Blog Post

Interview: Simon Waldman, Director-Digital Strategy, Guardian Media Group

[By Jemima Kiss] Formerly director of digital publishing for Guardian Unlimited, Simon Waldman was recently promoted to director of digital strategy for the whole Guardian Media Group. The new role sees him working across a swathe of regional newspaper sites, radio stations, a local web TV project, the plump Trader Media group and joint ventures including the Fish4 online ad network. GMG wants a coherent digital strategy across all those properties as they become increasingly multi-platform, and much of that strategy will be informed by the success of Guardian Unlimited. GU reported a profit of $1.9 million last financial year; this year revenues are up 50 percent and ad revenue also continues to grow. The site is widely respected for its innovative editorial features, such as the ground-breaking Comment is Free project, and frequently breaks new ground in an area where, until recently, few other UK online newspapers dared to go.
Guardian Unlimited won both the 2005 and 2006 Webby Awards for best online newspaper, and best daily newspaper on the web at the UK’s Newspaper Awards for seven consecutive years. Simon Waldman was presented with the 2004 Chairman’s Award by the UK’s Association of Online Publishers; chairman Bill Murray said Waldman had “blazed a trail for the rest of us”.

An interview with Waldman on GMG’s digital strategy and how the company will tackle convergence:

Q: The new role looks like a big remit: how hands-on will you be and what’s your priority?

A: I’m not hands-on managing or looking after these business-to-business – there are very good teams there. What’s important as a group is that we’re heading in the right direction digitally and there has never been one person centrally in group with the expertise to take that forward. Also I’ll be working with the finance director and chief executive to make sure our overall strategy is well informed by what is happening on the digital front, because what’s happening online is facing the media as whole. So if you are a reasonably broad-based media group you need to bear all that in mind as you’re plotting your media strategy.
It’s not a matter of me being some kind of overlord of all of this digital activity and cracking the whip. It’s much more a matter of strategy and development, making sure every is heading in the right direction, both at divisional and group level, and that things are effectively coordinated and run well.
We’ve got some fantastically successful operations – there’s Guardian Unlimited, yes, but Trader Media is doing a fantastic job, Manchester online is very strong and even the radio divisions have some smart bits, so there’s a whole host of successful activity there. It’s just making sure we’re doing the right things going forward and that there’s someone at the centre who understands and has a good overview of that.

Q: Some of your regional newspaper websites are very “Web 1.0.”

A: If you look at regional newspapers all over the place – those business are all quite choppy at the moment. I’ve got to spend time with them and understand what they want to do and see whether can help with that. You never know – from the point of view of their business their website might be doing everything they need it to, or it might be that we really want to invest in this and grow it. It’s working through that with them.

Q: Is it possible that they might say they don’t need a website then?

A: I don’t think any of them have said that. The challenge for them is if you have lots of papers in the region – and this is how you manage a print strategy – what is you web presence there to do? That’s really what it’s about given everything else that’s available online, and given that you might only be producing X amount of content in a given week in a relatively tight team. It’s not going to be a GU-scale operation so you have to try and operate within those boundaries. Radio does some very smart things as well in a different way. It’s very easy to write a to-do list of all the ideas everyone could do around the divisions — but most of these people are smart enough to have those ideas. What’s important is making sure they are economically viable and deliverable.

Q: A couple of sites already have RSS feeds and Guardian Unlimited news headlines.

A: Yes. We’ve been operating together quite effectively for the last year so this is a natural progression rather than a sudden blitz across GMG properties.

Q: Will there be more integration of content between from GU – locally relevant content fed to regional sites, perhaps?

A: We’ll look at all those options – I doubt it’s going to be the one thing that makes all the difference. I know a reasonable amount about what makes a successful online publishing strategy and I’m available as a group resource for anyone that’s interested which is the most useful thing – not just on the ideas front but on the delivery front. There are still lots of questions about what a regional/local site is there for, and not simply as a digital representation of the paper. Lots of regional papers are still grappling with that.
If you look across the regional spectrum there’s still lots of traffic growth and revenue growth to make people feel comfortable, but you have to ask ‘are these sites finding a way into people’s online life?’ That’s the question to ask.
If you look at The Surrey Advertiser site, it’s fine for what it is and what it’s there to do. The question is not ‘is that site any good’ but given everything that’s happening on the web you can start to ask some more fundamental questions about what should the role of an online presence be.

Q: Looking at GMG’s financial results from 2005-6, regional newspaper turnover was down 7 percent and ad revenue was down 8.4 percent. You could understand how those sites might be concerned about how they tackle the threat from online classifieds.

A: Those sites are doing quite a lot in terms of online classifieds and the partnership with Fish4 is contributing to that. If you speak to them their understanding of the challenges they face is quite profound. Over the last year to 18 months there’s been a new chief executive, Ian Ashcroft, and with David Benjamin, the chief operating officer – they really ‘get’ what is necessary to deliver online. So there is lots of smart stuff planned. I can’t pretend I will waltz in with loads of great ideas – nor, when you see some of the things they are planning, would I dream of taking credit for it.

Q: What kind of things are they looking at?

A: I’m not telling you. The point is they feel the pressure caused by the net and see the opportunities open to them. Often the problem for pretty much everyone publishing is sometimes the pressure feels greater than the opportunities available. That’s where a lot of effort has to go in the next 18 months.

Q: Looking at Guardian Unlimited, profit was about

This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.