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May 29, 2012, 9:41 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Alan Rusbridger on The Guardian’s open journalism, paywalls, and why they’re pre-planning more of the newspaper

The editor of the Guardian says he’s not averse to asking readers to pay for products, but a paywall isn’t “the most interesting thing to be doing at the moment.”

Alan Rusbridger is a busy man on two sides of the Atlantic. The editor of the Guardian seems to be everywhere, writing, tweeting, and leading the paper’s ongoing coverage of the British phone hacking scandal that continues to pick off executives and editors of Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Meanwhile, on this side of the water, he’s directing the establishment of The Guardian’s New York-based operation, where they hope to claim a foothold in the US media market through an aggressive online-only play.

The thing that connects the two ends of The Guardian’s franchise is a full embrace of new technology and the opportunities it provides for reaching readers and producing more impactful journalism. I had a chance to talk with Rusbridger during a recent trip to the U.S., when he came to Harvard to accept the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism at the Shorenstein Center. We spoke about open journalism and how it’s changing the newspaper’s report; Rusbridger also talked about how The Guardian is altering the production of its print paper to adjust to evening reading, and why he doesn’t see a paywall in the near future of his paper. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: What I want to talk about is the concept of open journalism, something you’ve obviously talked about a lot and something the Guardian has made a very big push for. Explain what the concept of open journalism means to you.
Alan Rusbridger: The simplest way I explain it is to think of the theater critic. The Guardian’s got a wonderful theater critic whose been doing the job for 40 years, and no editor I can think of in his right mind would get rid of Michael Billington or not have a theater critic. If you asked the question, “What about the 900 other people in the audience next door to Michael?” — is it conceivable no one else in the audience has an interesting opinion that could add to your understanding?

Editorially, it is generally better to try and harness multiple views. So then, if you accept that, then I think there are only two questions. One is how do you sort interesting people from uninteresting people, and how do you sort people of particular interests from other interests? And that’s something which is not unique to newspapers. Many, many people are trying to crack that nut in an age of overabundance of information.

And then the question is: If that’s true for theater criticism, is that true for other areas a journalist can cover? Is it true of war reporting and reporting on science and fashion? Nearly always, and I would say always in our experience, the answer is yes it is true…Go back to the Billington example, the theater critic. Imagine you answered no to that question and said actually we are going to back our man against the rest of the web. Somebody else will do that if we don’t do that. So therefore you are allowing somebody else to come into your field. Commercially, it seems to me, that’s a very foolish step to take, as well as it is wrong.

Then what you’re doing, particularly if you want to put a paywall around your theater critic, you’re inviting the public to choose between somebody who may well produce a very good account of that play over its entire run, versus the expert voice one night. So you have to be really, really confident your expert voice is worth a multiple of free voices, if what you want to do is create a model that’s actually a 19th-, 20th-century model, where you’re going to insist your content is worth paying for.

The Scandinavians said, well, actually, most news is kind of predictable.

Ellis: What’s your take on the wave of paywalls being tried here in the U.S.? Do you think it’s a way to help shore up revenues? Do you think it limits access?
Rusbridger: From the point of view of The Guardian, a wall that separated our content from the readers — the people who want to contribute and the people who want to have access to it — I think that would be a wrong turning for us. The New York Times model, I think, is more interesting because it’s so porous. So if you believe what I believe about being open, a paywall that succeeds in getting revenue as well as being open is a more interesting model, obviously.

We charge — we charge for mobile, we charge for iPads. It’s not that we’re against payment altogether. But at the moment, when we’ve crunched the numbers, we don’t think that the revenues we would get from a paywall would justify making that the main focus of our efforts right now. I’m not a sort of anti-paywall fundamentalist — it just doesn’t seem the most interesting thing to be doing at the moment.

Ellis: You guys made a big splash with the Three Little Pigs commercial. Why did you feel it necessary to make the case for open journalism directly to the public in that way?
Rusbridger: First of all, the industry is changing so fast — my worry is that the reader is going to be left behind. I think what we’re trying to say with that advert is that The Guardian is moving beyond a newspaper. It’s something which is a different idea of journalism — it’s something which involves others and is responsive to others.

It’s a sort of statement about journalism itself: We’ve moved from an era in which a reporter writes a story and goes home and that’s the story written. I think that we’re living in the world at the moment where the moment you press send on your story, the responses start coming in. And so I think journalists have to work out what to do about those responses: How do you incorporate those responses? And in this world, in which as a news reporter you’re going to — if you go along with open journalism — you’re going to be open to other sources, other than what can be created in your own newsroom, you’re going to incorporate those responses. The Three Little Pigs was an attempt at explaining the benefits of open journalism to the reader — that you get a more complete version of the truth — and to explain to them this idea of a newspaper company is changing very, very fast.

Ellis: I remember in the announcement last year about going digital first one of the ideas was creating some sort of evening product — trying to follow the trend of people shifting reading time to evenings, when they’re reading on devices or maybe looking for something in print. Have you guys gone anywhere with that?
Rusbridger: With 90 percent of stories, you have a vague familiarity with the paper, because you can’t avoid news now — it’s ambient, it’s everywhere. So why were we still feeding a product to people who might be reading in the evening, which was now 36 hours old? Wouldn’t they rather be helped to understand the context of it?

So we’ve changed the paper and we had really interesting discussions with the Schibsted group in Norway, who’ve been pioneering this with their Swedish flagship paper. They went extremely radical: They have a daily paper which they now plan 50 percent of it 7 days in advance. When we first heard, we thought that’s ridiculous — how could you do a daily paper and have half of it planned? It comes back to how you think of news. The Scandinavians said, well, actually, most news is kind of predictable. There are profiles, pieces about the economy and the Middle East or what China’s doing in Africa. There are so many stories you could do at any point in time, and what newspapers tend to do — to be concise, the way we all grew up — was to leave everything till the last minute, and then between 4 o’clock and 10 o’clock in the evening, make a paper. So you have this huge down period at the beginning of the day and then this sort of crazy period for 6 hours.

We haven’t done 50 percent — we’ve aiming for 30 percent of content pre-planned. It helps you even out production, it saves on costs — which we have to do — and it produces a paper which is more effective, more analytical, and helps you explain — because you then have to explain — to the readers that doesn’t mean we’re bailing out of news. On these devices is where you’ll find the news. So if it’s not in the paper, it doesn’t mean we’re not doing it.

Ellis: What about the idea of journalists not taking it into their own hands to break stories on Twitter, or only linking to stories in your own publication — what do you think about that? It seems to touch on the idea of open journalism and sharing.
Rusbridger: We don’t break everything on the web, and sometimes we hold things back in print. I think common sense tells you you don’t rush to break exclusive properties on the web without talking to your desk editor. But the notion of — you’re covering a sports event or trial which everyone is going to break, the window of exclusiveness may be a minute at the most. Writing down a policy that says you must file to The Guardian because The Guardian must be several seconds ahead? You know, I think Twitter is the place where those kind of stories are broken.

If there are ten reporters in court or at a football match, the notion it has to come by The Guardian production system, somebody has to then edit it and then publish it on The Guardian, I can’t see what the value of that is over doing it on Twitter. In the eight minutes that it takes to do that, the story’s going to be out. As to linking to others, I think it’s a sort of good and generous thing to do. Years ago, we got over the hangup on The Guardian site — we wouldn’t link to others. If somebody’s done a good account of a story, and you can save the next three hours rewriting it, why not just point to it or link to it? I’ve got no problem with Guardian reporters saying “Interesting piece in the Telegraph today.” It makes them look like more rounded people, not simply as though they are extensions of the press office pushing out Guardian content.

Ellis: It seems to me there’s two things at play for most news organizations when we talk about being open: one being having people onboard who believe in it as a philosophy and the other the tools you have available. How important is having a culture that buys into open journalism, and what role do tools play in being able to do it effectively?
Rusbridger: It is obviously important to get buy-in. I think we’re there. Not everybody is there in any newsroom — you’re going to have skeptics, you’re going to have people who say “show me the money and then I’ll believe in it.” No one can get 100 percent. As I said, if you went around the paper you would find enough people who are saying this not because they hear me saying it — they’re saying it because they genuinely believe it’s better. That hasn’t happened overnight. It’s happened because the editorial and commercial leadership believe in it. It’s happened because we’ve been evangelists for getting people onto social media platforms. Very early on, I instructed my senior editors to sign up to Facebook at a time when other people were saying you mustn’t use Facebook in the office. I said no, you must use Facebook in the office.

You know, there are sort of big things like the Facebook app we built recently, which says a very powerful thing: that we’re not hung up on all the content being on The Guardian site. It can sit on Facebook as easily as it can on The Guardian. We built an open API so that people who want to do things with our content will find it easier to do. We begin every day in a morning conference, which is open to everybody, with a little five-minute slot where people come in and talk about particular projects, talk about a particular thread, or they’ll talk about metrics or SEO.

Or, to move onto the question of tools, they’ll talk about the tools they use. We haven’t got the best tools in the world, but we’ll use something like Storify or Audioboo, we’ll use other people’s tools if they can help us tell stories more effectively. We’ve spent time with Facebook recently. Google is extremely interested in working with us because we’re very easy to work with. The open API means they can take our content and they can play around with it. That seems to me a pretty desirable place to be in: You’ve got the most successful new media players actively wanting to talk with you and play with you.

POSTED     May 29, 2012, 9:41 a.m.
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