young man reading the Guardian newspaper

The Guardian Newspaper


Founded in 1821, The Guardian is a British daily newspaper with a liberal tradition. It aims to deliver “fearless, investigative journalism” and “quality, trustworthy reporting” which is free from “political and commercial influence”. In this study guide, we will analyse the relationship between the newspaper’s progressive stance on contemporary issues and its appeal to the target audience. We will also explore its unique ownership structure and their struggle to remain profitable in an incredibly challenging media landscape.


According to 2021 data from PAMCo (the audience measurement company for publishers), The Guardian had a 3.2m monthly print and an 18.4m monthly digital readership. These figures compare very positively to the other quality dailies in the United Kingdom. The paper reached 113m unique browsers around the world each month on average.

infographic on the Guardian's global audience
The Guardian Global Audience

The data also showed more males read the paper each month: 10.2m males compared to 9.4m females across the different platforms. 13.3m of its readers were over 35 years-of-age compared to 6.5m under 35. Of course, this strong engagement from younger, progressive readers would be very enticing to advertisers and brand partners who are eager to target that demographic.

In terms of income, the paper appeals to all social grades. 6.9m readers are classified as AB – higher and intermediate positions, and professional occupations. 5.9m of The Guardian readers have skilled manual and unskilled occupations or would be considered unemployed by the model. They consider themselves to be the “main shopper” regardless of their income bracket. This spending power will also appeal to advertisers.

Finally, audience analysis by the market research firm GWI suggested 40% of The Guardian’s UK readers had university degrees.

The Guardian Reader

The phrase “Guardian reader” is often used to describe a left-wing and liberal point of view. This political ideology promotes individual rights but also demands government intervention into important social and cultural issues, such as poverty, education, climate change, and welfare. The Guardian targets this modern and progressive audience by drawing attention to social injustice and “championing the voices of those less heard”. The paper is proud of its COVID-19 investigations which exposed governmental and social failings. They are also “passionate about the climate change emergency” and “remain dedicated to truth and to bring about a more hopeful future”.

An Ipsos Mori poll found The Guardian readers held “progressive views”, were “motivated by new ideas and innovation”, and had a strong desire to drive change. Perhaps these shared values are the reason why OfCom research found the paper was the “most trusted news brand in the UK”.

The typical Guardian reader could be labelled as an activator from SBI’s list of UK consumer groups because they are at the “forefront of innovation” and are “most open to new ideas”. They might also define themselves as achievers who focus on “professional endeavour”. The most obvious personality type from Young and Rubicam’s cross-cultural consumer categorisation would be reformer – someone who is “at the leading edge of society” with a core need of “enlightenment”.

Media companies research the demographic psychometric profile of their consumers to ensure their content matches their needs and values. You can find the latest audience profile from The Guardian’s own media kit.

The Guardian’s Politics

The newspaper is considered to be part of the “quality press” – a group of national papers which focuses on hard news rather than the sensationalism of tabloid journalism. Its “original reporting and incisive analysis” often promotes the ideologies of the mainstream left of British politics. For example, it strongly endorsed Tony Blair’s bid to become leader of the Labour Party in 1994 because he was willing to confront real problems with his progressive and practical agenda.

The paper declared its support for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election and their desire for electoral reform. It then switched back to the Labour Party for the 2015 election. That endorsement continued for the elections in 2017 and 2019 when Jeremy Corbin was leader of the party.

The Guardian also endorsed remaining in the European Union throughout the divisive Brexit referendum. When the free-trade agreement provisionally came into effect in February 2022, the front-page recognised parts of the nation had a “lump in its throat” and there was a “national bereavement” while others celebrated with “a raised middle finger of defiant good riddance”.

front page of the Guardian from February 2020
Front Page (2020)

However, the glum-looking British bulldog encoded the newspaper’s sense of regret. This preferred reading was anchored by the caption “missing you already” which made the relationship with the EU seem personal and friendly. The newspaper’s stance was echoed by its readers. The following research comes from YouGov’s tracking data.

analysis of the guardian readers' vote in the EU referendum
Source: YouGov

The Guardian’s liberal perspective appeals to its progressive consumers. That is its primary target audience.

Analyse the Paper

You should buy a copy of the paper or visit the digital versions to explore The Guardian’s representation of key issues and debates. Consider how the codes and conventions of newspapers help frame the stories and position the audience to accept particular values. Look closely at the mode of address, especially the impartiality encoded in the use of indirect address, and the use of positive or negative language in the reports. Does the representation of events demonstrate the paper’s liberal ideology.

To what extent can newspapers set the agenda? Or does its success rely on meeting the values and ideologies of its readers?

Uses and Gratification Theory

What motivates consumers to engage with media texts? The uses and gratification theory is an audience-centred approach to explaining why people actively select products which satisfy their individual needs. Denis McQuail, Jay Blumer and Joseph Brown (1972) argued we used different types of media for four reasons – diversion, personal relationships, personal identity, and surveillance.

The Guardian obviously satisfies our desire to be informed because its mission is to “provide facts that help readers understand the word”. It has sections on politics, sport, and culture. The lifestyle section might also appeal to our personal identity by offering reports on fashion, health and wellbeing, and travel. Importantly, the values encoded in the articles and investigations can reinforce our own attitudes and behaviours.

Of course, the content can become topics of conversation between friends, family and colleagues.

The comment section after each article offers readers a chance to voice their own opinions and contribute to the debate. This user-generated contented and social interaction is another good example of personal relationships. Readers can also develop a sense of companionship with the columnists.

Perhaps the daily crosswords even provide an emotional release from our mundane routines.

Who Owns The Guardian?

The Guardian has quite a unique ownership structure for a global media company. The newspaper is operated by the Guardian Media Group (GMG), a British-based mass media company which also owns The Observer and a portfolio of other investments. Its parent company is Scott Trust Limited.

The trust was originally created in 1936 to “secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian” and to “safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values” of the paper from “commercial or political interference”. A trust is a legal arrangement to manage and protect the assets belonging to a person or family. John Russell Scott established the trust avoid paying death duties which may have forced the newspaper to close. In fact, the trust was dissolved in 1948 and immediately reformed to avoid more death taxes.

In 2008, the non-charitable trust was replaced by the limited company to respond effectively in the rapidly changing media landscape. The new company’s constitution was “carefully drafted to ensure that no individual can ever personally benefit” from dividends so the paper could remain faithful to its liberal roots.

Newspaper Funding

To maintain its editorial independence and remain free from commercial bias and the interference of shareholders, The Guardian relies on revenue from its global readership, including the 1.5 million readers who supported the paper financially in 2020. For example, you can take out a digital subscription for an annual or monthly fee which gives you ad-free access to their content online and through their dedicated apps.

You can also become a patron by contributing between £1,200 to £5,000 per year. These donations entitle you to complimentary tickets to live events and special occasions. You might even have the opportunity to experience the world of journalism by attending a morning editorial conference with the Editor-in-chief.

Advertising revenue remains an important part of the business model. For instance, a double page spread in The Guardian costs £32,400. The company claims it is “more effective at building brands online” compared to its competitors because it can place ads “at the heart of culture in front of people that are paying attention”. A billboard at the top of the screen or a mid-page unit (MPU) would cost an advertising agency £46,000 per day. These two types of display ads have high engagement rates.

Some advertising is handled by Google which places banners at the top of the page, skyscraper formats in the sidebar and some displays in the articles. The products on offer will depend on your own preferences, cookie history and geography. Both the click through rate and the amount of money the paper receives from each campaign will vary enormously.

Finally, The Guardian partners with companies to create commercial content for their brands. Most publications include advertorials, but The Guardian Labs offers more detailed campaigns. Have a look at some of their impressive projects.

The Guardian Newspaper revenue from advertorials

Importantly, any profit from these sources of revenue is reinvested in journalism rather than distributed to shareholders. That is one of the paper’s unique selling points.

The Decline in the Newspaper Industry

The dramatic fall in sales in the newspaper industry has been well documented. If you have read our guide to the i newspaper, you might already know the Independent stopped selling physical copies in 2016.

The Guardian was losing £100,000 per day in 2012. To underwrite the newspaper’s substantial losses, Scott Trust sold 49.9% of its stake in Auto Trader to a venture capital firm in 2007 and then the remaining 50.1% to the same company in 2014. The company also sold its regional media output, including the Manchester Evening News, to a competitor in 2010 and its GMG Radio subsidiary in 2012.

Publishers continue to face an uncertain future. However, in the 2020/21 financial year, GMG increased their revenue by 0.9% to £225.5m with a record growth in digital reader revenues. The total values of the Scott Trust endowment fund and other cash holdings also increased to £1,148.5m from £954m the previous year.

The interim chief executive of GMC believed they had delivered a strong set of results, saying, “This performance is testament to the dedication and expertise of our staff, and our strong and trusted relationship with readers”.

Despite the challenges, The Guardian’s business model still seems to be working. It can turn a profit while ensuring its journalism remains global, free and accessible for all its readers.

Essay Questions

  1. It has been argued print journalism has been intertwined with their economic contexts. How far do you agree with this statement?
  2. Explain how The Guardian’s distribution and circulation has been impacted by its economic contexts.
  3. Explain how regulators shape the output of newspapers.
  4. “Newspaper ownership was little more than an investment in corporate public relations.” To what extent do agree with this statement?
  5. Explain how newspapers address and position their audiences to accept certain values and ideologies.
  6. To what extent are newspapers simply successful in matching their messages to audience interests?
  7. To what extent are technological changes significant to the future of the newspaper industry?

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!