The Guardian in 2021: an unforgettable 200th year

How the Guardian covered 2021: a year of Covid, Cop26 and sporting triumphs – video
How the Guardian covered 2021: a year of Covid, Cop26 and sporting triumphs – video

An unforgettable 200th year

Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief

2021 was an unforgettable year for news – one that began in a state of limbo, in which Covid vaccines existed, but had not yet been distributed; and with an American president who had been voted out of office, but whose supporters were attempting to keep him in power through a violent attack on the US Congress.

Despite a challenging year for so many, there was resilience and optimism in Guardian and Observer journalism that was shared by our huge audience around the world.

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increase in page views to our environmental reporting

This spirit was apparent in our environmental coverage – never more so than around Cop26. The Guardian has always covered the environment extensively, but this year we grew our climate coverage like never before, with impactful on-the-ground reporting holding leaders and politicians to account, deep expert analysis, and a platform for the voices of those affected by the climate crisis, as well as passionate campaigners and young activists.

The Guardian produced some of the biggest and boldest news investigations in our history this year. The Pegasus project highlighted how threats to our freedom can exist within the everyday technologies we have come to rely on, and revealed their devastating human impact. The Pandora Papers – like Pegasus, a collaborative global investigation with media partners – uncovered the hidden assets of some of the world’s richest and most powerful people through the biggest offshore data leak in history. Both projects revealed ethically questionable practices being conducted in secret, and both had a major public impact around the world.

Our exclusive revelations of sexual harassment allegations in the British TV industry against actor and director Noel Clarke was followed up extensively, and prompted many similar stories and a long-overdue debate about systemic change in the profession. It was just one of many pieces of journalism this year highlighting risks to women’s safety; from the Observer’s ongoing End Femicide campaign, to our considered coverage around the horrific murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and Gabby Petito.

After the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, expert Guardian journalists worked together to detail the complex story of the Taliban takeover and what it means for the country’s future.

In the US, this year brought a new presidential administration, but highlighted America’s deep-seated structural problems – from the ongoing climate crisis to racial, economic and health inequalities. In 2021 our reporters conducted a nine-month investigation on alarming levels of ‘forever chemicals’ — arsenic and lead — in water systems across the US; we exposed laws that keep Black and Latino Californians in prison; revealed the Facebook loophole that allows world leaders to deceive and harass their citizens; exposed links between government officials and far-right groups; and reported on threats to US democracy.

After months of avoiding the scale of tragedy experienced in much of the world, Australia was forced into state-wide lockdowns, with Melbourne earning the unwelcome title of the world’s most locked-down city. Our journalists vigorously documented the state government responses, and highlighted the health and vaccine inequalities emerging across Indigenous communities as a result. 2021 was also a year in which Australia’s diplomatic relations with China and France were challenged and where the nation’s infamous climate inaction was brutally exposed on a global stage – explored brilliantly by Guardian Australia’s in-depth audio investigation, Australia vs the climate.

In such a torrid news year, Guardian and Observer journalists also continued to bring our readers moments of optimism, joy – and hope. Outstanding coverage of the arts, food, relationships, and surprising and fascinating features (many of them contained in our bumper new Saturday magazine for UK readers) all played their part. We particularly prioritised reflecting readers’ hopes for the future through new items such as ‘A new start after 60’.

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years of the Guardian, celebrated on 5 May 2021

From the Olympics to the Euros, the Ashes and beyond, our sportswriters overcame huge logistical challenges to cover those events and the stories around them with wit, verve and intelligence – breaking plenty of news along the way.

Our multimedia teams have also produced another year of engaging and carefully-crafted podcasts, videos and visuals. Today in Focus’ deep dives on the Pegasus project was outstanding over five episodes and Science Weekly has remained a must-listen throughout the pandemic. Guardian documentaries secured an Oscar for the moving short film Colette.

In the Guardian’s bicentenary year, we also looked back to our history, with readers and former colleagues recollecting their favourite Guardian stories and moments. It was powerful for us to read messages from thousands of people who Guardian journalism has inspired, informed and moved over the decades. Readers remain at the very heart of the Guardian’s mission. And, despite the pandemic’s continuing reverberations, financial support for the Guardian has reached record levels this year, with more than one million regular acts of financial support from readers, on top of our committed print subscribers in the UK and nearly half a million more one-off contributions.

In our 200th year, we are grateful to every reader who helps to fund our work and supports our journalism.

Thank you. 200 years and we’ve only just begun.

Composite image: Rosanna Webster

Open, independent journalism has never mattered more

We need new supporters to sustain our ambitious, high-impact reporting

Thank you for supporting our award-winning newsroom in 2021

A positive outlook, after a challenging year

Keith Underwood, Interim chief executive

This has been an eventful and successful year for the Guardian. Alongside our journalism, priorities have been to successfully manage the business through the many phases of the pandemic, to protect and promote staff wellbeing, and to evolve and innovate such that we can continue to inform and inspire readers now and into perpetuity.

The ongoing volatility caused by coronavirus has been felt by many different parts of our business – from the difficulties in supplying our newspapers to loyal print subscribers in the UK, to the long-term closures of offices and remote working for most of our staff around the world for the past 20 months. The pandemic has also created major economic instability – impacting our global advertising revenues and many of our other business activities.

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digital recurring acts of support to the Guardian

Despite those challenges, this has been a positive year for our business. First and foremost, the remarkable financial support from readers has continued to grow in 2021. In November, we passed the milestone of one million digital subscriptions from readers around the world. This milestone is all the more impressive for the fact that we have achieved it without imposing a paywall. Including print subscriptions, and nearly half a million one-off contributions from readers, we received a total of nearly 1.6 million acts of support in the past 12 months.

The Guardian is a truly global news publisher. Now, more than half of our digital subscriptions, and approximately 30% of our total revenues, come from outside the UK. Our international presence plays an integral role in the Guardian’s global business, with dynamic and growing teams in both Australia and the US. Guardian Australia consistently ranked in the top five global news brands in the Australian market, and delivered excellent financial results as a trusted, progressive news publisher. With just a decade’s presence in the market, Guardian US continues to expand its reach in a highly competitive sector, delivering distinctive award-winning journalism and attracting advertisers and fast-growing numbers of supporters.

Despite the economic volatility, our global advertising teams have worked fantastically, innovating and winning business from brands who want to advertise alongside the Guardian’s trusted journalism – perhaps exemplified by a large-scale partnership with Ocado, supporting our Saturday Feast magazine and helping to fund our new ‘Comfort Eating’ podcast hosted by Grace Dent. Equally innovative have been our Guardian Live team’s ongoing success with a programme of virtual events; a series of new digital journalism tools successfully launched by our product and engineering teams; and work by our publishing teams on the very successful launch of our new Saturday print magazine.

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unique monthly browsers

As well as our commercial performance we have also made good strides in our commitment to diversity and inclusion, doubled down on our climate goals, and are adjusting quickly to new ways of working.

In the year of Cop26, we have worked hard to reduce our own emissions, as our positive impact and sustainability report explained in more detail. We are now formally committed to the Science Based Targets initiative for businesses, and our most recent carbon audit shows an overall reduction in our carbon emissions by around 30%. Driven by the passion of our staff and our readers, we launched many other environmental initiatives too – from Guardian Jobs’ Green Jobs initiative, to the elimination of plastic and paper wrapping for our print publications.

We are committed to diversity and inclusion, with specific targets to improve female and non-white representation at all levels in the company, and to reduce our gender and ethnicity pay gaps, through a strong focus on recruitment, promotion, training and development for staff. These will remain a high priority in 2022 and beyond.

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increase in digital recurring support since 2018

Looking ahead, we feel optimistic about the Guardian’s business; with outstanding journalism, a strong brand, a committed and innovative workforce, and with the growing financial support of our readers, we are well placed to succeed in a challenging global media market.

As we close 2021, I have been profoundly impressed with the resilience of our staff and the deep sense of purpose that powers the work of everyone at Guardian Media Group. A sincere thank you to all staff for their efforts and contributions. As we and our readers know, it is a truly special organisation.

Many thanks to all those who read us, subscribe or contribute financially to us, advertise and partner with us. Your support helps us provide Guardian journalism that makes a real impact in so many ways.

We wish you all a very happy year ahead.

Composite image: Rosanna Webster

Exclusives and awards: the year in journalism

Mark Rice-Oxley, executive editor reader revenues

It was the year that the vaccines began the fightback against the virus; that life, business (and carbon emissions) rebounded; that supply chains – and sports stars – broke down and that new eras began in the US, Germany – and Afghanistan.

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page views to our digital platforms

Guardian and Observer journalism covered all this and much more in 2021, publishing a piece of work on average every five minutes, and serving almost 2m pages to readers every hour. There was a string of game-changing investigations, a spray of awards, and a relentless focus on the issues that move us most: the environment, women’s rights, injustice, technology, racism, young people. And all this from a staff still scattered by the pandemic, most working remotely in dozens of countries, from hundreds of kitchen tables and home offices.

200 years a work in progress

Amid the uncertainty of a stop-start recovery from the most challenging global event in 80 years, there was a special reason for celebration in 2021 as it marked the Guardian’s 200th anniversary. More than 54,000 editions – and several million articles – later, we used this moment to explain where the Guardian came from, where it is going, and what it is for. The editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, wrote an essay on Guardian values now and then. And a mighty exercise involving staff present and past, as well as supporters and patrons, pinpointed 200 of the most memorable Guardian pieces of work. We also used the moment to launch new streams of journalism: one, called The Outspoken, champions unsung campaigners; another, Reconstruction After Covid, invited brilliant minds to reimagine a better post-pandemic world.

Fittingly for the bicentenary of a newspaper that has built a reputation on finding out dark secrets and publishing them in the public interest, it was an exceptional year for investigative journalism. The Pandora papers, revealing the offshore deals and assets of more than 100 billionaires and 30 world leaders, resulted in investigations in at least nine countries. We published on the misuse of Pegasus phone spyware, which resulted in the Israeli manufacturer being placed on a US blacklist.

We made waves with exclusives on Isis brides, the threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and the failure to prosecute rape in the UK. Months of investigation produced revelations about the little-known curiosity in Britain whereby the monarch can scrutinise legislation before parliament does.

The impact of our journalism did not stop there. The murderer of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta was finally sentenced, three years after we started reporting on the case. The British government decided to stop cold-calling disabled people to offer them “take it or leave it” benefits after we exposed the practice in March. Our Covid articles on insider contracts for friends of the Conservative party resulted in a judge ruling that one such deal was unlawful. A decade after we revealed that undercover cops were inveigling their way into the lives of activists, a tribunal ruled that it was a human rights violation. Australia’s electoral commission launched an inquiry after the Guardian exposed an MP’s questionable Facebook pages. A US ethanol plant was forced to close after we revealed how its toxins were polluting a Nebraska town.

Dismantling wrong-headed policies and practices by exposing them remains a core objective of Guardian journalism.

The hottest summer ever

The climate crisis remains an editorial, and corporate, priority. In 2021, this meant more Guardian journalists than ever reporting from global hotspots: the heatwaves of Russia, Europe and North America, as the northern hemisphere summer was declared the hottest ever; the floods in China, Germany, India, England, Greece, Thailand. The drought in eastern and southern Africa, threatening famine in places such as Madagascar. The wildfires in Australia, the US, Canada, Europe, recurring with greater intensity, greater destruction. At certain times and in certain places, the Earth is literally becoming unliveable, as our correspondents heard first hand from those living on the climate frontline.

We also sent more Guardian journalists than ever to report from the annual Cop climate summit. Though the outcome was disappointing (columnist George Monbiot called it a “suicide pact”) the journalism was fast, full, forensic and frank, and showed the Guardian’s formidable range, from live news to comment, podcasts to data visualisations, human-interest journalism to humour. It was rewarding to see an academic study of 17 big media organisation in five countries establish that the Guardian and Observer produced “the best or most scientifically accurate coverage of climate change”. But environment coverage isn’t just about climate, as demonstrated by our exclusives on British sewage dumping, failed Australian environmental offsets and the perils of air pollution.

All around the world

Dozens of staff correspondents and freelancers cover the world for the Guardian, delivering swift, authoritative journalism on crisis and chaos, whether in Myanmar, Ethiopia, eastern Europe or Sudan.

We had reporters on the ground in Afghanistan speaking to Afghans as the country fell to the Taliban, and correspondents in the US speaking to Americans on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. We anticipated the fall of Kabul and teamed up with female Afghan journalists to publish a series of urgent reportage about the dramatic change in the country’s prospects.

Our US team ushered in a new era under Joe Biden – after providing memorable coverage of the chaotic climax to the Trump presidency. In Asia, we investigated the changing geopolitical power balance and deepening insecurity in the South China Sea. We covered watershed elections in Germany, the Czech Republic, Norway, Israel and Iran, among others, and scrutinised shortcomings at Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook in a difficult year for Big Tech.

The virus, the variants, the vaccines

As the world entered a second year in the grip of Covid-19, we trained our focus globally on people and lives as much as on statistics and trends and policy. Lost to the Virus, and Lost on the Frontline were two series that shone a spotlight on the lives cut short by the pandemic. Internationally, we reported on the surge and retreat of deadly variants in the UK, Europe, US, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa and beyond, unpacking some of the most granular statistics to highlight policy weaknesses.

There was of course progress to report, too – the rollout of vaccines in scores of countries and the administration of some 8bn doses worldwide, albeit in an uneven fashion that coined a new term: vaccine inequality. We spoke to vaccine-hesitant people and sought to cover the complexities of the pandemic with humanity and compassion.

With immunisation came social and economic revival, and we investigated the supply chain crunch and global shortages, while examining the cultural shifts at play in the return to offices and schools, bars and restaurants, theatres and sports arenas.

Covid has spurred us to ever greater innovation in how we do things. Filmmaker John Domokos took the intermediary out of the media process by giving the camera to “civilians” to record what life is really like in tough parts of Britain. Our flagship podcast, Today in Focus, hit the top of the charts with a six-part whodunnit from the English Channel, and we launched other compelling podcast series including Australia v the climate, and the much-loved Comfort Eating with Grace Dent.

We appointed new dedicated reporters to get closer to the diverse communities in our society. We brought out a suite of fresh newsletters, including TechScape and Down to Earth. We launched a new all-in-one Saturday magazine, and debuted on TikTok with a backgrounder on the Taliban that reached more than 4 million people. Our cartoonists and columnists ensured that we all retained a vital sense of humour.

We made a lot of noise about the things we care most about: witness our exclusives on sleaze in the UK Tory party; our continuing coverage of the post-Brexit trade rancour; and our work on racism in schools, theatres and universities and government.

The lives of others

It was a rich year for Guardian and Observer features and interviews, with a remarkable red carpet of A-listers opening up to our reporters, including, but by no means limited to, Greta Thunberg, Angelina Jolie, Sally Rooney, David Crosby, Marcus Rashford to 50% of Abba.

Our Features team showed off their imagination, humanity and compassion with series such as Black lives, which told the stories of unsung individuals at the forefront of social change and civil rights; Double acts – in which some of the biggest names in theatre discussed their lives and work; How to live now, which comforted readers through the incredibly long northern hemisphere winter lockdown; and Dining across the divide, which sought to show that people with different opinions can still find common ground if they take the time to sit down together.

Our Comment team demonstrated both breadth and brilliance, with guest writers ranging from David Harewood to Elton John and Ben Okri, and regulars dissecting themes as diverse as street harassment of women, extreme weather, antimicrobial resistance, trade disruption and civil disobedience. Our comment platform consistently projected the expertise and wisdom of the most perceptive scientists and scholars, voices that have become integral to our urgent need to understand the complex, fragile world in which we live.

Sport handled not just a vast amount of thrilling action on the pitch (the Euros, Olympics, Paralympics, Ryder Cup, T20 World Cup and Ashes) but the human stories behind the performances, whether that was superstars breaking down (Simone Biles), breaking through (Emma Raducanu), or breaking their silence (Peng Shuai). Football Weekly, the world’s number one football podcast, went daily for the duration of the Euro 2020 championships. But alas, 2021 will probably go down as the year that the joy of sport was abruptly punctured by the scourge of racism – in the stands, on the streets, on social media, and in the executive suites where sport is run.

And the winner is …

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Oscar for Guardian documentary, Colette

The Guardian and Observer were honoured with dozens of awards in 2021. We are proud of all of them, but a few deserve special mention. We became the first newspaper organisation to win an Oscar, for the short documentary Colette. Our long-running video series Anywhere But Westminster won the UK’s Orwell Prize. And it was perhaps fitting that after heroic work by our teams in the most difficult of circumstances, we were rewarded with the news website of the year award at the UK national press awards, and news provider of the year at the British journalism awards – recognition of a supreme team effort by a truly remarkable collective.

Journalism remains a challenging undertaking in a world still beset by the pandemic, where press freedoms are unravelling alarmingly and falsehoods fly far and wide turbocharged by that frenzied rumour mill known as social media. But looking ahead to 2022 – a year that promises big elections, economic pinch points, the next chapter of the struggle against Covid, and a World Cup – we are confident and determined in our mission, our journalism now sustained by supporters in 180 countries and staffed by the best in the business. Happy new year.