The Guardian’s website has moved further towards its more commercial competitors with the news that, from today, readers will have to register before they can access stories in its Media section.
The registration page has been kept as simple and short as possible - just seven pop-down questions - and Guardian Unlimited’s editor-in-chief Emily Bell assured us that the reason for the move was to keep the content free. But nevertheless, the step marks a further shift in The Guardian’s online approach toward that of its rivals which charge for large sections of their content and restrict access to large parts of their sites.
Emily Bell stressed that the change was flagged up in July when The Guardian also introduced a number of other paid-for services. Strangely, she makes no mention of registration in her letter of the time. It does, however, mention that it will charge for the daily Media Guardian email. That will happen soon, Bell told us. This week, The Guardian also started charging for its (excellent) Digital Editions.
What does all this mean? Bell warns us not to read too much into the financial situation surrounding The Guardian’s online offering. "It would be nice to make money than it costs and becoming profitable is one of the ultimate goals," she told us, "but there are other aims, like reaching as wide an audience as possible."
The registration is purely advertising department-led. As Bell readily admits, they don’t know for certain who the Media Guardian readers are ("It could be 50 per cent students for all we know"). Anyone who has ever run a website will sympathise. But a careful look at the registration page reveals that a bias toward advertising and media buyer types. Why? Because they are the people that advertisers want and The Guardian wants to know about.
None of this should come as a particular surprise though. The issues faced by The Guardian now are precisely those faced by everyone else (except the BBC) two years ago. It’s just that due to The Guardian’s unique ownership structure, it hasn’t been under the same commercial pressures from owners and stockholders. This has held it in good stead. As others have had to introduce controls and charging, The Guardian has stormed out ahead on the online stakes and now sits comfortably at the front of the UK media - except, of course, for the BBC.
It is only inevitable then that with such a large lead on its competitors, the company would start trying to recoup some of the money invested over the past few years. Hence the new services - primed for charging - and registration.
Why the Media section? Because, as with the Monday media supplement in the printed edition, it has become the main stopping-off post for the UK media industry. Bell also says she hopes that with media people tending to be very savvy about such things as registration and content charging and the like, it won’t bother them as much as other groups to fill in a form to get access to free content.
She does remain a little nervous about the effect the registration may have on readers though. "It is an experiment. If we find we’re losing a lot of traffic and that isn’t coming through on ad revenues, we will take it off again."
So, the wonderful free gambol in the pastures is over and The Guardian is now having to share the cowshed with everybody else; even the BBC will find itself lassoed by the government sooner or later. Bell tells us that the registration will also help improve the site as they’ll have more idea of who is reading it, but this really is no more than the sugar to help the advertising medicine go down.
Of course, the move will also delight The Guardian’s competitors, who now have far more chance of regaining some of the market. And it is one more step toward the Holy Grail for online publishers - wide acceptance of paid-for content. ®