Before Emily Bell crossed the pond to head up the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s J-school, she led the Guardian’s website, helping to build it into one of the most heavily trafficked news sites in the world.
At a lunch talk at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center today, Bell shared her insights into what made the Guardian successful in its online efforts, her plans for the Tow Center — and her thoughts about the challenges facing the news industry in an increasingly networked world.
Three reasons Bell pointed to to explain the Guardian’s online success:
Bell took over as the Guardian’s director of digital content in 2006. And “people actually thought, when I said that I was going off to work on the web, that I had been sacked.” At the paper, however, there was a core of people “who really understood the web,” Bell notes. And having that technical expertise didn’t just mean understanding code and web design and all the rest; it also meant understanding, almost implicitly, user behavior — and transforming the Guardian into a digital-first proposition. (It’s about being, as Bell has said before, “of the web, not on the web.”)
One of the most important shifts in mindset at the Guardian came in the form of the separation between form and content (which “now seems absolutely obvious,” Bell said, “but at the time seemed revolutionary”). And a lot of that process involved “freeing ourselves of the legacy mindset” and, in general, “getting the newsroom converged.”
At the Guardian, which until 2008 was owned by the Scott Trust, the profit motive gave way to a broader emphasis on long-term thinking and experimentation. That led, in turn, to “a much higher tolerance for innovation” than the paper’s competitors, Bell said. The two most successful outlets in Britain, online, were the BBC and The Guardian, she noted — “neither of whom had to speak to shareholders.” Guardian staffers had greater financial leeway than most of their revenue-focused counterparts to experiment, innovate, and, importantly, fail.
“I’m not a massive fan of PowerPoint,” Bell confessed. But! Part of what allowed for the Guardian’s nimbleness when it came to innovation, she said, was that it “developed a really clear strategy.” The paper took the original tenets of Guardian journalism laid out by C.P. Scott and fused them, essentially, onto the networked infrastructure of the Internet. “Really, we’re about reaching as many people as possible in the world,” she said — and so the question for the Guardian’s staff became how to extend their reach using the tools of the web.
Part of that came down to a general openness to users. Bell created the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section (“which I think some of the Guardian columnists would like to see me imprisoned for!”) based on the recognition that the future will be increasingly networked, conversational, and participatory. In fact, “I stole it directly from Arianna Huffington,” she said. Through watching what Huffington was doing with her then-new news site — leveraging the unlimited space of the Internet to invite commentary from thinkers both professional and amateur — Bell figured that Huffington had it right. “This was the way that commentary would work under a collective brand for the foreseeable future.”
Bell’s work at the Tow Center is a continuation of that recognition — but also the product of another recognition that innovation, to some degree, requires stepping outside of the industry in order to observe it and affect its course. “As an operative in a daily news organization, it was getting harder and harder to connect” to the innovation side of journalism, Bell noted. Increasingly, “I think the space for doing that in your daily lives, as working journalists, is extremely limited — and the necessity to do it is greater than ever.”
The Tow Center, Bell said, focuses on three things: experimentation and research in the field; bringing the results of that experimentation back into the classroom; and creating a stronger digital presence for Columbia’s j-school. And “how those three things inform each other is important.” Part of the work the center will do will be to extend the purview of news innovation beyond journalism itself — to “expand the skill set” of journalism to include and embrace expertise in law, technology, the digital humanities, and the like.
“The solutions to what will make the Fourth Estate and constitute the press in the future lie largely outside the field as it’s practiced at the moment,” Bell said. After all, it’s not just news outlets that are developing ways of creating communities and connecting them — which is something that remains central to journalism’s core mission. Now everyone’s rethinking connectivity and influence. Looking to industries beyond the news, Bell noted, can help answer a key — perhaps the key — question when it comes to innovation: “what you need to support and guard a free press in the future.”