THE NEW YORKER: With eighty-four million monthly visitors, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Guardian Web site is now the third most popular English-language newspaper Web site in the world, behind London’s Daily Mail, with its celebrity gossip and abundant cleavage, and the New York Times. But its print circulation, of a hundred and ninety thousand, is half what it was in 2002. The Guardian, which is supported by the Scott Trust, established nearly eighty years ago to subsidize an “independent” and “liberal” newspaper, has lost money for nine straight years. In the most recent fiscal year, the paper lost thirty-one million pounds (about fifty million dollars), an improvement over the forty-four million pounds it lost the year before.
Last year, Andrew Miller, the director of the trust and the C.E.O. of the Guardian Media Group, warned that the trust’s money would be exhausted in three to five years if the losses were not dramatically reduced. To save the Guardian, Rusbridger has pushed to transform it into a global digital newspaper, aimed at engaged, anti-establishment readers and available entirely for free. In 2011, Guardian U.S., a digital-only edition, was expanded, followed this year by the launch of an Australian online edition. It’s a grand experiment, he concedes: just how free can a free press be? […]
The Guardian was founded in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian, a weekly owned by local merchants. In 1872, C. P. Scott became the editor and, eventually, the owner. During a fifty-seven-year reign, Scott steered the paper to the left. In 1936, his son set aside money and established the Scott Trust, “to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity: as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to liberal tradition.” In 1959, the newspaper dropped “Manchester” from the masthead; five years later, it moved to London.
By 1993, the Guardian was a thriving six-day-a-week paper, and the trust decided to buy the Sunday Observer. The following year, Preston made Rusbridger the deputy editor. The board of the Scott Trust has final say in choosing the editor, but the tradition is for candidates to nominate themselves by writing a manifesto describing their vision for the paper, and to allow a staff vote. There were four candidates. The ballot results ratified the preference of Preston and the trust. In 1995, when Preston stepped down, Rusbridger became the editor. […]
Meanwhile, Rusbridger was thinking about the Guardian’s digital future. In 1994, a year before he became editor, he visited Silicon Valley. “I came back and wrote a memo to Peter saying the Internet was the future,” Rusbridger recalls. “I told Peter this would change everything and we had to explore it.” Emily Bell, the Observer’s business editor at the time, remembers having dinner with Rusbridger and others during the Edinburgh TV festival in August, 1999, and telling him that changes he’d made to the paper’s Web site were inadequate. She prodded him to move more aggressively into the online world, with more breaking news and analysis; in 2001, he placed her in charge of turning the Web site into a vibrant online paper.
Bell, who left the paper in 2010 to become the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at the Columbia Journalism School, says that she and Rusbridger agreed that they would not erect a pay wall for their online content. “If the core purpose of the Scott Trust is to keep the Guardian going in perpetuity, there is no choice,” Bell says. The Guardian has only sixty thousand subscribers, far fewer than the Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. It was competing with the BBC, which has the largest free Web site in the world. And its newspaper sales in the United Kingdom were falling. “The Guardian really didn’t stand a chance if it didn’t do something with the digital future,” Bell says. MORE