Guardian Strategy, III — Culture and the “ecology of news provision”

David Pemsel, deputy chief executive of Guardian News & Media, recently gave a short speech about the organisation’s strategy.

[You can watch the speech below (or read highlights here):]

As Pemsel says, what they are doing goes against all conventional wisdom. But readership and revenues are growing, and previous posts (on readers and advertisers) have shown how this makes complete sense when considered through the lens of The Escher Cycle.

This third and final post looks at the big picture: what David calls “the ecology of news provision”.

It examines The Guardian’s role within that space, by applying the thinking of chapter 7 of The Escher Cycle.


Screen shot 2014-05-07 at 17.30.58The Ecology of News Provision

We start with the chart that David used to illustrate the ‘ecology of news provision’ (see right).

As he says, “it is remarkable how many new players continue to come into the ‘news’ space, even though all of us seem to say “There is no business here.””

Although it is a busy diagram (and still seems to have left out some important players, such as CNN, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and Russia Today) it is difficult to see how to use this diagram to create strategy.

So let’s rearrange the information shown, to put it into the structure of The Escher Cycle.

First, we need to think about how ‘distinctive’ each company is. Is it a ‘mass market’ or ‘high end’ offering — or, in the language of the newspaper industry, is it broadsheet or tabloid?

Second, what impact does each organisation have on the lives of its audience? Does it explicitly help them to:

  1. ‘Understand’ what is happening?
  2. ‘Design’ or make plans (for example, by providing analysis)?
  3. ‘Implement’ those plans, put them into practice?
  4. ‘Operate’ — run their businesses or live their lives better?

If we apply both questions to each of the organisations shown, we can combine them to create a simple, structured map of the ‘ecology of news provision’.

Here’s a quick and dirty first draft that undoubtedly is incomplete and contains over-generalisations and errors:

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Let’s walk through some of the key points to understand what it is showing:

  • In the bottom right corner, ‘tabloid’ newspapers are shown as more interested in ‘entertaining’ their readers/viewers than in providing in-depth analysis of events. (For example, the Evening Standard is shown as essentially providing entertainment for Londoners on their way home after work.) The Sun and Internet-based organisations are shown as having wider appeal.
  • Google and Yahoo are also Internet-based but these are perceived as interested in reporting ‘real news’ (also to a general audience), so they are shown on the left hand side. (They should arguably also be shown on the right, but this has been left out to save space.)
  • At the top left of the diagram, the Times, New York Times, Telegraph and Independent are shown clustered together: providing news and analysis to a relatively narrow audience
  • The Financial Times is also shown providing news and analysis, but to a more specific audience (more ‘distinctive’)
  • Channel 4 is shown as providing news and analysis as well as ‘human interest’ stories (Understand/Design as well as Operate), and
  • The BBC [news] organisation is shown as serving a wide (vertical) range of audiences, and delivering less analysis than the broadsheets (which ignores the impacts of Newsnight and Panorama).

There are undoubtedly errors and omissions in what is shown. But how does this quick ‘draft for discussion’ provide a context that we can use to understand The Guardian’s actions?

How does The Guardian fit into this space?

The Guardian’s Strategy

David Pemsel tells us that The Guardian is:

  • focused around breaking key stories such as the Snowden story — “The whole principle of why The Guardian exists… is to be able to break stories like this.” (5m28s)
  • developing new products such as Cook, Tech Monthly, and Do Something and as a result of that our circulation is up year on year.” (8m19s)
  • focused on transparency, stories and being omni-channel, for an audience they call ‘progressives’. (9m31s)

From these three bullet points we can map The Guardian as:

  1. operating very clearly in the broadsheet section of the industry (‘breaking key stories’)
  2. delivering value across all four customer stages (helping readers to build fuller lives as well as keeping them informed), and
  3. focused on a group of readers/members they call ‘progressives

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And now we understand The Guardian’s strategy.

The result is that The Guardian is becoming an intermediary, a ‘gatekeeper’, between readers, advertisers, and investors who are interested in endorsing the ‘progressive’ outlook on life:

  • It gets to break key stories that are relevant to that audience
  • It gets to shape the meaning of those stories
  • It gets to shape what advertisers are allowed to reach that audience, with what messages
  • It gets to shape what it means to be a ‘progressive’: what to Cook for dinner, what Tech to buy, what to Do, where to go on holiday, and so on.
  • It is curating the memes of the tribe.

We see that The Guardian is not really in competition with Flickr, Instagram or Vimeo. They are in a very different space.

On this version of the map, The Guardian is ‘competing’ most closely with Channel 4 News. Rather, that is the organisation that most closely overlaps the same space (albeit using different technologies).

In a global context, the paper is actually ‘competing’ for global mind-share with other organisations that are not shown. For example, Al JazeeraRussia Today, and CNN all report news in line with a specific way of interpreting the world. That worldview shapes the stories they select, and the way that they report them.

Evolution of Global Culture

As globalisation progresses, three factors will shape the growth of these worldviews, and the organisations that ‘curate’ them:

  1. the degree to which these organisations are able to be omnichannel storytellers
  2. the degree to which these organisations bring practical benefits and emotional meaning to their readers’/members’ lives
  3. the degree to which these organisations are able to make money for the organisations (and the worldviews) that support/fund them

Recent events in Ukraine have shown the importance of winning the ‘propaganda war’, or ‘share of mind’.

As globalisation continues, the same forces are playing out to shape socio-political history, albeit usually more subtly. And driven by which ‘outlook on life’ is most easily spread, brings most practical and emotional benefits, and makes the most money.

Curiously, these three factors map directly to the first three chapters of what The Escher Cycle says it takes to run a successful organisation: making money, by using resources, to satisfy customer needs. So the success of these ‘news’ organisations will also play a direct part in shaping world history.

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