News media institutions across the world are always pressed with the two opposing imperatives. On the one hand is the upkeep of brand value through reliable, balanced journalism. On the other hand is the pressure to achieve commercial viability. The news media in the United Kingdom is no exception to this rule. The Guardian Media Group (GMG) and its management strategies will be the focus of discussion in this essay. The marketing strategies of GMG’s flagship product, namely the Guardian newspaper, will be scrutinized and evaluated in detail through references to appropriate scholarly sources.
The Guardian is one of the oldest newspapers in Britain, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2007. From a historical perspective, the Guardian has witnessed and reported the suffragette movement, the two World Wars, the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, the Margaret Thatcher era and the resurgence of the New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair. In this sense, the Guardian is an integral part of the British socio-political discourse over the last century. Throughout this period of time, the newspaper had built its own brand of reportage and opinion. As far its editorial position is concerned, the Guardian has come to represent the Leftwing point of view. Along with the Independent, the two newspapers form the core of Leftwing print media in Britain (Mcnair 2000). In order to properly understand the rationale behind the newspaper’s managerial decisions, it is important that they are studied from this politico-ideological background. Moreover, the content of Guardian is as much driven by its readers as it is by its owners:
“The Guardian is the newspaper of teachers, lecturers, social workers, middling government employees. Its pages bulge with government job advertising on which it has a virtual (and indefensible) monopoly. Is it really feasible for it to continue to appeal to its traditional readers while stretching out its hand to members of the establishment–mandarins, lawyers, the higher clergy, senior businessmen and the like?” (The Wilson Quarterly 2006)
In the early years of this decade the readership figures for the Guardian started showing signs of stagnation and decline. This was a period when radical transformations were taking place in the news media industry. The so-called ‘tabloid wars’ between previously broadsheet newspapers were redefining the newspaper market. It was then believed in the media industry that by producing its tabloid versions the Independent had gained a significant advantage over its competitors including the Guardian. The Guardian on the other hand was accused of having fallen behind in the race, and some commentators have even suggested that the paper is heading toward bankruptcy (Kuttner 2007). Even as major competitors from across the political divide were adopting the tabloid size, the Guardian top management remained unresponsive to the changes around them. This might at first appear to be complacency and over-confidence on part of the Guardian. Some people even felt that a strategic opportunity is being lost by the management. But in reality the Guardian had sound reasons for persisting with the broadsheet format, even when the Independent was set on downsizing its product. This is why:
“To a great extent, the contrasting approaches reflect the ownership structures of the respective papers: The financially strapped Independent is one part of the portfolio of Irish businessman and former H.J. Heinz and Co. Chairman Tony O’Reilly; the Guardian, on the other hand, is freed both from the designs of a mogul and from the demands of shareholders by the financial support of the Scott Trust, whose stated mission is “to maintain the journalistic and commercial principles” of one long-standing former editor, C.P. Scott. So the Independent pursued the ideas it can afford, while the Guardian can afford to pursue its ideals.” (Sellers 2006)
The trend that was set off by the Independent soon caught on with other major newspapers. The most shocking of these conversions to tabloid was that of The Times of London – for two centuries the very model of “the billowing, luxurious, upper-class broadsheet, with its sweeping view of the world”. But there is more to the story than business strategy, for in the perception of media analysts “this was only the latest chapter in the once-hallowed newspaper’s sad quarter-century descent into mediocrity under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch” (Platell 2001). But in the case of Guardian the motivations for change are not business driven. The Guardian’s brand is built around its sophisticated reporting and understated opinion pieces. Its management believed that diluting its brand image for the sake of short term boost in readership is a poor strategy overall. As a result, the newspaper persisted with its broadsheet format even when every other paper was taking the tabloid route. Opinion polls conducted in the UK reflect the validity of this assessment. For example, a recent poll taken among newspaper subscribers found that two out of every five of them do not regard that private lives of celebrities is of importance. That means, there are nearly 44 million adults in Britain would prefer a media that is devoid of sensationalism and celebrity watching. In the same poll, 85 per cent of respondents said that disclosures about alleged celebrity flings should not have been published. Yet, the coverage David Beckham gets on a regular basis equals that of Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister. Surely the proportions are wrong here. In this aspect the Guardian’s strategy of staying course is not as imprudent as it is made out to be. (Kuttner 2007)