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.
As a result, the Guardian has been bleeding money for the past few years. Some of that pain has been mitigated by the fact that the newspaper’s parent company also owns half of the very profitable online-car-sales site AutoTrader. But how long can it continue to lose £100,000 or more a day?
For Rusbridger, the equation is simple. Newspaper people know how to do print and they should keep doing that for as long as it’s viable. The real challenge lies in reinventing journalism for the growing digital audience and underpinning that journalism with a new business model.
“People who want to resurrect some sort of 19th- or 20th-century business model, where they imagine that readers are going to dip into their pockets and that in some way is going to make up for the lost advertising, I think, are wrong, ” he says. “I’ve yet to see any evidence that works anywhere in the world.” Which sounds like a dig at the paywalls that some newspapers have erected in the past few years, although he’s careful not to make free content a theological principle. All options remain open, he insists, and the “open journalism” that the Guardian espouses should not necessarily be equated with “free journalism”.
He gives a personal example of the way technological changes have fundamentally changed the rules of the game.
“Four years ago, I went to cover the inauguration of Obama. It was an amazing occasion: two million people; freezing day; the whole of Washington shut down. It took two hours to get into the park, two hours to get out. But I was there with a ringside seat and then had to write that ‘amazing piece of prose’ at the end.
“I remember getting back to my hotel. (I was sleeping on Jon Snow’s bedroom floor.) I logged on to the Guardian just to see how we had covered it so far, and I thought, What can I add? By the time I got back to the hotel room it had been liveblogged, it had been written up brilliantly, there were multiple perspectives, there were videos . . . and all I could offer was my ringside view. It was quite a salutary moment.”
He acknowledges that it’s a difficult balancing act, meeting the needs of all these platforms. Certainly, some print readers have voiced their unhappiness at the dropping of sections and the reduction in the number of pages. There’s little doubt most of the energy and the focus is on the digital side.
Alongside the many enthusiasts for the Guardian strategy, there’s another view, which I tell him I’ve heard from people across the newspaper industries in Ireland and the UK. In this account, the Guardian under Rusbridger has embarked on a quixotic and profligate digital expansion, financed by AutoTrader but without the financial discipline and realistic cost-cutting plan that a “normal” business would require.
What would he say to those people if they were in the room? “I’m familiar with that view,” he says drily. “But you have to think about the market we’re in. Are we talking about a conventional market here? If you look at the Guardian’s performance against [the London Times and the Sunday Times], which are owned by somebody who your friends would regard as a really ballsy, capitalist businessman who takes tough decisions, they lost £87 million two years ago and they’re losing £52 million at the moment.
“So you can be the Scott Trust, helped by AutoTrader, or you can be Rupert Murdoch, with a massive multibillion corporation behind him, and which one loses more money? I think we’re doing pretty well.”
What does he think now about the hacking scandal, the Murdochs and the fallout for British newspapers? “There was a period when at least one newspaper group was pretty much out of control,” he says. “That was bad, but that would just be a newspaper story. But it impacted on regulation, and the more alarming story was the way this had begun to spill into the police and into politics.
“I think there was a cleansing moment in the summer of 2011 when everyone realised that that was what had been going on. And all the politicians said, ‘Yeah, it’s true, we were frightened of these guys.’ I think that was a really dangerous moment for a democracy.”
On the day we meet, he has spent the morning with other editors, discussing the road ahead to a new system of press regulation. “There are endless working parties going into every aspect of royal charters, libel-law regulation, charitable trusts [and] appointments committees. There’s a huge swarm of activity, trying to find a route through. It’s all pretty confused at the moment, but we are feeling our way towards a better system of regulation.”
Despite some speculation about whether he might be interested in running the Royal Opera House, or perhaps BBC Radio 3, he insists the Guardian is still where his heart is. “If I was still editing the two-section paper I inherited,” he says, “I don’t know whether I would still have the energy or enthusiasm to continue. But there’s something about what we’re doing at the moment that requires such constant reinvention and imagination that the job feels very different from what it was 18 years ago, 10 years or even two years ago.
“There’s something about the changing nature of the job that makes it impossible to ever stand still or think you’ve cracked it, you’ve got the template and this is how it’s going to be. No one knows how it’s going to be.”
Sound of music If you want something done, ask a busy person
In 2011, Alan Rusbridger set himself the task of learning, in the space of a year, to play Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G minor, Op 23, described as “one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire”.
Along the way, he discussed the project with some of the world’s musicians, neuroscientists and music historians. Among his conclusions is that the circumstances in which much of the canon of what we now call classical music was produced and enjoyed were changed by the advent of recorded music. Amateur players in the home were displaced by the quest for pristine perfection in the recording studio and the concert hall. But that, he thinks, may be changing again.
“There were 90 years from the invention of recorded sound where amateurs and professionals diverged and there was this quest for perfection,” he says. “With the invention of YouTube, MySpace and so on you now have the situation where a 10-year-old trying to play a version of the ballade in their sitting room in Kyoto will attract an audience of thousands. So amateur music-making is achieving an enormous audience, although obviously there are wonderful professional pianists who give extraordinary performances.
“It’s incredibly important for the future of music that people don’t just consume it but play it. That creates a milieu of educated people who gain a certain knowledge of and enjoyment of it.
“But also, and here I’m on the whole Utopian side of the digital debate, we may be moving out of an era in which most people slumped in front of a television each evening, and there was a complete lost art of doing anything, into something where people are actively engaging socially, whether digitally or in real life. There are still billions of hours spent watching television versus millions of hours spent making Wikipedia. But something interesting is happening.
“You will still learn far more about how a piece works if you’re sitting down and engaging with it by playing it. Even if you’re a complete amateur you will still come to appreciate it better and, I would say, have a richer enjoyment of it.
“It’s partly why I wrote the book. Usually people’s biggest regret is that they did something as a child and then gave it up because life takes over, and what they usually say is, ‘I’d like to take up the piano again, but I don’t have time.’ Part of the thought behind the book was, well, I have quite a busy life, too, but I found 20 minutes a day and at the end of it I did something which by my standards was pretty extraordinary. So what’s your excuse?”
Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible is published by Jonathan Cape