Interview with Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian.
We live in a revolutionary era where technology enables everyone to publish, and this calls for a redefined role for newspapers, says Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian. In an interview with G. Ananthakrishnan and Mukund Padmanabhan, he covered a wide range of subjects, ranging from reader engagement and core values of journalism, to free speech, defamation, the rise of mobile devices and the Wikileaks phenomenon. Excerpts.
You have been advocating mutualisation of the newspaper and greater involvement of readers, many of whom have expertise in particular subjects. But traditionally, were not newspapers listening to readers? What has changed now?
I think it is going further. It is technology. Because the readers now have the ability to publish and link up. And I think we have to make a judgment about whether essentially our role stays the same. You are right to say that the best newspapers have listened to their readers and drawn upon their expertise. But the realm of newspapers is shrinking and all this energy is being created elsewhere and I think it is a real life or death position for newspapers as to whether they essentially ignore all that or redefine their role.
Take the example of the Huffington Post. When the Huffington Post started, the American newspapers thought it was a bit silly, that it was Arianna Huffington on a kind of ego trip, and very soon, the Huffington Post was getting more hits than many American newspapers. And that is where the centre of the debate went because lots of people could take part. Whereas the papers were still saying we will publish our six pieces a day.
So you have the decision to make. You can say, that is not what we are going to do, or you can say that is something new and important which we have to look at. At the moment I am more interested in the 'something important'. Essentially it comes down to this period that we are living through, which I think is a real revolution. And it is your best judgment whether newspapers could afford to stand apart from this revolution.
You mentioned in your speech at the WAN-IFRA India conference in Jaipur that newspapers could involve readers through social media such as Twitter. But how do you guard against spin?
That is where our judgment comes. I am not underplaying the expertise of journalists or what we do. So I think we use Twitter like we use any other source. We should not take Twitter to be representative of the public at large. This is an interesting, extra dimension to information. We will use it as a source. It is an imperfect source like all others, but a very useful source and journalistic tool.
Are newspapers exceptional? The Guardian has its own identity. In today's world, how do you create identity?
One of the obvious things that people keep saying, at least in the developed world, is this business about commoditised news. That is one element. If you are thinking, and this is related to money, along old models, that we can charge for what we do, then you have to work out what it is that you do that no one else is doing. I use the example of a plane crashing in Holland. Always in the past, we would have sent a journalist to the site. Actually, you are not adding much to what is not available, or widely known. I think in this new world, you have to make very stark decisions about what you are going to do, and what you are not going to do. This phrase, commoditised news, which is news that is everywhere and is always going to be freely available, I don't think people will pay for [it]. But that is a large part of what we do. So we ought not to spend our efforts doing that, we ought to spend our efforts on what we alone can do. So investigative reporting, informed commentary and analysis becomes important, finding out things which are difficult to find out and which require the skills that we have becomes more important. We ought to use the information that is out there now, and very widely available, and become aggregators and analysers. We ought to build on the brands that we have, while we have them. Great titles like The Hindu and The Guardian still stand for something and are a kind of viewpoint or set of values. I think it is important that we use that brand, and that community of readers who understand and want to be a part of that community.
In the U.K., over the last 20 years, because the advertising is there, there was a huge explosion of feature journalism, about food, about fashion, about lifestyle. It was lovely to view, it made our papers more interesting. But in the end, it may not be the thing that we do best, other people can do that as well.
In a way, that sounds like a contradiction — a niche mainstream newspaper.
When we launched The Guardian on the web in 1998, we did go for niches. We thought there were some things that we do particularly well and that we were going to concentrate [on them].
That was undoubtedly right. The papers that did less well were the papers that said we will do all the things we do and we will put it all out there. I think you should start concentrating on the things you think are most important and what your readers most want you to do.
So what does this mean in the context of The Guardian?
Politics. International coverage, because not many people are going to be doing that. Economics. Technology. The Environment. Culture.
So it is pretty much what makes up the main body of the newspaper as opposed to its supplements?
A year ago we decided the environment was the biggest story of our lives. So we have six reporters doing the environment – one in China, one in America and four in the U.K. And then we built a network of environmental sites. We aggregated and became part of a network, with about 20 or 30 sites. A huge amount of editing and resources goes into the environment. That's like saying, almost regardless of revenue, its going to be such an important subject. And that as a newspaper, this is what we ought to care about. If you are going to do the environment with one correspondent, you are not going to make yourself distinct.
You said somewhere let's not focus on business models on the Internet but focus on what we do best – or what we can do. Is this because there are simply no good business models at the moment?
What I am really saying is, ‘What do you want at the start of your thinking to be?' If what you want is revenue now, that will lead you in one direction. If you say, let's think about the journalism because it's the journalism that's changing most rapidly, that may be a wholly different direction.
It's such a profound revolution we are going through, it is unlikely that any of us get the answers right now. If you take a major decision – like we are going to come off Google, because it's taking our money, or that we are going to put a big wall around our newspapers – it's driven by business concerns. That we want money back now. That we want people to pay for us.
That may be the wrong answer journalistically. Journalists working with some newspapers with paywalls are not very happy. Because very few people are reading what they are doing and their influence goes down. At the same time, you only get a modest increase in revenue.
So, what's more important in the long term is the larger audience, and the influence. In which case, the ultimate business model will lie there.
If you believe there is a revolution going on everywhere else in information and you take a decision early on to cut yourself off from that, then it's difficult to see how you can experiment in future. My suspicion is that in the next 10 years, the most extraordinary things will happen in terms of information, how we find it, how we search for it, how we present it. And I want to be as open as possible to all that.
You have spoken about the growing role of mobile devices. Can you elaborate?
Again, if you talk outside newspapers, there is a real explosion in consumption of information, whether it is mobile phones or iPads. A lot many more devices like iPads will come to market in the next few years. I interviewed Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) about three months ago. He was unequivocal that mobile is where it is going to be. We just had our head of technology spend a month in California and he came back with the same message. Stop the web. You don't need to do any more developing on the web, just put all your effort into mobile. So, again, it is wrong for newspapers to imagine that what applies to everyone else does not apply to us. There is an urgent message there, that we ought to be developing journalistic ideas that fit to mobile.
There are incredibly basic things about mobiles, like location devices. What does that mean for journalism in terms of sending news, distributing and the possibilities for complete individualisation? We are just beginning to think about that.
How does all this, the quest for speed, user-generated content, fit in with old-fashioned journalistic values?
The most accurate journalists are usually the ones that work in news agencies. There is no tension between speed and accuracy. There shouldn't be. There is a new form of journalism which is more iterative and tentative than the old form. If you get it out of your head that all the time we are saying ‘this is the truth and nothing but the truth' and adopt a more tentative frame, [you say] this is what I am interested in, you have to help me with this, this is what I know, what do you know, then you get into a continuum, as opposed to a story that stops at a particular time. You have a more fluid way of telling stories. There is a great value to investigations and analyses. If you ignore the speed bit and the fluidity bit and just say all we do is long form journalism, then that is probably not good enough.
You recently wrote an article highlighting how plaintiff-friendly Britain's defamation laws are. Expressions such as ‘libel tourism' have been coined to describe the phenomenon of people preferring to file cases in Britain rather than in their own countries. How much of an effect does this have on suppressing the functioning of the media? Would you prefer an American-like legal system when it comes to defamation?
I think there are problems with the American system, which essentially concentrates on whether you are a public figure or not. It's better than the system we've got, but it has got problems of its own. It particularly has problems when you deal with the privacy bit of the argument as well. So if you are saying it is open season to write anything about politicians, that's problematic.
You have to introduce a public interest test somewhere. Is the information in the public interest? Is it of public importance? Make that the test. If it is, then you want some kind of Sullivan-type protection. If the importance of the subject is high and you can show that you have behaved responsibly as a journalist, you will have some protection even if you have got some things wrong. So, it's a slightly different approach from the American approach.
There is a bill in the early stages of Parliament…
No, it's actually a defamation bill. Privacy is being treated completely separately. At the moment, the big controversy in Britain is that newspapers are complaining that the courts are developing a privacy law on their own, and that Parliament has never debated this, and that this is happening by the back door.
But some MPs have spoken in favour of a privacy law.
Lots of people, especially politicians, are quite sympathetic to a privacy law. But no one has actually attempted to introduce one.
The way the law is being developed on defamation and privacy are different. The defamation bill is being developed by Parliament, which if it goes through, I think will be an improvement.
Parliament doesn't want to consider privacy. So it is being developed in courts, partly as a result of the European human rights Act [European Convention on Human Rights]. Article 8 says there is a right to privacy and you can go to court and say, ‘he wants to write about my personal life, you've got to stop it.' At the moment, there are quite a lot of cases where the judges tend to say, ‘yes that is private and not in the public interest.'
The Wikileaks publication of war logs in which your paper played an important part was a high profile event. Do you think such a thing will be done again? Would taking on the Establishment invite a crackdown?
This man Julian Assange received all this information from a source, and one of our reporters noticed a small paragraph about this. He tracked him (Assange) down and reached an agreement with him. Since he was going to publish all this material on Afghanistan anyway, there was a role for the press to contextualise it. We spent a month going through it line by line and we published about 15 stories on the back of it. What Assange did was to just publish the whole lot. We published along with the New York Times and Der Spiegel. I think it has implications for security. The State organisations and the military have to ask themselves whether it is possible to keep anything secret in an era when anything could be copied on to a USB stick. It begs questions of organisations like Wikileaks, which are whistleblowers. If they were to do it again, I think they would have thought more carefully about whether they should have redacted some of that. We were able to bring to bear with people who had lot of experience in Afghanistan, with so much information, hundreds of thousands of documents, that we can help make sense of this. In a sense this is a very modern story about how information is so porous and [prone to] leaks, and technology is so amazingly new. Yet, in the end it also proves the value of newspapers. There may be more to come, but I don't want to say too much about that.
There is this view that neo-liberal economics, as it spreads and gives people material prosperity, also leads to a deficit of free speech...
I think it is worrying. There are all kinds of trends in this direction. In America and the U.K., it has been about security and terrorism, since 9/11 the public have really been asked to accept a trade-off, in which they give up a lot of freedoms in return for security. The concentration has not so much been so much yet on clampdowns on free speech, though they have passed the enabling legislation to do that. The PATRIOT Act in America is potentially very threatening to journalists. Prevention of terrorism and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act are very potent pieces of legislation which would enable the State to inquire into sources. In the west, the potential for repression is there but it has not been used very much yet. But there are the examples of Singapore and other places of the Far East where it has been used.
How can newspapers insulate themselves against pressure to raise advertising revenues?
You have to be robust in your relationship with advertisers. There was a great phrase, in Francis Williams' book in the 1950s. He studied the press and wrote that it was advertising that set the press free, originally. Up to that point governments were paying for newspapers and taking advertising liberated the press. It would be dangerous now if we became so reliant on advertisers that we began to lose the freedom that it had given us. It is very important that in our quest for economic stability, we don't start entering into relationships with advertisers which would compromise us. The answer is always transparency.
If you are getting into paid editorial or private treaties, it is important that the reader knows what is going on. If you want to have sponsored supplements, or paid news, it is a deception on the reader unless you announce somewhere in the newspaper that this is what you are getting. Otherwise it undermines the independence of what we do.
Finally, what are your thoughts on core values in journalism?
The worth we have always associated with journalism, like integrity, trust and ethical standards, verification, fairness, finding things out, all these are going to be values in the future. As the fourth estate, being separate from the other bits of government and commerce is vital. All those values are there. I think there is another bit which has entered the picture. Which is, the public itself. If we establish the right relationship with our readers, we can create something which enhances our journalism and enables us to go on doing things that we need to. There is never going to be any less need for what we do.
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