Guardian.co.uk needs to rethink its ‘challenging’business model if it is ever to survive on its own without the printed paper, according to its head of editorial development, Neil McIntosh.
Speaking at a Brighton Festival debate, McIntosh said the site would need ‘many millions’more visitors to sustain the level of investment in journalism it currently makes.
‘Looking forward, there’s a point at which you can say the model looks really challenging,’he said. ‘It’s not dreadful at the moment, but it’s going to be a tough year this year and next.
‘We need to have many millions more users to sustain the scale of operation and the way we work now. You couldn’t switch the paper off and expect the website to sustain all that.”
Although the newspaper and the website were likely to co-exist for some time yet, McIntosh suggested that the eventual aim was a move away from print.
‘We bought some new presses in 2005 when we changed shape, and our editor [Alan Rusbridger] said those were the last set of presses we’d ever be buying. That sounds to me like a reasonable call,’he said.
In the latest set of ABCe web traffic figures, covering the month of March, Guardian.co.uk remained Britain’s biggest newspaper website with 18.7 million unique users, a year-on-year increase of 35.9 per cent.
Although McIntosh said the competition among national newspaper websites was ‘extremely fierce”, he claimed the rapid growth of the second-ranked site, Mail Online, had little to do with serious journalism.
‘I think to some extent we all play to different markets,’he said. ‘The Daily Mail has shot up the charts – the growth in traffic is extraordinary.
‘But they’re doing that with celeb pictures. That is not something we’re likely to follow. We’re not going to go down the route of 20 shots of Keira Knightley at a movie premiere.”
Mail Online recorded almost 18 million unique users in March, up 175 per cent year on year and narrowing the gap between the Mail and The Guardian to less than 800,000 users.
Asked about the issue of user privacy, McIntosh said Guardian.co.uk was considering implementing a new feature which tracks the stories an individual user reads and suggests other stories related to their tastes – a system similar to that used by online retailer Amazon.
‘I got into terrible trouble on Comment is Free answering the same question about privacy so I’m going to tread very carefully,’he said.
‘We had a discussion about the information we present to users and what we could do in terms of gathering information and offering them a better service. We’ve got to be extremely careful.”
He added that The Guardian’s privileged position – backed by the Scott Trust and not accountable to shareholders – had allowed it to take a more long-term view than some of its rivals and invest in areas of the site that were less likely to make money.
‘With things like Comment is Free, I don’t think you could ever argue it is a money-making machine, but it proves really popular,’he said.