Online : A vision plan to tackle a rising concern

How does “a simple newspaper company” transform itself into “a genuinely international digital business that has every prospect of surviving the 21st century as it survived the 20th century,” at the same time ensuring that it is a “profit-seeking enterprise managed in a cost-efficient manner?”

The question relates to The Guardian News and Media Ltd (GNM), which includes The Guardian, The Observer, and Guardian Unlimited. The answer is provided in a very interesting 60-page “Living Our Values: sustainability report” (available online at guardian.co.uk/sustainability). GNM is currently going through “one of the most radical overhauls” in its long history to “adopt to this complex new world.” The sustainability vision and action plan touches every aspect of the company’s activities — editorial, commercial, operational.

The report for the period April 2006 to October 2007 says the aim is to meet readers’ expectations of openness in the way editorial decisions are made. This is the fifth year GNM publishes a survey of its conduct as a business from a social, ethical, and environmental perspective. The statements are critically reviewed by an independent social auditor — GNM is the first newspaper group to have one — who provides his comments in each section.

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The report defines “sustainable development” as “the ability of global society to continue into the far future.” This calls for a radical restructuring of every issue, finding a new way of life. Forum for the Future, a charity, is working with GNM to help create a strategy to address sustainability. GNM has also teamed up with the Carbon Trust to audit its carbon footprint, with the aim of making the company carbon positive. One of the purposes of the “Living Our Values” audit for the past five years is to look publicly for gaps between editorial thinking and corporate practice and to bridge the gaps.

According to the report, a great deal of reorganisation has already taken place across commercial departments and the most fundamental change will be within [the] editorial [departments]. This is what concerns me most, although the other sections are also of interest.

Most news media stories, the report notes, are no different from those of a few years ago. The sustainability stories are only about climate change and their scope does not extend to social issues. GNM’s editorial vision is to provide the “most comprehensive news coverage” on the issue of climate change and key related issues such as biodiversity and degradation of natural resources. These topics will be explored from the social, economic, political, and scientific perspectives, nationally as well as globally. The group will promote public debate and “harness the power of readers and our users by creating online tools and projects that give them the opportunity to share knowledge and ideas.”

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Says The Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger: Climate change and associated areas of sustainability are by far the biggest issues we are facing today. We have a great responsibility to cover it continuously and thoroughly. We have a team of more than a dozen journalists whose responsibilities are exclusively or largely focused on this area. Our job is not to cajole people or launch specific campaigns. Most people get the issues. They don’t need to be lectured to. Calm and measured journalism has more effect than making gestures or bellowing. Our readership say we have influenced them across a large range of sustainability-related issues.

There is an unprecedented surge of international awareness about climate change, energy, oil, food production, and so on, points out John Vidal, environment editor. There is a flood of new information and concern, he adds. It is possible to fill in an entire newspaper every day with both heartening and depressing environment and development coverage. There is a new urgency and the stakes have become higher. The bad news is that for all the hullabaloo about the environment in small islands like Britain, little is being done elsewhere.

How true! Do readers in India get any feel of this urgency from the unending stories on politics and politicians, and government and Ministers that fill newspapers?

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Vidal says a monitoring system is in place to evaluate the coverage on a monthly basis across a range of issues from climate change to transport. The Guardian, he notes, was the first paper to launch an ethical living section. Online tools are being developed to encourage sustainability. Financial assistance is offered to social entrepreneurs who seek to launch environmental activities in their communities. How climate change is already affecting marginalised communities around the world is highlighted.

The restructuring of the editorial departments, while not involving budget cuts, will lead to a greater level of integration of editorial resources now split across The Guardian, The Observer, and Guardian Unlimited. But the plans are proving controversial, leading to tough negotiations with the National Union of Journalists. “Delivering on different media platforms with the same number of journalists is a worrying formula,” says the NUJ representative.

Richard Evans, the auditor, in his overall assessment, finds evidence that sustainability is part of the entire journalistic culture of the organisation.

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I was particularly interested in the section on the Readers’ Editor, which made me recall my own experiences.

The Guardian was the first British newspaper to have an independent ombudsman more than ten years ago. A survey showed that 78 per cent of the readers felt the presence of a Readers’ Editor made the paper more responsive to their views.

On the use of an offensive word in a story, since there was vigorous debate on the editorial floor, the Readers’ Editor asked for readers’ views. One wrote: Use this and other words. Otherwise we do not get the full picture. If some readers are shocked — well, so they should be, as should we.

When readers protested against the use of the picture of the hanging of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (as readers here do against some pictures in The Hindu) Observer Editor Roger Alton said: I am not of the view that papers should conceal anything from the readers. A newspaper is a grown-up thing, the matters it deals with are grown-up and sometimes they will be shocking.

Rusbridger wrote to the 250 readers who complained: Both the occasion and the image we published were, in the eyes of many, repellent and shocking … Newspapers tread a dangerous course when they stay away from such material simply because of its unpleasant nature. A newspaper which retreats from reporting the crueller realities of the world, is, in an important sense, retreating from its duty of bearing witness.

The Readers’ Editor suggested that predictably controversial decisions should include an explanation at the time of publication (as Frontline did when it published the Rajiv Gandhi assassination pictures).


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