Alan Rusbridger | 'Journalism can be anything—that is its great strength, or great weakness'

Alan Rusbridger | 'Journalism can be anything—that is its great strength, or great weakness'

If you’ve worked in journalism for the past 20 years, you’ve been witness to a revolution, as first the web and then social media unravelled newspapers. At the  frontline of this—the Che Guevara of free, perhaps—was former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. His book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters (Canongate), is an attempt to make sense of it all.

Chiefly, the book captures what it felt like to endure this period of change, from the point of view of a Fleet Street editor. Nothing had been written, says Rusbridger, to “chronicle what it was like to be sailing into a force-10 storm with no maps and no idea where you were going”.

It is also an effort to interrogate what journalism is now, in a world where reporters no longer have an authority over their readers, either because they can go elsewhere for the facts, or because Trump has called it out as fake. “The chair has gone, we are now on the same level, that is the hardest thing for journalists,” says Rusbridger. It is, too, a history of the Guardian, which changed radically under its bespectacled editor, growing a huge global footprint, winning award after award for its journalism—from the Edward Snowden leaks, to the phone-hacking scandal. But, for much of his reign, it also struggled financially.

Rusbridger edited the Guardian for 20 years (1995–2015) but his book begins ostensibly in 1993, when he first hears the distant rumble of the web. Everything you know is wrong, he is advised, meeting pioneers from Wired magazine such as Nicholas Negroponte. Ever the journalist, Rusbridger recounts how he bought the drinks and listened. This was how he first encountered the idea of “reach over revenue” that has since become a mantra for internet businesses everywhere. The phrase also came to inform his approach at the Guardian, with its website Guardian Unlimited (launched in 1999) the embodiment of his belief that journalism could be accessible to everyone for free. “It was an act of faith,” he says.

“I was never against paywalls, if paywalls were the answer... But it is how the internet works. You get the audience, then find out if there is revenue there.”  

The Guardian was then one of the smaller national newspapers in the UK, so the upside was greater for it than it might have looked for others, he adds, particularly as he had the support of its parent the monied Scott Trust, whose role it was to guarantee the newspaper’s existence. Beside which, says Rusbridger, it was clear that print was not going to survive. “I don’t know anyone who thinks printed newspapers are going to have the same kind of renaissance as books.” The reverse of reaching out, he says, would have been “cutting, and generally the cutters haven’t prospered”.

Game changer

Before it was overtaken by the Mail Online, Guardian Unlimited was the largest UK-based news website, enabling the newspaper to expand into the US and Australia. Yet the revenue bit of that original equation did not keep up with the costs—at the same time Rusbridger was also investing in print and managing the decline in print circulation, with its new Berliner format launched in 2005.

One of the problems was the rise of internet intermediaries, such as Google, which would carry newspaper headlines but refuse to share the advertising. “All of these are Faustian bargains,” he says. “We did almost better than anyone in terms of reach, but then the game completely changed. We said we had X million users, and then Facebook, or Yahoo, would say we’ve got 100 times X. So the question of scale completely changed.”

The internet also morphed, recalls Rusbridger. “There  was the web, and I remember thinking that ‘we’d got it’, and then there was web 2.0—and that seemed inconceivable.” If the first web meant news travelled free from its source, the second iteration created a Spaghetti Junction of networks, enabling readers to share their thoughts not just with journalists, but also among themselves.

He describes it now as a “turbulent” period, but it did not change his overall belief that “technology has to drive behaviour”; that now the web enables “two-, or multiple- way communication”, that is how journalism should look. He cites his former colleague, US lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who won the Pulitzer for his work on the Snowden leaks. “For Greenwald the most interesting bit of the story is when it is published. He would then talk to readers and see what can be improved. After the end of a few hours that story is better.”

At the Guardian, Rusbridger notched up huge losses, but if he ever feared that the new model was incompatible with the business of journalism, he does not admit it. “You can behave as if the technology hasn’t happened, or you can say, ‘That is very interesting’, and embrace it.”

He was not a lone voice, of course. “People imagined the entire commercial plan was mine—as if—or the digital plan. I had to rely terribly strongly on people who knew a lot more about these things than I did. A third thought we were crazy and there was no money in digital, another third thought we weren’t moving fast enough. Yet we had to keep it all together. We had to keep exposing people to the arguments, so at least they could understand it. Half of the time I thought we should be going faster, half I thought we were moving too quickly.” Now, he adds, with the Guardian’s membership moving the business back to profitability, “it doesn’t look like such a bad strategy”.

Nevertheless, the sector, he says, remains stuck in a “pea souper”, but not just financially also ethically. “There is an awakening now about what a world without reliable news would look like, but that is incredibly late in the day. It’s taken Donald Trump to make us think, ‘blimey’. Why has it taken so long? This thing [journalism] that should be as essential to society as water, has been taken so casually.”

The book recounts his often testy relationship with other media groups, particuarly News International and the Telegraph—and he remains critical of the way journalism has become subordinate to profit, with newspapers losing their influence. “We will die without the trust of our readers,” he says: “If the moral catastrophes that happened in journalism happened in other sectors, we would write about it in a completely different way than we write about our slips.” He expects a “shitbagging” from the reviews pages of former rivals. “I don’t enjoy that any more than anyone else, but it indicates the problem.”

Rusbridger has two roles now: he is principal of Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall and chair of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The latter has made him optimistic: “When you take away the competitive rivalries, it feels to me a different kind of discussion.” He also discerns a shift in the internet landscape. “My sense is that the people behind these companies, who built these extraordinarily revolutionary things, they are in their 30s and thinking, ‘Oh my God, we never had a chance to think this through, we need help.’ I think they are reaching out to those who are thinking about this, and that is a great opportunity for journalists.”
 
The internet has atomised journalism, but it hasn’t killed it. “Journalism can be anything, either that is its great strength, or great weakness,” says Rusbridger. Time may tell.