Why, oh why, are the Guardian’s management, of all people, giving serious consideration to launching a lite version of that august, left-leaning, national organ?
On the surface, ‘lite’ is the antithesis of everything a quality newspaper stands for. It’s shorn of comment, largely apolitical, and deliberately downmarket in stance. You won’t find too much about private equity buyers abandoning their Sainsbury bid, or Des Browne considering his political future in lite. You will find Kylie Minogue hitting Shanghai and Bruce Willis ogling Halle Berry’s most visible assets.
True, News International – which publishes the Times and Sunday Times – has managed to launch thelondonpaper without sustaining apparent damage to its corporate reputation. Then again, News International is not, so to speak, primarily associated with quality when it comes to positioning as a media owner.
The Guardian indisputably is, and yet is clearly bent on exploring, at some level, the possibility of going lite. Focus groups have been assembled and asked to consider at least two versions of a stripped down title. Both would seem to be youth-oriented and tabloid in format; one at 35p – half the main title’s price – the other maybe free. What could the rationale possibly be?
Lite, most visibly evidenced in the London freesheet battle, is a byproduct of the internet’s successful penetration of media consumption. If you can get the important stuff free at work on the Web, then why bother reading ‘serious’ paid-for newspapers on the way in? If you are then given a freesheet that fills you in on all the light-hearted entertaining fluff while in transit, the case for buying a newspaper diminishes still further. So, to the extent that their traditional media vehicles are losing circulation, revenue and influence, the national newspaper barons must seek other means of luring readers and placating restive advertisers, however much the lite phenomenon may stick in their craw.
The deeper appeal of lite
But there’s more to it than that. If we are to believe Stefano Hatfield – who after all knows a thing or two about the launch of freesheets in the United States as well as over here – the appeal of lite goes a lot deeper. It’s not just that “most people don’t have the time or need to read the New York Times, the Times or the Guardian on a 20-minute commute to the office”. Young people are simply not taking up the habit of buying newspapers, and one of the reasons, he suggests, is that they don’t contain very much they want to read. Freesheets, on the other hand, “acknowledge the realities of young people’s lives and, pretty much everywhere in the world, they are politically neutral. All the research shows that young people dislike political bias in newspapers and they are sick of being preached at by journalists. That’s why they don’t want to read columnists either.”
Did they ever want to read columnists? No matter, the general points are well made. There’s a generational media change going on out there and national newspapers, especially quality ones, don’t seem to be an integral part of it.
Looked at from this perspective, the Guardian’s interest in a lighter-weight version seems more rational. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has long held the view that Guardian Unlimited, the internet service, has a much wider socio-demographic franchise than the newspaper brand could ever aspire to. Why not perform a flanking manoeuvre and persuade some of the people who respect Unlimited, but who would never dream of buying the Guardian, to ‘buy into’ a GMG-sponsored lite alternative instead of the usual freesheet fare?
Having your cake and eating it
Clever though this strategy may appear, the risks it carries are considerable. Media owners who launch freesheets too closely aligned to existing paid-for titles can come seriously unstuck. Look at the damage the London freesheet war has inflicted on Associated’s Standard, not least at the hands of its own London Lite. All right, revenue and circulation decline were already serious before freesheet war broke out last autumn. Now they appear to be in freefall.
The Guardian, of course, may think that careful targeting of its alternative audience will enable it to have the best of both worlds. Broadened appeal within the metropolitan area on the one hand; a ring-fence against cannibalisation à la Standard on the other. This is far from a certain outcome. ‘Youth oriented’ is one way of looking at the prospective lite variant; ‘dumbing down’ another. And should dumbing down be the perception that takes hold, if or when this launch takes place, then God help the Guardian’s reputation.
As it happens, most media analysts think GMG will shy away from the risk. The consensus is the Telegraph would be more likely to take the plunge, obsessed as it is with cultivating a younger profile. In either case, going ahead would be playing with fire.