Rupert saw the light. Now 'The Guardian' seeks a cyber salvation

The newspaper is to put its stories online before they go into print. It's taken a long time, but Fleet Street's digital revolution is at last gathering pace

When online news history is written, the most significant date will be 13 April 2005 - RCD, Rupert's Conversion Day. This was the occasion Rupert Murdoch, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, publicly accepted that the future was digital, admitting that he was a "digital immigrant", his daughters "digital natives".

While by then many were paddling, some wading and a few swimming in the digital sea, it took the entry of the most powerful media magnate in the world to make even the most sceptical realise that the 21st century had arrived. Now all other media debates are peripheral. The argument is between those who think newspapers are on death row (wrong) and those who think newspapers must do more to adapt to the digital age (right).

A week in which the latest circulation figures do not tell a story of resurgent sales (except for a few, including this newspaper), is also the week in which there have been a series of online developments. But first the figures.

The World Association of Newspapers Congress in Moscow last week heard that newspaper sales worldwide rose by 0.56 per cent last year and 6 per cent over the past five years. Advertising revenues increased by 5.7 per cent last year. Good news, surely? Unfortunately it is South America, Asia and Africa where the increases took place, while sales declined in Europe and North America. The boom areas for advertising growth were China, Russia and India.

Britain, the monthly circulation figures confirm, is not contributing to the modest worldwide growth in sales. Here they are mainly down year-on-year. The exceptions are the recently compacted papers, the Financial Times and the Mail titles. The Independent on Sunday is up 10 per cent, The Observer up 4.3 per cent and The Guardian up 2.3 per cent. The Mail titles are up 1.3 per cent for the daily and 3.9 per cent for the Sunday after some slippage.

The popularity of the learn-Spanish CD bolt-on (a promotion first employed by the Independent titles, with equal success) clearly contributed to these increases. The bad hits have been taken by the tabloids, daily and Sunday, the worst being the Daily Mirror, down 8.2 per cent year on year, and The People, from the same stable, down 10.1 per cent. Trinity Mirror's problems do not go away.

The second most significant date in the history of online news may well be regarded as 30 May 2006, when the Financial Times gave great prominence to a story on a report from the advertising analysts GroupM headlined "Net poised to overtake national press": the spend on media advertising in the UK would go this year 13.3 per cent to the internet and 13.2 per cent to national newspapers. (TV remains the largest with 28.8 per cent of the advertising spend).

It has taken a surprisingly long time for the wired world to dominate media debate. Not so long ago many highly paid heads remained firmly in the sand, scoffing at the online revolution. Newspapers, they maintained, were secure and making money, the one thing the internet would not do. The late and sometimes reluctant converts were buoyed by the burst of the technology stocks bubble, and smiled in a self-satisfied way as they thought of all the money they hadn't lost.

All that has now changed, but the second cyber coming was long delayed. The catalysts were broadband, falling newspaper sales and advertising revenues, and a generation to whom the desktop was not an innovation but a fact. Of course there were the pioneers - in the early days, strangely, the Telegraph Group, as well as The Guardian and the BBC. It was relevant that the last two were the only publishers without shareholders and a stock market price to worry about.

Now each week there are digital developments involving newspapers. The latest is the announcement that The Guardian, which claims 12.9 million "unique" users of its website a month (5.1 million in the US), will now publish almost all its news online before stories appear in print. When the newspaper's journalists file, none of their stories will wait for the newspaper.

"If we don't wake up and realise we are competing with people on a daily basis who are beating us by 12, 18 and 24 hours on stories, then we are heading to irrelevance," says the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger. He also offered music to the ears of most print journalists by saying that on the website they would not be "constrained by the amount of space we have in the paper". No more moans about being "savagely cut".

Many journalists who were disparaging about the web and who cared only about their prominence in the paper are now more positive about writing for the website. Journalists live to be published and reacted to. Words on the website, contributions to blogs and immediate reader reactions seem to feed the vanity and compensate for the requirement for greater productivity. A Guardian columnist recently had to rush away from lunch to record a podcast.

The Daily Telegraph, which has recently pushed its daily podcasts and revamped its website, has perversely decided to do the opposite to The Guardian and delay publication of its news stories on the website. The reason? To persuade more website users to buy the print version, according to its new media director Annelies van den Belt.

The Mail group editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, is installing his internet journalists in the heart of the (print) newsroom. The group had done little to promote its web presence, but now seems persuaded of its importance.

The Times has just started printing a US edition, and The Guardian is to follow suit. It is apparent that British journalism has acquired a high reputation in the US, and this has been led by the availability of the websites.

Simon Kelner, the editor-in-chief of the Independent titles, notes a strong American audience for his newspapers' website. It seems that a "voice of Britain" other than the BBC World Service has emerged through online newspapers.

Kelner says that while his papers' website is an important international extension of the brand, the past few years have been dominated by the successful launches of the compact print versions of the daily and Sunday. Time and resources have been devoted to that.

"We have responded to the declining newspaper market by providing different kinds of newspapers," Kelner says. "And it has gone very well. But our website is part of our editorial department and in the next few months and years we will be developing the website further. However, I see a huge future for newspapers, and I can't understand why The Guardian invested £110m in its relaunches if it doesn't share that view."

Sir Anthony O'Reilly, chief executive of Independent News and Media, described in his annual report last week his newspapers' response to new media as "measured and thoughtful".

Rusbridger, who tends to talk mainly about the online threats to newspapers, chose Oxford University a few days ago to be more optimistic.

He said the Yahoos and Googles had no interest in creating content. They wanted to do interesting things with other people's content. Those other people were newspapers, he said, which "should never lose faith in what we alone can do, or our unique role in society".

Journalists provided a global network of "people whose only aim in their professional lives is to find things out, establish if they're true, and write about them quickly, accurately and comprehensibly".

The message, then, in an era of unpredictable change, is that however news is published, newspapers will play a key role in producing it. We can all drink to that.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

MEDIA DIARY

Follow my leader

Long-serving political hack David Hughes left the Daily Mail suddenly last week, having reached what we hear was "a state of impossible personal chemistry" with editor Paul Dacre. Hughes, the paper's former political editor, was working as one of the Mail's two leader writers. He may not be out of work for too long. Could Wapping, where he worked at The Sunday Times, be beckoning?

Miss me - Hardy

There's gratitude for you. Just as the Evening Standard boasts a leap in sales after its full-colour relaunch a month ago, managing director Bert Hardy has been given a new job: helping to find a successor for himself. Associated Newspapers has brought in headhunters to locate suitable candidates to take over the running of the London paper, and 77-year-old Hardy has been said to be co-operating fully in the process. "Bert accepts that he was brought in last year only as a caretaker," says my source. "He's been very understanding about it all."

Boris turns to the left

What ho! Who should I see at the New Statesman offices for its celebratory relaunch lunch on Thursday afternoon but Boris Johnson? "It was tremendous," says Boris, a colleague of Staggers editor John Kampfner from their Telegraph days. "I think invitations are the sincerest form of flattery," he said. "It was all Chatham House rules and, yah, I mean I would say there was a quite hefty proportion of people from equal opportunities commissions and journalists from Bangladesh. It even had Geoffrey Robinson pouring out the wine. It lacked some of the texture of The Spectator lunches but I wish them well."

Chater cheats the cuts

With stunning timing, veteran reporter David Chater nipped out of the door just before Sky's round of cutbacks this week, which saw presenters Ginny Buckley and Juliette Foster leaving the channel and James Rubin's show World News Tonight axed. Chater, who worked from the satellite broadcaster's Johannesburg bureau, resigned 10 days ago to "pursue other interests", according to Sky's head of news, Nick Pollard. However, colleagues in South Africa are suggesting that Sky was unhappy that Chater had chosen to forgo Iraq in favour of the softer African number, his dream job.

"Sky never saw the point of having someone so senior and well paid in that area," says one. "They were turning down a lot of stories he wanted to cover and there was some mutual discontent."

Blame it on Rio

Andrew Pierce of The Times has already had it with the World Cup. He and some friends have gone abroad to get away from the obsessive interest in football. To Brazil.

Heavily engaged

Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan certainly know how to work the press. Just as they were instructing their lawyers, Schillings, to begin legal proceedings against the Daily Mail over an article printed in May (which suggested they weren't getting on), a source sympathetic to the couple gave the paper's Richard Kay column the story of their secret six-month engagement. By printing the engagement story, the paper in effect scuppered its own defence. The reaction of the Mail's legal department is not known.

The Hay Wade

Incongruous sighting of the week: Sun editor Rebekah Wade at the last-night party at the Hay Festival. No fear, however, that The Sun is suddenly going to go highbrow. It transpired that Wade has a country pad in Herefordshire.

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