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Digital doesn't answer everything, says Guardian News & Media CDO

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 19, 2015
"Digital is amazing and you have to do it, but at the same time it doesn’t answer every single question." Pragmatic thinking from UK CDO of the Year Tanya Cordrey of Guardian News & Media.

tanya cordrey
Tanya Cordrey receives her CDO of the Year award from David Mathison of The CDO Club

At the recent CDO Summit in London, there was the by now traditional awarding of the mantle of UK Chief Digital Officer of the Year. This year’s worthy recipient was Tanya Cordrey, Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News & Media.

In her five years in the hot seat, Cordrey has been at at the forefront of a digital transformation that has secured a different future for the publishing group than might once have seemed to be the case as competition emerged from many new sources. She says:

If you’d asked me when I started doing this job five years ago, the challenge we were facing was the move from print to digital. Two years ago I’d have said the challenge we faced was the move from desktop to mobile.

Today, one of the biggest things publishers are wrestling with is on-platform v off-platform. Now we have Apple, Google, Facebook, there are some very big challenges facing news organisations around how they prevent themselves becoming essentially newswires, pipes of news distributing everywhere.

For The Guardian specifically, it’s been a time of re-imagining its own identity, she adds:

The Guardian is interesting. Is it big? Is it small? We’re a lot bigger than we used to be. Our claim to fame 20 years ago was that we were the seventh largest newspaper in the UK. Today we’re jostling with the New York Times (NYT) in terms of being the largest newspaper publishing brand in the world. Some months we’re bigger than the NYT, sometimes we’re not, but that equates to 130 -140 million readers of our content every month.

We’re feeling quite pleased at The Guardian at this first wave of digital transformation. We think we’ve managed to wrestle a lot of the challenges that have been thrown in our direction. But we can’t feel complacent.

The world is getting more complicated. We are still wrestling with the enormous changes in the competitive landscape. Not only do we have 1001 fantastic little start-ups nibbling at our feet, you also have the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple who have decided to park tanks on the lawn of news. We have issues around new technologies and where news and content is delivered. We also have shifts in user behavior. All of those are changing all of the time.

Physical world

But while there is this great emphasis placed - correctly - on digital transformation, there is still a balance to be struck between the online and mobile future and the newspaper’s proud print history. Cordrey explains:

Print still has a very important role for organisations like The Guardian but there is a changing nature of newspapers. We know at The Guardian that 50% of people who buy a newspaper in the morning are actually buying it to take home in the evening to read for the context and the analysis.

Newspaper sales are going down and they continue to go down year-after-year. A few years ago everybody feared that newspapers would suffer the same fate as we’ve seen in the music industry or books and that sales would drop off a cliff. Now we can see that it’s very much more of a gentle decline. It might still go off a cliff at some point. But it’s proved to be much more resilient and enduring than we would have predicted a few years ago.

For its part, the Guardian has come to a conclusion that has resulted in a push to balance the online world with the offline, in the form of Guardian Membership, a live events offering for Guardian readers. Corduroy expands:

All the research we did showed that in a world of digital, people do want to have a physical relationship with a brand that they really love and feel close to. It’s very striking. I absolutely live and breathe digital and think it’s wonderful and get very excited about all the things it’s yet to do as well as the things it can do today.

But I also think it’s fascinating that there is this growing demand from people who want to have a different relationship and there’s something physical that plays a role in that. We’ve seen research time and time again that people want not just a digital relationship. Digital is amazing and you have to do it, but at the same time it doesn’t answer every single question.

After five years helming a major publishing empire’s digital push, Cordrey is taking a step into the unknown when she relinquishes her post at the end of this year. What happens next, she doesn’t know. It might be a big organisation like Guardian News & Media or it might be small start-up. Cordrey is a big fan of start-up thinking it seems, observing:

Many big companies don’t think big. When you hire people from Google or from a start-up, they’re often very ambitious and bold in the strategic work they put through. That’s really exciting because you inject bigger thinking. I think sometimes there’s a thin line between risk-averse and slow-moving and not thinking as big as it can be.

I remember we hired someone from Google a few years ago and we were sharing some plans about our digital growth. This chap was relatively junior, but he was just brilliant. When we told him the size we planned to get to, he said, ‘Is that it?’. It struck because we we're thinking it seemed like a large number at that point, but from his perspective the world of opportunity was much greater.

It was those sort of things that helped to shift our perception internally to think about how big you can become and where excitement and opportunities lie and not approaching it from relative to where you are today.

My take

A worthy recipient of the CDO of the Year title. Cordrey and her team have done some excellent digital transformation work at Guardian News & Media - and all of it without resorting to Mr Murdoch’s paywall mentality. diginomica looks forward to hearing what Tanya does next.

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