The open journalist
As the ‘Guardian’ newspaper throws itself into the digital age, its editor, Alan Rusbridger, shares his views on print journalism, politicians, phone hacking – and piano practice
As Alan Rusbridger talks, he runs his fingers along the top of his knee in an invisible arpeggio, or maybe a more complicated musical figure. If I didn’t know better, I’d presume impatience, or maybe a nervous tic.
But having read his book, I know he’s just doing his piano practice.
We’re sitting in Rusbridger’s office in the Guardian’s impressive modernist slab of a headquarters in King’s Cross, London, because that newspaper’s editor has just published a book. Play It Again covers the turbulent period from the summer of 2010 to the end of 2011, the most successful, journalistically, of his 18 years in charge. It saw the controversial collaboration with Julian Assange’s Wikileaks and a dash to revolutionary Libya to rescue a correspondent from Gadafy’s jails.
Most significantly, though, it covered the eruption of the hacking scandal, which has turned out to be a turning point in the relationship between British media and British politics, and would never have come to light without the dogged persistence of Guardian journalists such as Nick Davies.
That scandal ultimately led to the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch, the closure of the News of the World, the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry and the proposals to improve press accountability that Rusbridger has been discussing earlier today with his fellow Fleet Street editors.
These events all figure in the book, but only as a backdrop to the main theme: Rusbridger’s love of music and the task he set himself, namely to learn to play Chopin’s Ballade No 1, a daunting piece for an amateur pianist such as himself (see panel below).
What does he say to those who might wonder, with newspapers in crisis, how an editor finds the time for piano practice? “It’s a bit philistine really,” he says with a sigh, drumming his fingers again. “ ‘Oh, hark at him, playing the piano.’ But most editors I know jog or play golf or tennis, or whatever. A game of golf takes five hours. I’ve never had a week in which I’ve played the piano for more than two and a half hours. If you read the book, quite often I’m working seven days a week, and extremely long days, so I don’t think you could think this was a man who was distracted from the day job.”
It does, though, feed into a perception of the 58-year-old as slightly unworldly, or at least not cut from the same cloth as most of his peers. “What’s with the way his hair falls in his face?” Rupert Murdoch reportedly asked. “How old is he? He looks like a kid.”
More than any other editor of a major newspaper in the English-speaking world, Rusbridger has embraced digital culture and allied himself with the open-source-code philosophy that inspired the founders of the internet and the world wide web. From its collaboration with Wikileaks to its crowd-sourced open-data projects, free-for-all comments boards and commitment to “open journalism”, the Guardian is seen by many as leading the way in planning for a future after print. It now reaches an audience of 20 million users a month in the US alone.
Unlike its competitors, the Guardian is owned not by shareholders or a proprietor but by the Scott Trust, which was set up in 1936 to protect its values and independence. Does Rusbridger think there’s a connection between this and the digital strategy?
“I think so. If you don’t have a proprietor then your only relationship is with your readers. It’s a much more natural thing to be talking to them and interested in them. You should be more interested in their views and your relationship with them than some newspaper groups I won’t name where your main relationships are vertical and there’s somebody up there who’s got strong opinions. So it’s not an accident that we were more open to all this stuff than some other people.”
Despite the zeal for all things digital, however, the Guardian still faces the same conundrum as other newspapers: the printed newspaper continues to generate 75 per cent of total revenue and, despite those impressive online audiences, digital advertising gains have fallen dismally short of replacing print losses.