Publications which are open and collaborative will survive. Mainstream newspapers have skills which others don’t have. But they should make sure they don’t remain closed operations. Creation of content is expensive and I would not take competition from Yahoo and Google seriously.

Many of the strategies you are advocating such as aggregation of content may lead to mechanisation of parts of newspaper operations. Would these operations get outsourced to places like Bangalore?

Newspapers should figure out what is intrinsic to them, focus on activities which only they can do. If there are tasks which other people can do better, they may take advantage of that. There are aspects of technology and production, which can be done elsewhere.

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