Politics & Society » Journalism

The best books on The Future of Journalism

recommended by Alan Rusbridger

Interview by Alec Ash

Former editor-in-chief of The Guardian talked to us in 2012 about brave new frontiers for journalism, the hunt for a business model to pay for it all, and what he hoped (and feared) the Leveson Inquiry would decide about press regulation.

Buy all books

Alan Rusbridger

Alan Rusbridger is Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He was formerly editor-in-chief of The Guardian. He joined the paper as a reporter in 1979. As editor from 1995, he oversaw the launch and development of the Guardian website.

Save for later

Talking about the future of news, some people might question what the fuss is about. In a couple of clicks they can find all the news they need, and what’s more it’s free. What’s the problem, in a nutshell?

The main if not the only problem is the business model. Otherwise, everything’s wonderful. There’s never been an era with more and better information, and greater ease of creating, consuming and sharing it. It’s a golden age. But at the moment, the economics of it all have yet to settle down and be worked out. There’s going to be a giant shakedown, because too much is happening to be sustained along the lines of the past. So it’s a golden age in terms of what is being created, but it’s not yet a golden age in terms of how it is all going to be paid for. Some things are going to stop, some things are going to begin, and some things we can’t yet imagine will happen. Everything is in transition.

It’s a true cliché that a crisis is also an opportunity, for us to rearrange the lego blocks. You’ve quoted CP Scott, who in 1921, with the advent of the telegraph and the telephone, said: “Physical boundaries are disappearing… What a change for the world! What a chance for the newspaper!” What chances are there for the newspaper today?

It’s of an order that Scott was talking about. That was a fantastic thing – a man in his eighties who could see that these new technological advances meant that the Manchester Guardian would have access to, and would be able to distribute, news at a speed and with a range that was unimaginable when he started being editor. The same thing was true with me. When I became editor [in 1995], it was essentially a print product. But now [with the website] we’ve been catapulted into global reach and influence.

Just what is it that is so radically different, besides the distribution platform?

The most fundamental things are the switches that you have to flick in your mind. One is to realise that journalists are not the only people who can publish nowadays. Another is to think globally, and realise that the competition is not newspapers but start-ups and giants that don’t look like news organisations at all. A third is that we are not just operating in terms of words, but with data, graphics, moving pictures and combinations of them all. These are statements of the obvious, but some journalists still find them hard to imagine.

“It’s a golden age in terms of what is being created, but it’s not yet a golden age in terms of how it is all going to be paid for.”

The corollary of us not being the only people who can produce content is the question of what you do about the content that other people produce. Do you try to wall yourself off from it, or do you knit yourself into that web of content? Then there is the extent to which you allow and encourage response, or are led by the people who are part of the community that you’re creating. So there are 10 amazing things going on, each one of which you could sit down and study for a year. But we don’t have time to do that. We’ve got to do them all at once.

How receptive are you to citizen journalism? The Guardian has experimented with crowd-sourced reporting on several occasions.

If you want to know about the environment in depth, or the law in depth, the question is who can deliver that the most effectively. Is it going to be one journalist, which is all that most papers can currently afford? Can that one journalist match the wealth of content that is being produced by people who are PhDs and whose lives are spent obsessing about the environment or law? The evidence is that to sneer at these people who are incredibly knowledgeable and expert is a fundamental category error.

My thinking was if there are 15 environmental websites that are really fantastic, why don’t we make a network out of them and be the publisher and platform for that environmental coverage? Do that, and you become the best environmental news site in the world, which is what people readily say we are. We have built up an audience of millions in two years. That is no less of a journalistic enterprise than to have an environmental correspondent, who might get a 400-word piece in the paper every day.

“The evidence is that to sneer at these people who are incredibly knowledgeable and expert is a fundamental category error.”

You don’t have to make it either-or if you have an open philosophy. But there has been a fundamental change in how we think about information – it becomes limiting when you call it journalism – and if you close yourself off from that, living by the old business model, you commit yourself to producing all this content with whatever money will sustain a newsroom of a few hundred people.

You have taken the long bet that it will pay off for the Guardian to be not only on the web but of the web, part of the “link economy” as Jeff Jarvis terms it – or put simply, free. What if that bet doesn’t pay off?

All I’ve done really is to ask whether you start with a business model and construct a theory of journalism out of that, or whether you say that the world of journalism and information has changed so much that you must start with that and work out what the business model is from it. I don’t want to be dogmatic about it, but I do think that for us, at the moment, it’s more interesting to examine the possibilities of growth than to put up the shutters. To do that is to say we don’t care about being read beyond a small number of people, because we think we can make so much money off that small number of people that we’ll just pocket it. I don’t believe we should be putting up the shutters on growth yet, and there is no evidence that if we were to then we would pocket such a large sum of money in any case.

Some estimate it would come to less than 5% of your running costs.

Well the New York Times, which is generally viewed to have done it most successfully, has got the richest audience in the world, is a big monopoly in New York and is not competing with the BBC. They executed it really well – after spending a fairly sizeable sum of money – and are getting 10% of their revenue from it. That’s extremely nice to have, but anybody who thinks a paywall is a silver bullet is kidding themselves. Then again, nothing is forever and we never stop thinking about these things, or rule them out.

What possible business models do you see as having the most potential to pay for news gathering? As someone once paraphrased CP Scott, “Comment is free but facts are expensive.”

I think it’s going to be a mixed economy. I think the readers are going to have to contribute in some form or other. Advertisers will do so too. There will be foundation support. And there are things we charge for already – print, mobile, iPad.

But you’re still making a huge year-on-year loss.

Yes, because it’s not a market. This is what people fail to understand, in a British context. If you look at the serious news market, first of all there is the [publicly funded] BBC, which is free and perfectly fine for a lot of people. Then there is Sky News, and two news organisations [the Times and the Independent] that are massively sponsored by billionaires or oligarchs – Rupert Murdoch and the Lebedevs. Our equivalent is the Scott Trust, and we cost them a great deal less than the Times costs Murdoch.

So, if you’re a little player coming into these waters, it’s not a market in any recognisable sense of the term. There are a lot of people being subsidised in one form or another, and I think subsidy will be an essential part of the future for a long time. In a way it’s wonderful for the reader, because you have competing forms of subsidy, but failed or successful models are concealed by precisely that.

“I think subsidy will be an essential part of the future for a long time.”

Meanwhile, the advertising industry is being quite conservative. The clients and the agencies haven’t caught up on how digital has changed. We’ve just learned this week that our total audience figures are now bigger than the Times, Telegraph, Independent and FT. The Guardian is top of the pile. But it will be a long time before that is reflected in the money that comes through in advertisements. Yet I think that is how we will be valued in future. So in terms of the argument about what the Guardian should be doing right now, I think it is healthier to get into the dominant market position, because the money will probably flow. Until then, you have to take a loss.

The other side to the coin is politics not business, concerning the future of the media’s regulation – holding to account those who are meant to hold power to account. Over the Leveson inquiry, the adulterous relationship of Rupert Murdoch with British politicians has really come to light. How do you read this story?

Over the last year, what began as a localised matter of rogue behaviour on one paper [News of the World] has become something more broad and troubling as the camera has panned back. It’s now largely about the problem of dominance – what happens when in a small country like Britain one person or organisation has immense power and doesn’t play by the rules. Journalists felt they could behave as they did because they were in some sense beyond the scrutiny and powers that affected everybody else. And the more we looked at the police and politicians, it became clear they were all part of this pattern, so the story widened and became more important. We kind of knew about the extent to which politicians and Murdoch were in an unhealthy dance. But I was quite shocked by the extent and range of contacts between politicians and News International, especially over the BSkyB bid.

You must be proud it was the Guardian which first rocked the boat, with Nick Davies breaking the phone hacking story.

It was an incredibly important piece of journalism. But it’s bigger than that, because it was so obviously something that was right to have done, and yet all the other parts of society that you would have thought should have acted as a check or balance – parliamentary and police regulation, or the rest of the press – didn’t do anything. All the forces that normally act, didn’t. So it was left to our journalists to do something that nobody else had the guts to do.

What do you think will come out of Leveson?

All we can go on are the signals he is sending. There are two good things so far. One is that he has got out of the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] a clear framework about how the public interest can be argued in relation to criminal law – which I think is a significant thing. The second is that Leveson is interested in libel [law]. He can see that there are inhibitions on journalism in this country, including constrictive libel laws. I believe he is thinking ambitiously, and while he is clearly going to do something on the regulation front, if he can give back by defending us over here while being stricter over there, that would be great.

How do you enforce or incentivise membership of the Press Complaints Commission, or whatever will replace it?

That is tricky. Of all the suggestions that people have come up with so far, no one yet knows if any will work. There are various things that people could get if they’re inside the club, and don’t get if they’re outside it – press cards, access to alternative dispute resolution, membership of the Audited Bureau of Circulation, access to PA [the Press Association news agency], [a privileged rate of] VAT – but for every one people have given reasons why it won’t work. It will be an interesting test for Leveson whether he can find workable carrots and sticks.

How do we define what the public interest is, as opposed to what interests the public?

We could argue a lot about that. The PCC code, as currently drafted, is not a perfect definition and could be improved, but it’s not a bad starting point. I think the question is not so much the definition as whether people are serious about observing it. There clearly was a period when a number of journalists couldn’t see anything wrong in using criminal methods with no public interest defence or justification. So I think anybody who had their communications intercepted over their private lives is perfectly entitled to redress.

Whatever the future holds, journalism is still journalism – there’s good and there’s bad. Who are your personal role models?

Harry Evans is one. Harry is a fantastic reminder of what serious journalism can do – the virtues of toughness and braveness, learning technique and craft, knowing your law and backing your colleagues. If you read Good Times, Bad Times and his newer memoir, My Paper Chase, there are lots of lessons which remind us why journalism matters. By the same token, when Nick Davies’s story [about phone hacking] came out and had the impact it did, a lot of people said: That’s why I became a journalist, or want to become one.

The important thing about Leveson, in the end, is the question of what kind of journalism you are going to give protection to. Of course, that’s not to denigrate celebrity and showbusiness journalism – I understand the commercial need for it, and why people want to read it. But read Harry Evans or Nick Davies, and it reminds you why we’re all here.

Alan Rusbridger’s five books on the future of news:

Interview by Alec Ash

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.

Alan Rusbridger

Alan Rusbridger is Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He was formerly editor-in-chief of The Guardian. He joined the paper as a reporter in 1979. As editor from 1995, he oversaw the launch and development of the Guardian website.