Guardian COO takes company into digital age

The paper's former IT manager is now driving change at C-level

Derek Gannon has a state-of-the-art Apple MacBook Air on his desk when we meet at Guardian News & Media's London offices. "I like to play with new things," Gannon says.

It's just as well Gannon likes new things. Since taking up the COO role at the British newspaper publisher in November 2006, he has assumed responsibility for production, facilities management and human resources, on top of IT and website services. If that wasn'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.

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 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."

"[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."

This involves retraining contributors so that they become more than just reporters or photographers. Ninety-five percent 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.

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."

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.

"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."

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."

The secretPart 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."

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