Answering the question: “How can I support the Guardian?”

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 26 July 2011

There has been some debate on Twitter and on the Fleet Street Blues blog about a new page that appeared on the Guardian website last week: “Six ways you can support the Guardian

The focus has been on the choice of the word “support”, rather than using something more nakedly commercial than “subscribe” or “buy”. On Fleet Street Blues, Iain Hepburn, never shy of criticising GNM, said:

“When you start having to resort to pleading with readers to join your dating club to help support the paper, that’s begging bowl stuff.”

On Twitter, Patrick Smith of The Media Briefing asked:

“Interesting language: ‘Six ways you can support The Guardian’. It's not a charity, it's a privately-owned business”

Well, one of the reasons for using that language is that it is often the way the question is phrased in our comment threads by our readers. These three examples are from the last week:

“I must admit that I’m interested in setting up a subscription to the Guardian, inspired by the ones currently displayed on then front page of the website, but I don’t actually want the physical paper, for concern about the amount of paper I’d be recycling. However I still want to support this paper’s survival. Can we have a ‘supporters’ subscription instead?” - urbanegorrila - 21 July 2011 1:20PM
“I have been really impressed by the coverage of the whole hacking issue, and many other issues etc etc and I want to support the Guardian. I don’t approve of the paywall ala the Murdochs, as I think everyone should have access to well-researched, well-written, newspaper articles. But I would like to pay a subscription. Is there, or should there be, a kind of ‘Friends of the Guardian’, or something, where I can pay a monthly donation (for want of a better word) to express my support without making it compulsory for everyone.” - Helen121 - 21 July 2011 3:56PM
“The Guardian is the paper persuing the misdeads and uncovering the bollocks that everyone else is too scared to pursue, but I hardly ever buy a physical copy of that either. How can I help support the Guardian? Is there an easy way for me to make a donation whenever I peruse the paper on-line? Perhaps there should be.” - ivanidea - 20 July 2011 8:59AM

We’ve now got somewhere to link to when we reply.

1 Comment

The Guardian's a business with a social purpose (like many newspapers); that purpose can be to change the world, or reflect viewpoint, provide a sense of identity reinforcement to its readers and their worldview etc. Those types of business thrive under co-operative or mutual ownership, where the balance between commercial reality and values and aspirations isn't CSR whitewashing but a real and tangible thing.

For example, why do John Lewis exist? It's to make their workers happy. That's not some happy-clappy wellbeing statement; it's what the company's articles of association say the point of the enterprise is.

The trouble with normal businesses is that the social purpose is provided by someone who extracts a profit for the undertaking of it. That blurs that purpose. Is the point to make me happy or to make your rich? Standard capitalist understandings would say the way to success in the latter is through the former, but that's simply not true; the relentless downsizing in local media is an example close to home where the needs of the owner overpower the interests of the consumer. The way to do this is to unite ownership and stake holding, so the consumer (and also producer) is an owner. So far, so standard mutuality.

The opportunity presented with the Guardian is that it needs to fill the revenue gap created by the collapse in advertising, and the much smaller margin on online advertising. In other words, it lost the subsidy for news production that offset the difference between cover price and cost of sale. Paywalls are one way to respond to that; they might work, though I've not seen too many studies saying all's well at the Times as a result.

Another model is to use the social values already inherent in the Guardian and move to a membership model, where people are invited to put their money with their mouth is. It's kind of a donation but instead of a warm glow in your heart that Wikipedia exists, you have the powers to hold the people charged with honouring those social values to account.

Another model would be to use a standard dividend model of a consumer co-op, where the annual surplus is redistributed depending on consumption levels. If no profit, no surplus, no dividend.

The revenue potential here is that - perhaps linked to paywalls or subscriptions - you're offering more than a standard consumer relationship, which fits with the Guardian's left-liberal ethos and values. You're not just running as another business, because it's not another business. You're doing something different, with a Guardian twist - a bit like moving to the berliner size when everyone else was going tabloid.

The mutual sector is booming, and membership in organisations like the Co-operative is rising year on year. This fits with the times, and thanks to technology, membership interactions with the organisation and with each other have never been easier to manage.

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