Breaking News: Alan Rusbridger asks a lot of questions, with no certain answers

The former Guardian editor retired in 2015 but his story has, in his own words, “no ending, happy or otherwise”.

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This book of 442 pages contains 554 question marks. Many questions are about whether newspapers or even the craft of journalism can survive in the digital age. Some are about how to define “the public interest”. Others are about whether democracy is threatened. Alan Rusbridger offers no certain answers. He became Guardian editor in 1995, “the year the future began” according to cultural historian W Joseph Campbell. Rusbridger recalls how he and other journalists struggled to come to terms with the biggest revolution in mass communication since the invention of the printing press.

As print circulation declined, the Guardian, like other newspapers, flailed around in search of new sources of income. “What seemed right at one moment looked wrong six months later,” Rusbridger writes. “No plans in the new world lasted very long.” No sooner did the paper seem close to “digital sustainability” than the “death-watch beetle” was found nibbling at another of its foundations. Now, after more than two decades, newspapers are no closer to a secure future. Rusbridger retired from editing in 2015 but his story has, in his own words, “no ending, happy or otherwise”.

The digital revolution happened so suddenly and developed so speedily that it made a fool of everyone. The late 1980s, which saw the launch of the Independent, Today and other titles, suggested the beginning of a golden age for newspapers. In 1990, Britain briefly had five Sunday broadsheets. In the early years of Rusbridger’s editorship, Simon Jenkins, a former Times editor, predicted that the internet “will strut an hour upon the stage”. In October 1996, the Guardian’s business plan proposed to inject £6m over three years into the recently acquired Observer and just £200,000 a year into digital development. Many senior journalists thought that few people would want to read on a computer screen. Perhaps traditional printed papers were finished, but readers would print copies at home.

By the middle of 1997, newspapers had accepted they must go online, even if they weren’t sure why. Crucial and still unresolved questions emerged. Should newspapers give their content away? If so, how could they make money? Rusbridger opposed paywalls for two reasons.

First, the Guardian, unlike the Times and Financial Times, which both have paywalls, needs a large audience to survive. Its readers’ average annual income in 2016 was £24,000 and, for those who read only online, it was even lower. It could never deliver to advertisers a niche group of affluent readers. And it could acquire a large audience only if it allowed free access and expanded worldwide, particularly to the US.

Second, Rusbridger believes in what he calls “open journalism”. The days when newspapers handed down what they judged to be newsworthy to passive readers are over. News now passes horizontally as well as vertically. Readers initiate stories, add to stories, challenge stories. There may be fewer journalists – in the sense of people making a living from writing or broadcasting – but there is more journalism.

In 2009, for example, Paul Lewis, a young Guardian reporter, tweeted an appeal for witnesses to the death of a 47-year-old news vendor, Ian Tomlinson, during protests at a G20 meeting in London. A fund manager found footage on his mobile phone of a police officer striking Tomlinson from behind. In the same year, the Guardian, grappling with a database of 700,000 documents concerning MPs’ expenses, asked readers to help sift through them. This kind of participatory journalism, involving readers in previously unimaginable ways, would be almost impossible without free access.

When Julian Assange acquired vast numbers of secret diplomatic cables and Edward Snowden leaked documents showing how the British and US governments were spying on their own citizens, the extent to which news could be created without conventional journalists became apparent. Both men chose the Guardian and other newspapers to carry the information because they wanted established platforms and needed editing and presentational skills.

This new era of openness seemed a wondrous and liberating thing. But “horizontal news” isn’t the monopoly of Guardian-reading liberals any more than “vertical news” was the monopoly of liberal Guardian writers. The publication of Hillary Clinton’s emails, probably hacked by Russian agents, helped to elect Donald Trump. Extreme racism, misogyny and homophobia have reached new audiences. As Rusbridger says, “horizontal news” is “ugly and dark” as often as it is “liberating and inspiring”.

Social media platforms, with a reach that newspapers never matched even in their heyday, are open to all-comers at zero cost and leave users in the dark not only about the reliability of information but also about its source. Moreover, social media corporations have acquired detailed personal information about roughly 40 per cent of the planet’s population. Revelations about how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to target voters on behalf of the pro-Brexit campaign alerted us to the dangers. The scramble for personal data is the gold rush of the internet age. Even as Rusbridger denounces collection of data by the state and the big tech companies, he writes about the Guardian’s desire to collect “as much data as possible on each reader so as to be able to serve them better… and monetise them”.

Throughout and beyond his 20 years as editor, Rusbridger’s death-watch beetle continued feeding, latterly in 2015-16 when Facebook and Google, offering advertisers the means to pitch to potential customers on an unprecedented scale and with unprecedented precision, all but destroyed newspapers’ growing revenue from online advertising. Yet despite many predictions of their demise – in 2009, the media consultancy Enders forecast that seven nationals would close by 2014 – newspapers struggle on.

Remarkably, the Guardian now makes most of its money not, as it did for its first 195 years, from advertising but from “reader revenues”, much of it from a “membership” scheme, and from some 375,000 one-off philanthropic contributions from across the world to “support our journalism”. But there is no guarantee the beetle won’t continue its work. And, once it has seen off newspapers, it will continue nibbling at personal privacy and, in the end perhaps, democracy itself. 

Breaking News: the Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now
Alan Rusbridger
Canongate, 442pp, £20​

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left