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Who Will Guard The Guardian?

In the past year, The Guardian has become more important than ever. The paper played a key role in providing context for the information in the WikiLeaks cables, and its reporting on the “phone-hacking” scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation was the media story of the year. But, as a well reported story in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel points out, these journalistic triumphs have not helped its bottom line. “In purely economic terms,” the article reports, with typical German bluntness, “it’s a complete fiasco.”

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has pursued an innovative, daring, and potentially ruinous strategy of prioritizing the paper’s free Web site over its print edition. The Guardian publishes so much more content online than it does in print that its online version is clearly superior, even if one values the convenience of print. This is impressively forward-looking. It’s also financially stupid, since the Web site generates far less revenue, since the ads there sell for much less. (Although I’m far more familiar with the economics of U.S. newspapers than their U.K. counterparts, the cover price of most publications barely covers the costs of printing and distribution.) The better the Guardian Web site gets, the more readers will choose it over the print edition. At a time when most media executives complain about being forced to trade analog dollars for digital dimes, Rusbridger is actually making an effort to do so.

One could argue that this is painful but necessary, that the Guardian needs to eat its own lunch before someone else does. Maybe so. The question is whether a publication on this path will end up looking anything like the Guardian as we know it. To his credit, Rusbridger isn’t afraid of change. He wants to maximize his paper’s online audience, and integrate crowdsourcing into its reporting process in a way that helps it do more with less. It’s a noble vision.

The reality doesn’t look as good. The paper got its phone-hacking scoops the old-fashioned way: With great reporting by professional journalists. And as its online strategy causes revenue to fall further, it will be forced to cut journalist jobs, as it has already. A smaller staff will produce fewer of the scoops that set the Guardian apart from other English papers.

On some level, Rusbridger knows this: He recently acknowledged that “We need reporters who go out and do reporting,” as opposed to relying only on social media tools. The question is why he’s pursuing a business strategy that will require him to lay off more of them – and whether he’ll be able to change course before he significantly weakens the paper’s journalism.

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