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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.