Friday, September 3, 2010

Is the Guardian Sustainable?

Not too many daily newspapers around the world report on sustainability. In fact I dont think any others do. In this respect the Guardian seems to me to be unique. It is also unique in that it has Jo Confino, the passionate and committed champion of the Guardian values. It's no coincidence that I decided to post about the Guardian's report(ing) at this time. You see, Jo Confino is coming to visit us in Israel this month, and we have organized, in partnership with Maala, the local BSR affiliate, a meeting of members, clients and the general public,  for Jo to share his insights, experience and achievements at the Guardian, and talk about the role of the media in supporting (or not) sustainable business practices. We are very proud to host a true Sustainability Celebrity. I am expecting he will teach the Israeli press a thing or two!

The Guardian has been producing Sustainability Reports called "Living our Values"  since 2003 but I am going to fast-forward and stay present with the 2010 Living Our Values report. I guess it's not easy to be a print newspaper in this digital on-line-everything age when the world has become one big citizen-journalist and headlines reach Twitter before most have even realised they are headlines.  A report in the Media Guardian in June 2010 talks of  overall decline in newspaper circulation in 20 out of 30 OECD countries, with a 30% decline in the USA and a 25% decline in the UK between 2007 and 2009. Sales of the Guardian fell by 10.5% in the year ending May 2010. So the first question that springs to mind whilst reading a newspaper sustainability report is whether this is actually an unsustainability report, for a business which is slowly becoming an anachronism. If that's not a material issue, I don't know what is. (OK, I do, but I'm not telling).

The Guardian, or GNM at they like to be called (Guardian News and Media) deals with this. They say "The current business model does not work for newspapers any more. So we will have to build a new one that does" Pretty straight-up, I guess. This is how the Guardian plans to do it:

** A new revenue stream through  the creation of the Digital Agency which is producing websites for clients, rather than just selling them advertising.
** The creation of Guardian Sustainable Business, a venture aimed at supporting companies in acting on their social, environmental and economic impacts.
** Investing in new software to enable optimisation of  online advertising revenues
** Recruiting like-minded web businesses to Guardian ad Networks, which take advantage of scale and special skills in selling to big advertising agencies
**Opening up new licensing models and new platforms, such as subscriptions on Kindle and the Sony eReader. Both the iPhone app, which is paid for, and the iPad photography app, which is free because it is sponsored by Canon, are making a positive financial contribution. The iPhone app sold 121,000 in its first 16 weeks on sale.
**Significantly expand international operations, given that the overseas audience represents more than half of  total audience, but only 7% of  revenues .

But what about he fact that everyone is now a journalist? The answer appears to be "collaborate or dry up!" The Guardian recognises that "preaching to 21st century stakeholders is no longer the answer". Engagement with stakeholders is the name of the game and the Guardian does this well.

The core theme of the report is well in line with its concept and title - living the values. Perhaps this is best demonstrated in the section relating to the engagement of employees and the commentary about the employee survey. This is a fine example of good disclosure relating to empolyee practices and includes some self-criticism. Other aspects, such as fair and free journalism are discussed at length, including the position of values related to earning from advertising which is in conflict with editorial principles.

I must confess that for a simple soul like me, the online format of the Guardian Living our Values report is a little confusing. It all looks like the Guardian newspaper-on-line and untill the penny (sheqel) (cent) dropped, that all the Sustainability Report content pieces are dated 6th Juy, it took me some time. The Sustainability Report even has an Editorial, which is not run-of-the-mill CSR report lingo. Alongside the actual report bits, there are also actual archived news bits. I like a simple life. I like to see reports in a clearly defined location, distinct from the rest of the corporate communications.  However, I cannot deny the advantages of this format, which facilitates buzz-up of every page, and invites comments from the general public on each individual article which makes up this report. It's a bit like how to eat an elephant. You can digest the Guardian Report one bite (byte?) at a time. A nice touch is for those who really can't stomach an elephant, no matter how many bites, is a save-the-elephant  15-minute digested read providing the basics of the report in an Executive Summary.

I also struggled with navigating this report. There is no content index, and finding specific information requires some digging. Side-navigation bars disappear when you go to read specific articles. I think that, whilst the concept of a newspaper making a Sustainability Report look like a newspaper is quite neat, in practice, I think I would prefer it to look like a report. However, for the general Guardian readership, this may well be the best way to get the report noticed.

This being said, the pioneering Guardian is serious about sustainability as their fine set of targets and reporting against those targets shows. There is well considered thought about materiality  and stakeholder engagement is covered off nicely. The journalist-Guardian-article style format has broad readership appeal and is less dry than some of the report doing the rounds today. And the report is assured.  There is no doubt that  values are alive at The Guardian and intgrated into the core business model.. Oh, and if you don't know what mutualisation means (guilty!), here is your chance to find out.

PS: The Guardian Media Group is owned by the Scott Trust. That's an interesting story. Check it out here.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict, author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices. Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)


Cathy Joseph said...

What an inspiring reinvention - a true redefining of what a newspaper is and can be. I love the "Ten Principles of Mutualisation" in the Editorial - simple and powerful statements that are in no way limited to publishing.

I look forward to reading your blog on Jo's speaking engagement in Israel later this month. I'm sure it will be a fantastic experience!

Luis Oliveira said...

There is actually one more newspaper that has been reporting on sustainability. As a matter of fact, Estadão, the São Paulo, Brazil (where else) newspaper, has been reporting for quite a while. Portuguese only, as far as I know, which kinda figures why you never heard of it before. Still...

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