Guardian chief exec Miller rejects metered paywall model and says no more redundancies planned

Uniquely among UK national newspaper publishers, Guardian News and Media has avoided compulsory redundancies.

And speaking in the wake of annual results which revealed a sharp reduction in losses, chief executive Andrew Miller said there are no plans for any more job cuts - voluntary or otherwise.

Last year GNM sought to cut up to 100 out of 650 journalists. But in February it agreed a deal whereby 58 journalists (50 full-time equivalent positions) took redundancy and the NUJ agreed to find other ways to cut £7m from the annual editorial budget.

Miller tells Press Gazette: “We never set about saying it was a fixed number of people –  it was about a pound note saving, which we have achieved by looking at contributors and other areas.

“At this point there are no plans for future redundancies in editorial. The cost base will remain under pressure and the largest cost in this organisation is people, both editorial and commercial, so you have to monitor it all the time.”

GNM’s results for the year to the end of March show a sharp reduction in operating losses to £30.9m, from £44.2m a year ago, on turnover flat year on year at £196.3m.

Digital revenue increased by 28.9 per cent to £55.9m and outpaced print decline.

In May, Guardian.co.uk was the second biggest national newspaper website in the UK with 4.7m unique browsers a day worldwide (according to ABC). Daily print sales in the same month were down 10.4 per cent year on year to 192,000.

Miller said the latest GNM results were “extremely significant” in the context of a five-year-plan to turn around The Guardian’s finances. In the four years up to (but not including) 2012/2013 GNM made total operating losses of £157.1m.

Miller says: “The thing I am most pleased about is the growth in digital revenue. It’s the third consecutive strong year of digital revenue growth. And we are seeing strong growth so far in the first quarter of this financial year.”

“It is a significant set of results in the context of where we have come from and the context of the industry.”

He adds: “There are certainly green shoots.”

That extra digital revenue comes from a combination of display advertising and sponsorship, up £7m to £25m; subscriptions, e-commerce and other revenue up £2m to £15m and recruitment up £4m to £16m.

In April, Telegraph.co.uk became the latest news website to go behind a metered paywall. By setting the pay point at 20 articles per month, the meter appears to have had little effect on overall website traffic – with one media analyst saying he could see "no downside" to the policy.

Miller doesn’t rule out charging more readers to read Guardian digital content (the title already has 23,000 paying iPad readers and 57,000 paid-for iPhone app users). But a metered paywall is not on the agenda.

He says: “Metered paywalls are very interesting. We always monitor the paywall situation. We recognise at some point we will need to get revenue directly from readers in the digital environment but we don’t believe that is through a metered paywall.

“With £55m of revenue, anything that closes that off - I would be worried.”

While losses of £30.9m remain significant, The Guardian is not in any immediate danger of running out of cash. Last year it sold GMG Radio for a reported sum of £70m,  helping it increase cash and investment reserves from £225.8m to £253.7m.

GMG also owns 50.1 per cent of Trader Media Group and 32.9 per cent of Top Right Group which together may provide a windfall when they are sold (GMG’s share of profits for the pair totalled £73m last year but that money is ring-fenced to pay down debt).

What is a sustainable loss for GNM and could The Guardan ever break even financially?

“I don’t think I’ve ever given an absolute number about what we think the right level of loss is but I can assure you we will continue to reduce the losses and continue working our way through it. We have to keep reducing our losses.

“The way to reduce them is by investing in digital rather than purely cutting costs. It’s about investment to growth.”

And what about the wider picture for the media and those “green shoots” Miller talked about?

“I’m optimistic about the future for us because we are embracing the digital space and operating on a global basis.

“I don’t’ subscribe to it being a recession. Unfortunately for the sector it is a transition to a new world.

“I saw this very clearly at Auto Trader [where he was chief financial officer for six years before joining GMG in August 2009].

“There was a lot of talk at the beginning when we were neck and neck with Exchange and Mart that it was just purely a recession and we would come back through it. In reality it was a transition of consumption in the way people consumed the product. I really think it is the same here in the news space.

“This is about a transition in the way people consume content in the broadest sense. It’s very important that you embrace that and go where the consumer is going and you don’t fight to retain an old business model.”

Miller says that stories like the revelations from US National Security Agency  whistleblower Ed Snowden, read by 7m people on a single day on the Guardian website in June, show there is a market for quality journalism online.  And he notes NRS figures which suggest The Guardian and Observer’s combined UK print and online readership over the course of a month now stands at 13.2m.

He says: “It’s about embracing where we are going, and embracing opportunity. Good journalism, and very good editing, are in a really strong position – it’s just trying to find the business models that work around it. There will be some, it just takes time to find those models.”

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