Does The Guardian need to sort itself out?

I'm a lifelong softie leftie of sorts; a do-gooderish type who tries to think well of everyone and occasionally donates a little bit of money to the right kind of causes. Harmless enough, really. I spent a few years volunteering on Saturdays in the local Oxfam, sorting out the books for a quarter of my weekend time off from the day job. I spent a decade doing trades union advocacy stuff in an FE college for members and more than the odd non-member, just because. Naturally, I read The Guardian.

Well.

I was brought up in a home where The Guardian was the paper of choice. So maybe I don't know any better. As long as I can remember, the paper's been a part of my life. Dad would bring it home at lunchtime from his stonemasonry job; he picked up his copy on the walk to work. I'd read it backwards in the broadsheet days. Sports to arts  - I'd skip the stock market and finance stuff - through to the news, first foreign, then domestic. A little window to a world beyond the working-class but informed little house where the ratio of kids to bedrooms meant that we all privileged the free space in our heads.    

My Dad bought The Guardian till his dying day. A complacent young Tory who'd been converted to the ways of socialist activism by my Irish mother (I never asked the details; a mistake in retrospect), the paper was an essential aspect of his routine. At least partly off the back of the paper, he stood as a Labour councillor, was a chair of governors for the secondary school I went to, and refused an invitation to become a magistrate on moral grounds because he wouldn;t stand in judgement over someone else. He was secretary of the town's Labour party for an age.

In his latter years, after retirement, the paper was a key element to his socialisation; the walk to the shop over the road to the Costcutter to pick up his copy got him out and about before breakfast. The only reserved copy of that paper on a stack of Suns and Mails.

After he was diagnosed with the brain tumour that ended up doing for him, the paper persisted. Fetching his Guardian and bringing it to various hospitals, then the nursing home, was part of the evening visit ritual. A little signal of normality, even after he was past being able to hold it, let alone concentrate for reading.    

So the artefact has meaning for me. Not just the brand, the website, or the liberal values encapsulated within the print or in bits (but not all) of the website. The physical print copy represents a seam through my childhood and my family. The Guardian, in all its forms, has significance. 

And this isn't just me, neither. My siblings are the same in their own ways. 

Which kinda gets me to the point of this blog post. The Guardian's a big brand; one of the largest media presences in the UK, and one which stretches beyond the scope of the impact of the paper in its print-only days. Maybe third in terms of news-related hits behind the BBC and the Daily Mail.

The Mail's an interesting point of comparison. I see the print version only occasionally; a desperate and frightened collection of iffy-looking mobility device adverts and news articles that read like a sitcom parody of a racist nan. The online version, though, is a thing of dark wonder; a circus of right-wing propaganda, overtly racist crime reporting, and celebrity trolling, with a side-order of soft child pornography for those who like their teens fifteen, bikini-clad, and related to the famous. That, and its fascination with women's clothing, and the various bumps and round bits of their bodies, makes it an odd place indeed to visit.

And so has The Guardian. The website sprawls, like cities in William Gibson novels, trying to be all things to as many people as possible. Yes, there's a core of hard journalism, and some very respectable political reporting. Some of the lifestyle stuff is fine. But too much of the paper is other. Alt-Guardian. An online behemoth serving up scarcely-pretending clickbait and opinion pieces of deliberately argumentative hogwash. Part of this is to service its comments sections, which fester like the juice in the locked Biffa bins round the back of Waitrose.

I can bear the hip lifestyle accessorising, because it's amusing in small portions. Some of it I'm attracted to because of its combination of banality, irrelevance, and smugness; there's a germ of a point being made, even if it's negatively reinforcing. But too much of the paper's content in its online iteration is actively counter to the paper-as-conceived. And it's killing The Guardian as an entity.

Yes, I understand that this is an online world, and I'd better get hip to that, daddio. Yes, I'm aware that a chunk of this post is culturalist nostalgia, as though  a half-arsed Hoggart or Williams had gone all bloggy. But the point stands.         

At some level you need to have some integrity about what it is that you do. And for decades, The Guardian has been the voice of centre-left rationality in a media landscape dominated by left and right-wing populism, and by conservative tradition. And that voice was smaller, but more distinct.

Its voice carried.

Now, though, it threatens itself. In part by diluting the aspects of the paper's position which made it distinctive, in part through ubiquity, and in part through its need to raise revenue. Print papers don;t make cash in the UK, and the puzzle of how to make money with a website hasn't been unlocked. Advertising revenues are falling for print, and are small for online only. Not enough to run a major media organisation on, and certainly not one which tries to make a move from a significant but not mainstream print media voice to a global online real-time broadcaster.

It's not an easy one to unpick, but The Guardian runs the risk of alienating the very people who are - or, perhaps, were - at the core of its readership. The comments sections are to a significant degree poisonous, and too much of the online content is geared to driving clicks and retweets than engagement with meaningful issues. Sure, that kind of socially-mediated interaction is an aspect of contemporary media, but too much of a focus on the immediate blinds us to what's around the corner.

The Guardian wants revenue; each page seemingly comes with a subscription plea. And yep, good journalism - be it serious political analysis, book reviews, make-up guidance, and/or travel writing - costs. And people don't mind paying for content they like and respect. This is how Sky has persisted, and how Netflix makes money. This is how Private Eye works; by being true to itself.        

But you've got to have something distinctive. And that means something that doesn't have to be smaller, but it does have to be more focused. And then, by all means, charge for it.

Paywalls are problematic, not least when what you're offering is disposable. The Sun found this out the hard way, when it had to abandon its paywall for the website version of its paper. The Daily Mail will never do this, because it appreciates its ephemerality. A susurrus of bigotry and intolerance while its readers scowl at their neighbours.   

And The Guardian is in every danger of going that way. Not necessarily a right-wing lurch at all, but a mix of needling and neediness alongside the reportage. 

What would I do? I'd play about. Kill the overwhelming majority of the comments sections; let Facebook and Twitter handle that. Focus on news and perspective. Offer clarity. Don't chase clicks. Don't make the print version feel like a redacted version of the website from the day before last.  

Think about the kind of limited free-access model used by US papers. Become necessary again. If the paper is part of the wallpaper of people's lives then sooner or later they ignore it, take it for granted, or they can paint over it.

If it's part of the fabric of their lives, that's different. Like with my Dad. Fabric offers warmth, and reassurance. Cool in summer and warm in winter. All that sort of thing. More than that, it provokes identity. It needs caring for, and in return, it offers you distinctiveness. The paper meant something to my Dad. 

Me? Yeah, but not so much these days. In a petty statement of what passes for activism in my middle years, I've unfollowed The Guardian's Twitter feed. That'll show 'em, eh? But it's indicative. The paper's becoming annoying. Petty. Wheedling. An addict after bored daytime office worker hits.  

In chasing possible profits through ubiquity, The Guardian's becoming increasingly disposable. I'll be sad to see it go if it fades from me completely. Not for what I'm missing, though, but for what might have been.