Why wait until tomorrow for today's news?

The morning we announced our "web first" olicy on foreign and City news was, coincidentally, the morning Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed. The news broke at around 8.40am — approximately 24 hours before the majority of Guardian readers would be able to read our reporting and analysis in the following day's paper.

For most of The Guardian's 185 years that would have been a weary fact of daily newspaper life. News was tailored to a 24-hour cycle. Sometimes the luck was with you and a big story would break close (but, in a perfect world, not too close) to deadline. But if an Al Qaeda leader died around breakfast time you just shrugged your acceptance that this was — for you and your readers — going to be pretty cold potatoes.

For all of us gathered at that morning's editorial conference, the Zarqawi story was a useful illustration of the way the newspaper business is changing extremely rapidly. The announcement of our new webfirst policy was generally greeted with something on a scale between acceptance and enthusiasm. Inevitably, there were some worries — and some scepticism.

So I tried the Zarqawi test. "Does anyone in the room believe we should publish nothing on this story until tomorrow breakfast time?" I asked. No one did.

So, after that, we were simply into the realm of discussions about editorial processes, production shifts and copy flow.

In truth, we've been moving towards this point for some years now. Our web operation employs more than 60 journalists — and most correspondents on The Guardian and The Observer are now perfectly at home filing for both internet and print editions.

Every day of the week, the Media Guardian site breaks stories before they appear in the paper. Sports reporters working in different time zones find nothing strange about their work appearing on the web before the paper — it's a merciful change from a 36-hour time lag in attempting to report an Ashes series from Down Under.

Even so, we were all aware that there was something both symbolic and significant about last week's switch in which we'd post all foreign and City copy as soon as it had been subbed, rather than hold it back to a deadline which suited one set of readers, but not others.

The obvious fear raised by staff was that of cannibalisation: why would people continue to buy the print edition — still the source of more than 80 per cent of our revenue — if we were giving away so much content for free in advance?

It's a reasonable enough question — and one we've been asking ourselves for 10 years or more, years in which The Guardian has grown from being the third biggest daily broadsheet paper to being quite easily the biggest digital newspaper in Britain. The very first day we posted The Guardian's content on the web without charging for it, we knew we were risking a gradual erosion of the print sale. The question we've always asked ourselves is about the balance of risk and opportunity: crudely, is it riskier to pursue an aggressive strategy for digital growth or to choke it off in the hope readers will be forced back into the print edition?

I know what I think, and I thought it even before I read the Financial Times headline of a fortnight ago announcing that internet advertising will overtake national newspapers for advertising spend by the end of the year, or before I saw our own figures showing year-on-year revenue growth of 53 per cent.

Bloomberg, bloggers and the Beeb Of course there's a measure of competition between the digital and print editions of The Guardian. But you'd have to be blind to imagine that this is the only, or even the most important, competition — just as you'd have to be blinkered to imagine our only competition these days is with our colleagues in the quality end of the British press.

If we'd decided to hold back on any coverage of Zarqawi for 24 hours, the only thing to have happened would have been a flight of readers from The Guardian's website to news organisations that weren't working to archaic deadlines. They would have ended up reading about it from Reuters, the BBC, Google News, Yahoo, MSNBC, The New York Times or scores of other perfectly reliable websites around the world, including bloggers.

I suspect we will lose a few readers in print as a result of our switch, but probably only a few more than we (and everyone else) are losing already as part of a gentle migration from print to web. These days The Guardian has more readers online in New York than it does in Birmingham. Well over six million unique users in North America now regularly log on to our site — often first thing in the morning, local time. They want up-to-date content, not to be told to wait until the following day.

What's true for foreign news is doubly true for financial coverage. The City has a voracious appetite for online news. Most traders are regularly monitoring Reuters and Bloomberg, looking for ideas and news that will give them the edge in a highly competitive environment. They have few allegiances, but will go to a website with the newest angle on a breaking story. This has been the reality in the City for many years and other business readers have quickly followed suit.

The real competition for the business pages of newspapers therefore comes from online news sources such as Bloomberg and big international websites such as the BBC, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times online. Many business stories are released as statements to the London Stock Exchange at 7am and it is increasingly perverse to wait 24 hours before publishing this information.

When other websites are publishing these stories through the day, to wait until the following morning is to risk irrelevance.

There are, of course, traps. We're not going to get into the business of rolling news or turn our correspondents into agency reporters. All copy will go through the same commissioning, editing and subediting processes that currently exist on the paper.

Guardian writers should still have time to think, read, check, make phone calls and reflect.

Just over 80 years ago, the great Manchester Guardian editor, CP Scott — then 76 and with just 50 years of editing experience behind him — wrote an essay bubbling with excitement at the latest developments in technology: "The world is shrinking. Space is every day being bridged. Already we can telegraph through the air or ether, from Penzance to Melbourne, and tomorrow we shall be able to talk by the same mechanism.

Physical boundaries are disappearing. What a change for the world! What a chance for the newspaper!"

I don't think CP Scott, given the technology, would have agonised for too long about going web first.

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