On the day the Guardian was born in Manchester on 5 May 1821, the big story was taking place 4,800 miles away on an island in the south Atlantic.
The fact that it took weeks for news of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death on St Helena to become known shows how communication has sped up down the years. It also shows just how long the Guardian has been around.
This was the world of the first Industrial Revolution, built around steam power and textiles, a time when Manchester businessmen wanted to harness the power of the press to push for the vote. Electric power was a thing of the future. The rich got around on horseback; the poor walked.
Back in the spring of 1821, pressure was starting to build for electoral reform. George Stephenson was still some years away from perfecting the Rocket. Charles Dickens was nine and had yet to face the indignity of working in the boot-blacking factory later immortalised in David Copperfield.
It would be eight years before Robert Peel established the Metropolitan police. The Tolpuddle martyrs would not be transported to Australia until the middle of the next decade. The first FA Cup final was still almost half a century distant. From politics to transport, from literature to crime, from workers’ rights to sport, the themes have remained unchanged down the years.
The Guardian of 2021 has lived through two centuries of often wrenching change: two world wars; a Great Depression; Britain’s rise and fall as an industrial powerhouse; the technological innovation that brought the world the internal combustion engine, air travel and the personal computer.
While many other companies that existed back in 1821 are no more, what was originally the Manchester Guardian has lived to see the dawning of a fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the commercial breakthroughs are in artificial intelligence and biotechnology.
Of the companies that make up the FTSE 100, only six were founded before the Guardian, underlining the message from Alfred Marshall, a Cambridge economist, that just as with the trees in a forest, there would be large and small firms but “sooner or later age tells on them all”.
A study by the economist Les Hannah looked at what happened to the world’s biggest companies between 1912 and 1995. More than a quarter (29%) had gone bankrupt, 48 had disappeared as independent entities and only 28 were larger in 1995 than they had been 73 years earlier.
Paul Ormerod, the author of Why Most Things Fail, opened his book by saying: “Failure is all around us. Failure is pervasive. Failure is everywhere, across time, across place and across different aspects of life.” Even in periods when the world is not being laid low by a pandemic, 10% of US companies disappear each year.
All of this makes the Guardian – which began life as what would now be called a startup venture – something of a rarity: a business that has not gone bust, been taken over or merged into a bigger entity.
In truth, 1821 was not the most propitious time to launch a newspaper. Britain was still largely an agrarian economy and the end of the Napoleonic wars had resulted in a severe agricultural depression. They were tough times, too, for the cotton mills of Lancashire, where wages of factory hands fell sharply. Soldiers returning from the Duke of Wellington’s army at the battle of Waterloo found it hard to find work. According to Ormerod, the probability of a firm going under is highest in the first two to three years of its existence, and as the paper’s former editor Alan Rusbridger says, there was no great business model for serious, awkward, inquiring journalism in 1821 any more than there is today.
What the Guardian has always enjoyed is a strong brand and reader loyalty, both vital if a venture is to make it through the inevitable rough patches.
“The Guardian has always had a distinct position, been the outsiders,” Rusbridger says. “We were in Manchester when everybody was in London; when everybody was in Fleet Street we were in Farringdon Road, we were left-wing when everybody else was right-wing.”
Katharine Viner, the current editor-in-chief, says: “Not many brands last for very long, and very few last for two centuries. I think the Guardian has survived because we have been absolutely clear on what we’re here to do – our journalistic purpose, and who we are here to serve.”
Unlike some newspapers, the Guardian has never had a billionaire sugar daddy, but Viner and Rusbridger point to its unique ownership structure as a factor behind its continued existence.
“The Scott Trust ownership, since 1936, means that we are able to make decisions for the long term: for example, embracing the digital revolution as an opportunity as well as a threat,” Viner says. “We realised that we are an organisation that believes in the importance of providing journalism for our readers, not about printing newspapers – an important difference.”
The Guardian is, of course, not the only publication to have shown staying power. The Times dates back to 1785, while the Spectator was first published in 1828. The Observer, the Guardian’s sister paper, was first printed in 1791.
Longevity has not tended to correlate with profitability. Newspapers, the Guardian and the Observer included, have often teetered on the brink of closure. In 1971, to mark the Guardian’s 150th birthday, the then editor, Alastair Hetherington, wrote an essay in which he freely confessed that the move from Manchester to London in the late 1950s had proved difficult. Trying to do things on a shoestring was the Guardian’s worst mistake of the postwar era.
For much of its life, along with the rest of the newspaper industry, the Guardian’s survival was aided by the absence of disruptive technological change. The way papers were printed moved on but the basic business model – gather news, print news, fill in the blank spaces with advertising – remained the same. Radio and TV were complementary rather than challenger technologies.
The digital revolution has forced all newspapers to reassess their business models. For the Guardian, cashing in on its investment in Trader Media Group, the publishers of AutoTrader, has provided financial security.
Viner says: “There is still a lot of risk, but the Guardian’s revenues are now well over 60% digital, and driven mostly by our readers.
“Ultimately, though, the Guardian is clear about who we are and what we stand for, as laid out by CP Scott in his extraordinary essay in 1921: that our values are honesty, integrity, courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community; that the Guardian must always be editorially led; and that we put principle before profit. We have roots, we have principles, we have philosophy, we have values. We know who we are.”
Rusbridger says: “If Rupert Murdoch looked at the Guardian he would probably say it was a crap business that nobody ever made any money out of. But here we are 200 years later, it’s got £1bn in the bank and it’s nicely set up.”
Asked if he thinks the Guardian will last for another 200 years, he adds: “It’s got as good a chance as anybody.”