‘High quality matters,’ says editor-in-chief of The Guardian, who shared editorial and business strategies, as well as pandemic challenges, during ISOJ

On the second day of the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, shared the editorial and work experience of the British publication during 2020, in the first year of the pandemic. In a conversation with the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, Emilio García-Ruiz, Viner also spoke about the strategies that have allowed The Guardian to maintain its audience.

In the first months of COVID-19, the disinformation that spread and the way these stories found ears among people was one of the great journalistic challenges, Viner said. “I think for me, it was how to get people to understand the scale of the deaths. So, I felt I remember at the end of March thinking all these people were dying, and yet, they were just numbers.”

According to Viner, it’s “a very strangely invisible pandemic.” Even when trying to portray the subject with photographs, it was difficult to connect the audience because in the photos they took in hospitals, everyone was wearing masks and personal protective suits, without ignoring the fact that we are all locked at home.

“The challenge I’ve had is to communicate the humanity of it,” Viner said.

In their attempt to humanize these human losses, one of the things they did was to profile the health workers who died from COVID-19 in an interactive database. In each profile, they tell who they were, as well as details about their lives and families.

Regarding disinformation, she added, she relies on the contribution of scientists and science experts to give the necessary rigor to her reports on the virus. That way, they can hook the audience when they report on new cures or preventive treatments, Viner said, ensuring that this material can be seen through a scientific lens.

As a team, the challenge has been trying to maintain the trust of the people who work at the newspaper, Viner confessed. So, the morning conference they had every morning in the office became virtual. This modality began to bring together more Guardian workers from all over the world. Now they meet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, all connecting online. One day there were more than 550 employees of the newspaper in the conversation, Viner said.

That has been one of the positive things as a team, she highlighted, in addition to the “random lunches” on Fridays, in which two employees who do not know each other meet to talk and have lunch together online. But she did say they miss coming together to brainstorm ideas, with the creativity that that entails, especially when the news agenda is quieter and they have more time to think of stories, Viner said.

When García-Ruiz asked about the reopening of in-person work, in a potential and future post-pandemic era, Viner said they will surely establish a hybrid model, due to the difficult and uncertain situation that still exists.

As a media strategy, Viner stressed that going back to basics, to the origins of the media outlet, rescuing its historical identity, is the most important thing. But above all, keep doing good journalism. “Good quality matters,” Viner said.

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For a journalistic medium it is important “to really have faith in what you’re good at and not be kind of pulled this way and that by whichever pivot is in fashion at the time, people can’t make reporting, good old fashioned reporting or modern reporting, with new techniques, but doing the reporting, finding out what’s happening, finding out something that someone doesn’t already know that someone wants hidden, just getting back to the basics of who you are and your real identity,” Viner said.

It should be of equal importance, said the editor, to think about who your audience is and what relationship you want to have with your readers. “Can they be part of your future? Can they be part of the solution? Can the readers help you work out what comes next?,” Viner reflected.

Thinking of its audience, The Guardian successfully tested the voluntary contribution strategy, in addition to already having premium subscriptions for its digital platform and print advertising, although to a lesser extent.

When they launched their voluntary contributions model in 2016, Viner said, it aroused a lot of suspicion among people, many did not believe it would work. “It doesn’t mean we would never do a paywall, but I think we’ve found an alternative to a paywall,” she said.

Even a British satirical magazine, Private Eye, according to Viner, said that The Guardian’s strategy was a “begging bowl.”

But, readers understood what they were going for and now it’s a big chunk of their income, she emphasized. Also, Viner commented that in 2020 her readers really gave them quite a bit of support. With this model, when a reader opens a news item from the newspaper’s website, it tells them how many articles they are reading, reminds them of the importance of having access to independent journalism based on “truth and integrity,” and asks for their voluntary contribution.

“I think what you need for our model to work is a readership who is very engaged with you and perhaps a sort of distinctive perspective,” she said. “There aren’t many global news organisations of our scale that are also progressive and don’t have a proprietor, and so on.”

The distinct perspective of The Guardian, Viner said, is in its thematic focus, such as on environmental issues, science, health, without neglecting the investigative aspect.

“And that doesn’t need to be something that’s hived off. It could be a small team at the core, work is what we do, with people coming in and out, according to the story. And I think that gives it a real dynamism and a sort of sense of drive,” Viner said.

When García-Ruiz asked Viner about the Trump effect on The Guardian, in terms of the decrease in readership after the former U.S. president left office, Viner responded that, although the news that Trump generated greatly increased its readership, the greater amount of page views, “350 million uniques, two billion pages,” came with the coronavirus in March 2020. “That’s absolutely off the maps,” she said.

In that month, the new coronavirus epidemic was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

“Trump was important to our traffic numbers, but I would say a global coronavirus pandemic plus Trump was more the story for us,” she said.

While Trump endangered journalists’ lives, at the same time he made their business models profitable, Viner noted. “I mean, it’s a really strange paradox,” she argued.

When Trump was elected president of the United States and gave one of his first speeches, Viner recalled that all media began to fact-check what he said. The Guardian US also did it, but there was also a team that was not in charge of verifying Trump’s speech, but of investigating what the president was really doing in office.

In the conversation, García-Ruiz also broached the issue of accountability for social networks in the context of disinformation.

“Without social media, Trump would not have been able to drive the lies in the way that he did,” Viner said.

“And I think, Trump and perhaps the all the misinformation that has been transmitted about health care, obviously there’s some overlap in that story, but around COVID, I think, maybe now people are realizing there does have to be some kind of accountability for these social media platforms, spreading misinformation because it can’t really carry on, people’s lives are at risk,” she added.

Regarding the interviewer’s question about the compensation that social networks should give to journalistic media for disseminating their content, Viner responded that The Guardian has been suggesting that large platforms pay for licensed journalistic content, however, that initiative should come from policy, she said.

“I think the problem comes if people are told to hold back on their reporting because of the amount of money they get from either a platform or an advertiser,” she said. “And that’s where the problem comes. I don’t think you’ll see that The Guardian, but I can see the smaller news organisations under a lot of pressure.”

In one of the many questions from the audience, one of the ISOJ participants asked Viner for advice for journalists just starting their freelance careers.

“Find the beat you know about. Think about the thing that only you know about, that only you can discover or uncover and  build relationships with editors, so that they trust your work when you approach them,” she responded. “But, I think I know I think it’s tough, but you can definitely make an impact. Lots of big stories have come from freelancers.”

ISOJ continues until April 30. Watch on YouTube in English or Spanish.