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      Review: Alan Rusbridger’s excellent newspaper & digital adventure

      Breaking News: The remaking of journalism and why it matters now, by Alan Rusbridger
      439 pgs.
      Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2018

      “May you live in interesting times.” Alan Rusbridger doesn’t say in his book Breaking News whether anyone toasted him with that supposed ancient Chinese curse when he took the helm of the Guardian, then a relatively small, nationally-distributed broadsheet British newspaper, in 1995.

      But in his 20 years as editor-in-chief, he would get to deal with global-scale investigative journalism projects and a collapsing business model for newspapers triggered by the digital revolution that started about same time he assumed the Guardian‘s top editorial job.

      “This book describes what it felt like to be at the eye of this storm,” Rusbridger writes in his introduction. While there was danger and destruction, there was also exhilaration. “Our generation had been handed the challenge of rethinking almost everything we had, for centuries, taken for granted about journalism.”

      Life was much simpler when he started as a reporter at the Cambridge Evening News, a 50,000-copies-per-day newspaper in 1976. News breaks after the day’s last deadline? Easy. Wait until the next day’s edition and update then.

      “Liquid” lunches were common in those days, especially when he got dispatched to a bureau. Photographers couldn’t write stories, and writers couldn’t take photos. Union rules forbade it.

      On the business horizon, there were only two perceived threats — the advent of free newspapers and the introduction of new computer typesetting technologies that would eliminate jobs. “Anyway, it all seemed a very distant prospect in 1976.”

      The early Guardian years

      Rusbridger joined the Guardian in 1979. His old paper went to full computer typesetting in 1989. After a few ownership changes, the Cambridge News currently exists as a weekly paper with a web presence of about 52,000 visitors per day.

      The Guardian got its start in Manchester in 1821 following an atrocity known as the Peterloo Massacre. “Its founders had no ambition to reap huge profits from it. It was imagined as a piece of public service,” Rusbridger wrote.

      The paper is owned by the Scott Trust, which has a mission, established in 1936, to preserve and protect the Guardian “in perpetuity.” As such, the Guardian only has to make “enough” money — or not lose too much. I don’t believe there’s a paper in Canada with a similar ownership structure.

      Rusbridger jumped to the Observer to be TV critic in 1986, but was relieved to be asked to join a brand-new paper as Washington correspondent. The London Daily News only lasted about six months, “but I was in the U.S. long enough to develop a life-long respect for American journalism’s methods, seriousness and traditions.

      “If Fleet Street sometimes felt like a knowing game, American papers were soberly earnest.”

      When he got back to the UK, Rusbridger rejoined the Guardian and was put into editing.

      In 1993, Rusbridger got to meet Nicholas Negroponte, author of a then-forthcoming book called Being Digital, over dinner. Over the course of the evening, Negroponte described how we were moving towards a world of bits, the smallest piece of digital information, and way from the world of atoms and matter.

      Negroponte talked about convergence (which eventually didn’t turn out so well) and many other things. “I decided I should go to America and see the internet for myself.” He packed a copy of the Internet for Dummies.

      At the end of the four-city tour, Rusbridger was hooked. “We had come. We had seen the internet. We were conquered.”

      Colleagues on the Guardian‘s business side were happy to remind him that only about three per cent of British homes had PCs and modems at that time.

      Assuming the editorship

      In 1995, now-venerable internet brands such as Amazon, eBay and Match.com got started. Rusbridger also ascended to the editor’s chair at the Guardian.

      He assumed the job in the middle of a price war launched by the King Kong of British newspapers, Rupert Murdoch.

      The Guardian‘s readership was aging — a bad sign for a paper that relied heavily on job advertisements.

      While Rusbridger wanted to get started on the digital future, the new editor found his paper was almost always in court, defending itself against multi-million-dollar lawsuits.

      “Every hour I spent locked away with lawyers was an hour away from learning the ropes of editing; or from thinking about the digital future or from planning the Guardian I wanted to shape.”

      As of October 1996, the plan was to keep print the priority, with a relatively minor investment in “online services” but still wanted a “leading-edge presence.”

      By early 1997 (yep, things were moving that fast), It was clear that the plan wasn’t digital enough. Rusbridger tapped a rising young star, Ian Katz, to lead the Guardian’s online reinvention.

      Katz renamed the website Guardian Unlimited. Its look was different than the paper. Content-wise, “they focused on things they thought would be big on the web — news unlimited, film unlimited, cricket, football, politics, books and arts, along with work, jobs and skills.

      “You could go as deep as you liked into anything you chose. There would be a network of sites, not just one. And each site would have to be the best of its kind, because that was how the internet worked.

      “That level of ambition was, looking back, quite insane,” Rusbridger quoted a former core team member as saying.

      The Guardian Unlimited site started up in July 1998. Almost a year before its launch, Princess Diana died in the early morning hours following an auto crash in Paris. Guardian readers were yammering for coverage. “The readers were teaching us: big news couldn’t wait until the following breakfast time.”

      The green bubble

      By 1999, the Guardian was in what Rusbridger called his green bubble: Print viability was dropping, but digital profitability was a target in the distance. The worst of both worlds.

      Other competitors were waking up. Rupert Murdoch allocated more than $2 billion in 1999 to digital projects, only to pull back just as quickly in 2000 when the dot-com bubble popped.

      “Success in this new world was proving even more uncertain and expensive than anyone imagined,” Rusbridger wrote.

      While it was one of the great tragedies of our times, the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda helped make Guardian Unlimited into a global news website. Page views were way up and they were coming from the United States.

      By February 2002, Nielsen NetRatings placed the Guardian as the number one news website in the UK. Great, except no one was clicking on the ads (an industry-wide problem).

      In October of that year, some Guardianistas stumbled into a new service: Google News — a news website assembled entirely by computer. “Quite how it was done was a mystery as closely guarded as the recipe for Marmite or Coca-Cola.” Luckily, it didn’t prove to be a news website killer.

      From 2003 to 2005, the Guardian brain trust worked on a new format for the paper, Berliner, as did many British competitors as they struggled to cut newsprint costs. In that time, LinkedIn, Skype, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube launched, as did the Huffington Post.

      “Historians might well argue that for two years, Fleet Street had had its collective head buried in the sand.”

      The Guardian had an in-house visionary of sorts, digital editor Emily Bell, who was famous for Emily’s Mad Pronouncements. In 2005, she pronounced the end of story and the start of live-blogging, or covering a story in real time online (still lots of stories being posted online in 2019). But the Guardian found good results from live-blogging things like major cricket events.

      Web 2.0 was another Bell call. Also known as the participatory or read-write web (it would eventuallly evolve into what we now call social media), it led to an experiment in travel writing called Been There, where people would contribute stories about the places they had visited. “Some of the most enthusiastic contributors actually lived in the places they wrote about!

      “Our readers know more than we do. Sometimes. Quite often.”

      Another was the Comment is Free section, a pro-am online effort designed to head off any Huffington Post advance on Britain (there is a HuffPo UK site now, founded in 2011).

      2005-06 was another typically breathless period for the Guardian‘s internet side, but it also came with some stunningly bad news for the print side. A trip to California resulted in the discovery of a guy named Craig Newmark, who was putting out free classified ads in an old house in San Francisco under the site name of Craigslist. The only ads he charged for were job ads. He only wanted to make enough money to pay his 18 staff.

      The strategic threat this posed to the revenue for classified ads from newspapers was immediately evident.

      As if a one-two punch, Facebook came along not after in the autumn of 2006. Its mantra of providing a free platform for its user while selling them to advertisers in the form of targeted ads — without paying a dime in content — proved to be one of the best money-spinners on the web.

      Between it and the targeted search ads of Google, there wasn’t much advertising money left for the digital assets of news companies.

      Rusbridger and company presented its problems to a blue chip group of U.S. West Coast digital entrepreneurs visiting Oxford University. “So why don’t you close the paper (and go fully digital)?” one asked. “We can’t do it,” responded the Guardian.”We could tell they thought we were doomed,” Rusbridger wrote.

      Investigative reporting

      Besides trying to solve the problem of making money in the digital world (smartphones and ad blockers were yet to come) and dealing with the deepest recession since the 1930s, the 2008-09 crash, Rusbridger had some world-class investigative journalism to oversee.

      Three of the biggest are:

      • Phone hacking
      • Wikileaks
      • The Snowden revelations

      Phone hacking was an investigation carried out by the great Nick Davies into the British newspaper industry itself and the proclivity for some tabloids to hack into the phones of celebrities and, most horrifyingly, the phone of a 13-year-old kidnap and murder victim, Milly Dowler. Heads rolled over those stories and Rupert Murdoch would go so far as to shut down the News of the World tabloid.

      Wikileaks involved working with the “rather strange, unworldly Australian hacker” Julian Assange and his organization Wikileaks along with the New York Times and Germany’s Der Speigel. Wikileaks had acquired hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, more than any one person or news organization could handle. This lead to all kinds of security and ethical concerns, Rusbridge wrote. But at day’s end, Vanity Fair wrote that Wikileaks was one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the past 30 years.

      Snowden arguably trumped Wikileaks. He was an employee of a contractor to the U.S. National Security Agency, and he revealed secrets as a public-minded whistleblower who was horrified by the reach of the security state in the post 9/11 period. He met with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel in 2013, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras (her resulting film, Citizenfour, would win an Academy Award for best documentary) and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill. The stories that came out of that hotel room would shake the world.

      By 2015, Rusbridger had passed the baton to another Guardian editor, Katharine Viner, the paper’s first female editor-in-chief. “The long-sustained path to digital sustainabilty was finally imaginable.”

      People either in or keenly interested in the news business should read this book, particularly young journalists who might wonder what exactly it is that top editors do all day. Rusbridger is quite up to date in identifying the current and future problems of the news industry, such as its on-again-off-again relationship with Facebook. But he also recalled a question posed by a Facebook executive, “This journalism you think we should be supporting, what does it look like?”

      A simplistic answer: The Guardian!

      A complex one? Read the book. Despite the length of this review, there’s many interesting topics I couldn’t address here.

      Related reading

      Jan. 1, 2016 – Review: John Stackhouse’s tour of duty through the ‘disruption’ years for newspapers (a memoir similar to Rusbridger’s).

      Canadian Journalism Foundation – Guardian of News (video, podcast of Rusbridger in conversation with Toronto Star editor-in-chief Irene Gentle; links to articles about Rusbridger, radio interview with CBC’s The Current)

      Tue, January 15 2019 » Main Page, Media » Comments Off on Review: Alan Rusbridger’s excellent newspaper & digital adventure

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