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Who guards the Guardian?

The newspaper has taken on hundreds more staff, but its grand digital gamble has not yet paid offand it is losing money rapidly. Can it survive?

Let’s agree that the Guardian is a great newspaper whose survival should concern us all. It may sometimes be pompous and self-regarding, but in an age of dumbing down it still carries a torch for serious newspaper journalism—more than ever now that the print edition of the Independent has expired.

That the Guardian’s future should be in any doubt is pretty incredible. The Guardian Media Group (GMG), which owns the Guardian and the Observer, had a fund of £740m to support them at the last count. This enormous sum would seem to guarantee the future of both titles and the website for as long as anyone can see.

But it doesn’t. GMG figures which emerged at the end of January, and confirmed to me by the company as accurate, paint an alarming picture. Losses in 2015 to the end of March are expected to amount to £58.6m, an annual record. Including leasing costs and capital expenditure, more than £80m in cash has flown out of the window in the last year. At the same time, the value of GMG’s investment fund fell from £838.3m last July to £740m at the end of January, which largely reflects market conditions (although it may have been helped by the recent market recovery). According to its critics, the company has demonstrated its ingrained inability to control costs. On 17th March it announced a new round of swingeing redundancies and other savings.

There is another worry. Many journalists on the paper to whom I have spoken question what GMG has termed its “digital-first” strategy, which it has pursued for more than a decade. Might it be that its policy of putting all its journalistic material online without charging readers is commercially unviable? Could the free model be fatally flawed? There are good reasons for thinking so.

The Guardian and the Observer (also a paper with a great history) have been losing huge sums of money for as long as anyone can recall. I have totted up the losses that the newspapers have jointly posted over the last 11 years, including this one. They amount to about £340m. Apart from this year, the worst performance was in the 12 months ending March 2012, when the titles lost £44.2m. If you can burn through £340m in just over a decade, a fighting fund of £740m suddenly doesn’t seem so much.

As recently as last summer, GMG was giving the strong impression that it had turned the corner. After 20 years as Editor of the Guardian, during which time he had been the messianic driving force behind the paper’s worldwide digital expansion, Alan Rusbridger packed his bags to become Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford with a spring in his step. He told the British Journalism Review around the same time: “I think for a new editor to come in with a billion pounds in the bank is quite a nice position.” The happy recipient of this slightly overstated largesse was Katharine Viner, the first woman to edit the Guardian since it was founded in 1821.

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In Prospect’s April issue: Sam Tanenhaus profiles Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican Party Presidential nomination and asks if Trump makes it to the Oval Office, what would he do? Stephen Glover, examines what is happening at the Guardian as the newspaper looks to cut costs. Ferdinand Mount says Tony Blair transformed Britain but he should have cared more about the Labour Party. Also in this issue: Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI5, says that Brexit would not damage the UK’s security and Christopher de Bellaigue questions whether France’s clampdown on radicals is having the right effect. Plus Miranda France looks at the legacy of Don Quixote and the Duel asks: “Should the Church of England be disestablished”?