What does Alan Rusbridger’s departure mean for his beloved “digital-first” model?

The Guardian editor-in-chief, who has pioneered the paper’s online growth by making all content available on the internet for free, has announced that he is stepping down. What now?

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Though Alan Rusbridger told me in 2012 that he wasn’t thinking about retirement, he stopped some way short of a categorical denial that he was nearing the end of his editorship. So the announcement that the Guardian editor-in-chief will step down next summer is no real surprise. By then, he will be 61 and have completed 20 years in the chair. Last spring, for its articles on the US National Security Agency’s clandestine surveillance activities, based on leaks from Edward Snowden, the Guardian, jointly with the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade in US journalism. That was an extraordinary honour for a non-American paper and, for Rusbridger, the best possible vindication of his ambition to turn the Guardian into a global brand.

But perhaps the most important thing for the outgoing editor – though, as always, Rusbridger hides his opinions behind a Buddha-like exterior – is that a potential successor who shares his vision is in place. Janine Gibson, launch editor of Guardian US, Rusbridger’s deputy since the summer and editor-in-chief of the company’s digital operations, is quoted by Ladbrokes as the 6-4 favourite to become the next editor. To many insiders, those odds look generous. The only cloud on her horizon is that, driven and ambitious, she has upset many older hands since her return from America with her determination to separate the website from the paper (“decoupling” is the latest buzzword in the industry), making the former the senior partner. Though many critics have been impressed by Gibson’s willingness to listen to their reservations and she is widely liked and respected, Katharine Viner (3-1 second favourite), a former joint deputy editor and now Guardian US editor, would probably win in the charm stakes. She could conceivably top the staff poll but, while influential, that is not binding on the Scott Trust which will make the appointment. And this isn’t the 1970s even on the Guardian: the notion that a proletarian uprising could derail a carefully planned corporate strategy is for the birds. 

Rusbridger’s belief that the Guardian should be a digital company that happens incidentally to publish a newspaper, and that only for the time being, still has its internal critics. So does his view that, as the more disgruntled put it, “we should give away our content free”, charging nothing for access to the website while the papers still lose around £30m annually. And the critics take some encouragement from the news that Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Sunday Times, protected by an online paywall, have just recorded an operating profit for the first time in 13 years – a measly £1.7m but one that is, as Rusbridger’s somewhat acerbic predecessor Peter Preston puts it, “here and now, not years down the line”. The Guardian, however, is not likely to change course now, particularly since most of the UK newspaper industry takes the same approach and regards Murdoch as an ageing, print-obsessed eccentric. Rusbridger, who will become Scott Trust chairman when he vacates the editorship, will no doubt ensure that there is no backsliding from what, in his mind, has become almost an article of faith.

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.