Derek Gannon has a state-of-the-art Apple MacBook Air on his desk when we meet at Guardian News & Media’s London offices on the busy Farringdon Road. “I like to play with new things,” Gannon says, while agreeing that, like the newspaper group that employs him as chief operating officer, Apple has a brand seen as fashionable, liberal and, some would say, design-led.
It’s just as well Gannon likes new things. Since taking up the COO role in November 2006, he has assumed responsibility for production, facilities management and human resources, on top of IT and website services and development for the GNM group that includes media powerhouses The Guardian, The Observer and the GuardianUnlimited family of websites. If that weren’t enough, he is also the go-to man for the group’s big move (though short in distance) from Farringdon Road to Kings Place, a highlight of the regeneration project in the once-seedy area around Kings Cross station.
Not bad for a man who started his career at the group as a systems engineer more than 20 years ago and scaled the greasy pole through IT management before landing his current role. However, Gannon has no truck with the popular notion that the ultimate opportunity for “IT people” stops within the IT function.
“It’s still rare but you can go to C-level from IT and take on this extra responsibility because there isn’t a company that isn’t dependent on technology,” he says. “I still go to companies where they talk about the gap between business and IT. I hate that. I’ve spoken to a few IT directors and asked how often they talk to the commercial side of the business and the answer is that it’s when they [the commercial side] want something done. They’re not bridging the gap.”
OK, but what’s the difference between a person who can “bridge the gap” and one who stays in the IT function? “It’s mainly people skills,” he says. “Without them, IT people are seen as the geeks. I still hear of that geeky reputation but one of the things we did was to hire technology people who could talk to other people. Journalists love to talk and sales people too, so if you have a department here that doesn’t want to talk to anyone, you’re in trouble. We tried to break down these traditional barriers.”
Gannon also points to some portable skills that link IT with a meritocratic career progression. “Problem solving and project management are easily transferable from IT,” he says. “The other thing people forget is financial and budgeting skills; in IT, you’re always talking to finance and you have an operational budget and a capital budget. But the really important transferable skills are from the fact that you’re involved in so many parts of the business. It’s a fantastic way to learn about the business. Before becoming COO, I knew how the website was put together, how the papers were put together, and how finance worked. We did a course in finance for non-finance people and I wanted to learn about the financial health of the company. None of it is rocket science.”
Gannon’s arrival in the COO seat comes as GNM, and indeed the media industry generally, is going through upheaval. “We’re in the middle of unprecedented change,” he says. “We’re moving away from being a traditional UK print title to becoming an international 24/7 operation.”
Prepare for change
“[Guardian editor] Alan Rusbridger has a very clear idea about this. Instead of using ‘flexibility’ to mean hot-desking or working from home, we use it to refer to crossing platforms.”
Box 1: Opening up The Guardian
Part of GNM’s push to be a web leader includes the involvement of outsiders who will help steer the company in interesting new directions, in a manner analogous to open-source software development.
“In the outside world, costs are pretty well fixed and I know that an Oracle DBA is going to cost me £70,000 per year,” says Gannon. “The web is wholly different. We’re still working out the APIs but we’ll allow people to develop software for our content. Here, you’re working on one of the best websites in the world that’s won three Webbies. We know that lots of people want to work for us.”
That effort is not local but global.
“Two-thirds of our readership comes from outside the UK, most of them from the US,” Gannon says. “After 9/11, we had a huge surge from America on the basis that they were getting the facts rather than what was around on the networks.”
This involves retraining contributors so that they become more than just reporters or photographers. Ninety-five per cent of editorial staff will have “digital training” by the time of the move to Kings Place later this year. “As a journalist, you’ll tap out 2,000 words, shoot your own video, then take your own pictures,” Gannon says enthusiastically.
There are already examples of multitasking, he adds. “Dan Chung trained himself from being a photographer to become a film maker. Sean Smith turned himself from a photographer to a video film maker. It’s about changing journalism.”
That kind of change process is never easy, of course, particularly among the cynical breed of journalists. Surely there were issues with contributors wondering whether they were being turned into multi-purpose content machines rather than what might have been perceived as the pipe dream of dynamic, adaptive multimedia all-rounders?
Gannon concedes that there was a process to be worked through. “Last year, we negotiated a new agreement with the National Union of Journalists, which was pretty historic for us. Other companies said, ‘You will move to this new age.’ It took some months but we sat down and negotiated an agreement that worked. You do get resistance but you don’t get beyond that resistance unless you explain your vision of what you want your company to be.”
And that vision is? “To be the world’s leading liberal voice regardless of platform,” Gannon says, adding that the company hopes to get some empirical indication of support or otherwise for changes with a staff survey that asks how employees feel about their jobs, even if, in a quieter, less responsible world, “this would be the year not to do it”.
The determination to be a digital media hub, together with the advent of new wireless communication possibilities, will also force changes to support, requiring a dedicated support team to back up journalists in the field.
Supporting the new media
“There was a sea change in being able to go out with a laptop and a mobile phone and video camera,” Gannon says. “We got a small and very good team from IT and called them the remote communications group. They can take a journalist in Iraq in a hotel or somewhere in Harare, and can get their story straight through [to publication]. We have a fantastic relationship with our editorial team and they work with the IT team.”
The change in focus from marks on paper and mostly local distribution to multi-format global content provider is also reflected in the imminent move to Kings Place. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for us,” Gannon says. “We didn’t just want it to be a change of address. We’ve been trying to have this integration of digital media and, as well as being one of the greenest buildings in London if not the UK, Kings Place allows us to bring in new ways of working and technology.” This will include a dedicated audio-visual studio, pervasive wireless networking and better email and collaboration software, he says.
It should also provide a boost to GNM’s already powerful network of websites that are currently undergoing a refresh to extend support for community and multimedia features and improve context-sensitive advertising, in an overhaul that adds what some would call Web 2.0 capabilities.
“The web is fundamental to our future,” says Gannon. “The Guardian website has 19 to 19.5 million unique users per month and what Web 2.0 should give us is stickiness. One of the things we measure is that, pre-Web 2.0, you would look at on average 4.5 pages per session and now it’s 4.9 pages per session. If you extrapolate it out, that turns into advertising revenue. People spend more time on our site so they’re going to see more advertising, and that means you can talk to your commercial director.”
Although GNM started off in the last decade with a separate New Media Lab project, it quickly became clear that it needed a more cohesive approach that spanned content and properties. And increasingly, the web is at the centre of content and properties. “You have to have all these things in one place,” Gannon says. “Development is the future of the company.” Nobody today doubts the value of web development but will investment continue in the event of a downturn? After all, the dot-com implosion seven years ago led to massive retrenchment. Gannon is robust in his response: “We’ve decided we’re going to invest in journalism and development because that will be the future. We found that people stopped investing [last time around] and pulled back but we never did.”
Dealing with traffic
The general decline in newspaper sales will have to be accounted for by some other commercial entity, he argues, and the web is the most obvious substitute.
Of course, it’s no secret that some media firms have gone low in search of audience, after discovering to the nearest hit exactly what generates traffic. Gannon says, sniffily, of one UK media group, “Put Britney on your site and you’ll be fine”, but insists that The Guardian would never do the same, pointing out that the group has an unusual status in that it is protected by The Scott Trust, which underwrites the financial and editorial independence of GNM. “We just don’t even go there it’s so well understood,” he says.
Well, maybe not through something as obviously grabby as Britney, but what about via another route – putting more into sport coverage, for example? “Sport is a real driver on the web but one of our biggest sites is media,” he rejoins, suggesting that it’s not just the obvious attention magnets that work on the web.
Still, competition is intense as rivals also seek to reinvent themselves. The Daily Telegraph is pushing a web video service called TelegraphTV, for example, and The Times last year refreshed its site, although in return it suffered stringent criticisms over performance and look and feel. If Gannon has any sense of schadenfreude at an old rival’s woes, he is keeping his delight well hidden.
“The web community is not very forgiving,” he says, diplomatically. “We’re very good at bringing in systems. We changed our whole architecture in 2002/3 and we’re very careful to have it checked by people like Gartner. We take care to make sure it works when we put it out there.”
Part of GNM’s secret sauce lies in choosing expert assistance, Gannon readily admits. “We truly mean that if someone is going to come in, they’re going to be a partner,” he says, pointing out the example of
a “husband-and-wife team” called FingerPost that has long worked with GNM on newsfeeds (“We would never say goodbye to them because they’ve been there when things have gone wrong,” he says) as well as Infosys on advertising platforms, and ThoughtWorks, the web design company that was the
principal partner on the site refresh.
“With ThoughtWorks, we talked about all of us,” Gannon says. “They didn’t just meet the web group but also the editorial group.”
Dilraj Aujla, head of client management at ThoughtWorks, returns the compliment: “Derek’s a very grounded guy,” he says. “There’s no management bullshit. He tells things as they are and brings complex things down to simple statements.
On the business side they’ve been quite tough to deal with because the Scott Trust means profit stops being [the sole] motive of the business. But the developers love it. A junior developer wrote a piece saying what The Guardian means to her life. It’s more than business, there’s a strong strategic link. We joke that you can’t tell who is who between the ThoughtWorks and the GNM people – and not just because they all dress badly.”