For those that haven’t read it, may I commend the GQ piece on The Guardian to the house.
It is a worthy read and presents the same, anxious undercurrents that Peter Wilby’s recent piece in the New Statesman did; the doubters, in short, are afoot.
People, like me, whose natural habitat is such an institution and yet who fear for its future; who wonder out loud whether the path The Guardian are on really is the one to digital redemption; whether that away lies real danger.
In particular whether the decision to send Mr and Mrs Busfield across the Pond to go do America (again) was money and resource well spent. The rationale is, it appears, that once The Guardian (US) hits a critical mass of visitors and views, that’s when the big brands will sit up, take notice and flood their ads through the system.
It’s a top down numbers game, in short. ‘Juan Señor, a partner at Innovation Media Consulting, is critical. “It’s the same old strategy of going for volume when they should be going for value. They’re obsessed with volume…
Volume. And in top down they trust…
But there was one passage in the piece that needs even greater dissecting; because as loathe as any of us are to cast aspersions on the Solomon that sits astride his Kings Place temple, for Alan Rusbridger to define The Guardian’s journey of late – from Local (09-10), to America (10-11) to Open (11-12) – as that of a classic start-up is, frankly, bollo*ks.
Here we go… This:
‘Can the Guardian afford to keep pushing in new directions like this? “It’s a cliché of modern start-ups,” says Rusbridger. “You launch early, you launch often, if the product’s not quite right, you change it.” This is an odd turn of phrase to use about a paper that is a decade away from celebrating its bicentennial, but Rusbridger has decided that if it is to survive, it must act like a start-up. It must stretch its ageing legs to keep up with the upstart kids…
Let’s drop a brief bit of background in here.
In January, 2010, at a high point in The Guardian’s interest in ‘local’, I was invited to speak on a panel on ‘the future of local news in the UK’.
At The Guardian’s own Oxford Media Convention.
On that panel was Stuart Purvis (then OfCom), Helen Boaden (BBC), Sly Bailey (then Trinity Mirror), Rusbridger and… Me.
Somewhere in amongst that time, we managed to drop Addiply – in text ad only version – onto the three pilot sites that were GuardianLocal. In Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
In no particular order, but three of the more prominent architects of that local push were Emily Bell (now Columbia), Simon Waldman (now LoveFilm) and Mike Bracken (now OpenGov). Or put another way, none of whom are now – two years later – to be found in the ballroom of the SS Guardian.
Me? Two years on and whilst we have come through a seed fund round with NorthStarVentures last May, we are still very much in start-up mode; still sat here trying to make hyperlocal gold out of all the green that thus far this space has delivered.
It was interesting to note this week that even The New York Times couldn’t get hyper-local – as in The Local – to work; albeit after three years of trying. But they didn’t cut and run after one.
For me, maybe, part of the answer will come from on high; that by teaming up with the Bishop of Norwich and his WiSpire broadband initiative here in Norfolk, we can build a parish portal that is sustained by the hyperlocal advertising goodness that lies within that community’s parish magazine.
It is what #21 VC and our NESTA gig is all about.
The point being that we’ve not moved from the same space we’ve been in for the last 5-6 years.
We’ve just learned – all too often, the hard way – what does and doesn’t work in this space. And we’ve tweaked and adjusted both our thinking and our platform accordingly.
We haven’t, however, decided that our future is now in a Soho loft; nor does it involve a cheese barge and the Grand Union Canal.
We’ve stayed in local. Cos like Eric Schmidt – and the Bells, the Waldmans and the Brackens of this world – we still firmly believe that our futures will be defined, in no small part, by our interaction with our locality.
So, to borrow from my now evening job and the world of football, we belong to the ’stickability’ school of thought; you stick at something you fundamentally believe in – as opposed to ‘pivoting’ across the Pond at the first hint of, what?
Boredom? Commercial indifference as they wedded themselves to the volume game and couldn’t/wouldn’t grasp the values – both financial and social in the sense of authenticity – that come from being both networked and local?
Whatever. You bugged out; changed tack; sought other climes. So much spilt milk.
But the other point here is that having actually visited Guardian Leeds’ office, it was no such thing. It was one reporter and his lap-top hot desking in a shared communal office.
It was the classic habitat of the lean start-up.
Which you then promptly swapped for a 30-person loft in Soho, Manhattan – a boho piece of European white-washed, glass corner office cool that was the total opposite of the model being pursued for local.
But – and herein lies the alarming but – it wasn’t as if you’d ever had the big, second or third funding round to go crack America in the manner of a Spotify; you were drawing from the same Scott family well that you always have been.
Only for rather more than it took to keep our John in a lap-top and shared office space in Leeds.
The message that ‘launching early, launching often and if the product doesn’t work, you change it..’ has relevance to our start-up story. We recognised that our product didn’t work in the sense that journalists, by and large, didn’t or couldn’t sell… So we changed it.
Now others can sell that ad space for you.
And relaunches – such as they are – aren’t taking us out of that local space; if anything they are entrenching us ever further in it; we’re digging ever further down in the search for the Higgs boson building block of sustainable local media life. In a parish magazine.
Pivoting your product into new market-places every 12 months is, indeed, classic start-up behaviour – but only of those start-ups that, basically, don’t know what they’re doing. Or who or what they are trying to be.
And that’s not a good place to find yourself.