Alan Rusbridger: guardian of the worthy news galaxy
Former Guardian editor shares his vast experience and speculates on the future of news
Alan Rusbridger: a self-declared worthy editor. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
By any standards Alan Rusbridger’s 20-year reign as editor of the Guardian was remarkable and will inevitably be defined by three massive stories that could have gone so badly wrong.
There was the last-minute libel victory over Jonathan Aitken, which saw the former minister go to jail for perjury. The much wider impact of Nick Cohen’s seminal exposures on the phone-hacking abuses at the News of the World, which led to its closure and to the Leveson inquiry into the standards of the press. And in the most significant of all – the Edward Snowden leaks – the Guardian, and Rusbridger, took on the security services on both sides of the Atlantic to expose their invasion of the privacy of citizens on an industrial scale, amid cries of “traitor” coming from right-wing commentators about the decision to publish.
All three are well known but in Breaking News you get the inside story of the loneliness and unexpected self-doubt of the editor who must decide whether to go or not, knowing that in the case of the Snowden revelations, jail could easily have been the outcome.
On the phone-hacking scandal, and what Rusbridger calls the conspiracy to cover up criminal behaviour in the Murdoch empire, he describes how he looked in the shaving mirror and asked himself whether he was up for it, taking on the tabloids in an industry where traditionally “dog doesn’t eat dog”. It was going to be lonely and probably horrible.
“I didn’t look in the mirror for long. It had to be done: ‘piss or get off the pot’ rattled around in my mind like an ear worm. It’s not a bad saying for an editor. If you are not prepared to publish the tough stories, make way for someone who is,” says Rusbridger.
In the defining stories there are revelations only of personal detail. The facts have long since been trawled over in inquiries, books and even Hollywood movies.
The pleasure of the Monty Pythonesque tale of the British spooks insisting on the Guardian taking angle-grinders to destroy Snowden computers, even though multiple copies existed in the US under the protection of the First Amendment, endures.
There were also slightly more controversial campaigns trying to persuade organisations to divest themselves of shares in fossil fuels for the sake of trying to limit the effects of climate change.
The importance of the book, however, lies beyond memoirs of journalistic derring-do or certainties on how the world of the future should be.
The other, and more significant meaning of the title Breaking News – breaking as in breaking or even one day broken news – is even more important. What if in the end there was no means of financing what Rusbridger has previously called “independently verifiable information”?
Can newspapers survive, and if so, how can they, and teams of independent, professional journalists, be funded in the age of Facebook and fake news, where journalists are “enemies of the people”, as President Trump would have it.
In the Twittersphere, amid endless comment, lies and hate speech, what does it actually mean to be a journalist any more?
As Rusbridger puts it, the danger is that “bad information is everywhere” while good information is becoming the preserve of smaller elites – a process that would ultimately threaten the ability to govern any democratic society.
For Rusbridger and his multiple consultants and academic authors, there are only three economic models for the funding of news organisations and open journalism in future. There’s the advertising model, which is largely but not entirely broken in the battle with the likes of Facebook.
Another option is subscription, but many subscription experiments for newspapers have failed in the face of consumer unwillingness to pay for news that seems everywhere available for free, and at the very least it closes down your reach.
At great cost and significant risk to the future of Guardian Media, the not-for-profit organisation has finally fought its way to a situation where a combination of digital, member contributions and journalism funded by charitable foundations has exceeded the core contributions from print. It has been a long and difficult journey and not one available to most publishers.
Breaking News is a significant book for newspapers, journalism and anyone who cares about their increasingly vital contribution to an informed democracy in the midst of information chaos and fake news.
Reservations? A couple. Rusbridger is a self-declared worthy editor who edited a worthy newspaper carrying worthy news and would fight like a tiger to preserve press freedom to continue to do so. Fine, worthy news could not be more important, but he doesn’t acknowledge a press freedom that also carries the right to print what he calls “ shagging “ stories in the same way. Freedom of the press should be indivisible and extend to stories that go beyond what Rusbridger and many others would deem worthy.
At the same time the balance of his judgment is clearly that the printed newspaper will die and that it is only a matter of when, and there is indeed no shortage of facts, trends, books and consultant reports to back up that view. The danger is that such a judgment can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, particularly when spooked newspaper groups put their primary efforts into the nickels and dimes of attracting digital advertising rather than, against the odds, trying to preserve print.
The problem is that, for most newspapers, most of their revenues still come from declining print and the Guardian’s dramatic digital way forward, based on vast international reach on the back of the Snowden revelations, and the contributions of ultra-loyal reader members at home, may not be realistic for most publications. The increasing move to digital, particularly mobile, however necessary, should not be at the expense of at least trying to shore up print.
It is easy to be seduced by technological determinism. Yet who would have thought vinyl would make a comeback, or that printed books would start to largely see off e-readers?
Rusbridger acknowledges that two worlds, the old and the new, continue to collide “in a fog of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding” but sees some “sputtering” signs of hope.
In recent months the sputtering has continued beyond his manuscript. In the UK an all-industry research body,Pamco, has shown the true reach and weight of traditional “news brands” in the battle against two-second view “programmatic” engendered digital advertising, or even robot readers who do not exist.
The fightback is under way and newspaper advertising has seen its first quarter of growth for seven years. Only sputtering but modest signs of hope all the same. At the same time the playing field in the battle with the California tech giants has been evened up a little through massive fines from the EU and, more importantly, a reluctant, grudging acceptance that they are responsible for what they publish with all the attendant costs.
At the end we can all agree on Rusbridger’s conclusion: “Trust me, we do not want a world without news.” By which he means of course accurate, professionally checked news, hopefully whether worthy of not.
Raymond Snoddy contributed to and co-edited Last Words: Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? (Abramis)