New Guardian editor Katharine Viner's challenge: What to do with 964 staff and £850m

It says something something about the lack of diversity at the top of British journalism that much has been made of the fact The Guardian’s new editor went to state school and is a woman.

Katharine Viner is also from the north (Yorkshire) and her parents were both teachers.

But while she is a product of the state system, she went through the elitist side of it – studying at selective 450-year-old Ripon Grammar School before attending Oxford University.

She had her first Guardian article published back in 1987 as a schoolgirl reflecting on the demise of the O-Level.

Her first job in journalism was at women’s monthly Cosmopolitan before spending three years as a writer on The Sunday Times. She joined The Guardian in 1997 (at the age of 26) and has stayed there ever since with jobs as a feature writer, deputy editor of G2 and editor of the Weekend magazine (from 1998-2006).

She was in charge of the Saturday paper from 2008-2012 (The Guardian’s top selling day by some margin) before spending 16 months as launch editor of Guardian Australia heading up a team of 40.

Last summer she moved to New York to become editor-in-chief of Guardian US.

She will take over as editor after the general election and faces the sort of challenges which most editors would dream of:

  • What to do with 964 editorial staff? (this was the number of ‘core editorial staff' allowed to vote in the editor ballot, 438 of whom voted for her)
  • How to lose only £20m or so a year in order to hit financial targets?
  • What to spend the £850m or so that Guardian Media Group has in the bank on?

Like current editor Alan Rusbridger, Viner appears to wedded to the concept of open (or free) online journalism (see her AN Smith lecture in 2013).

She won staff over with a mission statement which, among other things, promises more fun:

News is a stressful business which needs to be balanced with an energising sense of inclusiveness, purpose and fun.

She also said she also said she wants to expand beyond Australia and the US to become “truly global”.

We need to reframe everything we do to speak to a worldwide audience.

This is a bold ambition. A UK news organisation has yet to prove it can build a sustainable digital base in the relatively familiar markets of Australia and the US. The Guardian could spend a lot of money finding out whether it can do so in other English-speaking territories around the world.

But The Guardian has to attract a worldwide audience if it is to achieve the digital scale which will enable it to stay free. The question is how to do that without losing its soul.

Mail Online has managed it with celebs, Buzzfeed uses humour and a lot of strange stuff about Disney princesses and Huffington Post does so through aggregation and by recruiting an army of free bloggers.

The Guardian will seek to retain and expand its scale with authorative online coverage of topics like technology, science and the environment which transcend national borders.

One of Viner's big challenges is continuing to invest in digital without killing the golden goose (or albatross depending on your point of view) of the print edition. Digital revenue may be growing fast (£80m out of £215m), but the majority of Guardian News and Media's income still comes from print.

The ‘digital first’ strategy has seen the print edition lose resources while its cover price has risen sharply (to £1.60). Sales are currently falling at a rate of more than 10 per cent a year, in contrast with the paywalled Times which has shown that newspaper sales can go up, as well as down. 

Rusbridger goes out on a glorious run of scoops: phone-hacking, Wikileaks and Snowden.

And following those up may be the toughest challenge for Viner. They are the sort of stories which come along once in a career, if you are lucky.

 

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