Despite all the signs to the contrary, many in the newspaper business still hold on to the idea that print will have a big role to play in the long-term future of news organisations. But for the man brought in to revamp the Guardian’s digital editorial operation as its new executive editor for digital – former NYT associate managing editor for digital strategy Aron Pilhofer – there’s little doubt about print’s looming irrelevance:

“The NYT wrote a story about the paywall, but said ‘the future of print is unclear’. There is nothing unclear, [decline] is an absolute given, it’s not like ad revenue is going to come swinging back.”

Speaking to TheMediaBriefing at developer gathering MozFest in London, Pilhofer said it’s not simply that the decline is inevitable, but that it will happen quicker than many expect. Making a full shift to digital before that happens is something all newspapers, including the Guardian, need to do, and quickly. Pilhofer says the collapse won’t be gentle, and with reference to this Clay Shirky article, says quite how harmful that fantasy can be: 

“It is that dangerous. [Most newspapers] have not made the full shift to digital, neither has the Guardian, that’s what we are focusing on right now. The danger is that print revenue isn’t going to just decline gradually. Never in the history of ever has that ever happened, revenue just gradually tailing off to zero.

“Circulation isn’t the problem, the NYT has never had a circulation problem, circulation there is as good as it’s ever been. It’s ad revenues that are the problem, that’s the big hole they are trying to fill…In the US, something like 350 odd newspapers have gone out of business. This is a business that for 200 years has been more or less a licence to print money, and they’re gone.”

Disintermediation

That declining ad revenue is the biggest single challenge facing the commercial operations of most newspapers today. However, its causes require a radical change in editorial approach as well. 

Google’s impact on both sides of the business has already been seismic. Newspaper classifieds have collapsed, and editorial staff have learned that good search engine optimisation and simple changes such as writing pun-free headlines that match what people are searching for are vital to attract readers looking for a specific news story.

However, with the growing importance of social media, newspapers and other publishers are having to grapple both with being disintermediated by advertising competitors such as Facebook, and the fragmentation of their audiences across those platforms.

That fragmentation provides both a challenge and an opportunity for newspapers who once thought of their audience as one solid block of readers, largely because they had little data on what different kinds of readers actually wanted from their newspaper.

The realisation that you can work out what different parts of your audience want lies at the heart of many of the changes Pilhofer has been working on bringing to the Guardian’s newsroom. He has established centralised teams to help the whole operation handle data, visuals, video and interactive storytelling, and social and audience teams to help understand who is interested in different topics and how best to reach them.

For Pilhofer, it’s about telling stories in a way that matches both their subject matter and their audience:

“Instead of doing things the way we do it now, which is some variation of publish and pray, we want to be a little more data driven about the way we do pretty much everything from structure of the newsroom to content itself. There’s an enormous amount of data. It’s just there’s nobody in the newsrooms really dedicated to just focusing on editorial questions.”

“The goal of this is to find ways of being a lot smarter about how we publish, when we publish, what we publish, the formats we publish, what tools we use. So we may want to do something creative online around a particular event, and looking at the audience we are trying to target, it might dictate a completely different strategy than it would an investigative piece.”

Better odds

Pilhofer says the Guardian’s trust-based ownership structure and signficant cash reserves from the sale of its stake in Autotrader at the start of this year leave it better positioned than most to rethink both its editorial and commercial strategies.

However, he says the Guardian also benefits from the simple fact its audience is so heavily weighted towards digital, with more than 100 million global unique browsers compared to print circulation of around 200,000. That provides the impetus for radical change, even if revenues are still weighted towards print:

Our digital footprint is so much bigger and so much more global than our print footprint, the ratio [of digital to print] is so much higher than the NYT. The organisation is already very comfortable with a dual publishing path, they are already comfortable publishing strictly to digital.”

Combined with what is effectively shareholder-less ownership, that means the Guardian can focus on the future rather than protecting the past:

“The Guardian has a huge advantage in that we can make the right decisions about how we are going to earn revenue.”

Pilhofer is inevitably skeptical about the likelihood the many other news organisations which don’t have those advantages will survive – and you might suspect the impact of that unique combination of factors at the Guardian is what lured Pilhofer across the Atlantic in the first place.