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Interview With Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger

Jackie Bennion: How does the business model work for the Guardian being run by a trust as opposed to a media corporation?

Alan Rusbridger: Since the 1930s, the Guardian has been owned by a trust, which set up a series of businesses in order to support the Guardian and the journalism we do. And those businesses have been pretty successful over the years. There has been a steady stream of income, which at the moment -- touch wood -- is more than enough for our purposes. And constitutionally and legally it is there to support the Guardian and to produce high-quality liberal journalism.

The British case is quite an odd one at the moment because at our end of the quality market almost everyone is losing money and are all supported by something or somebody else. So, for example, at The Times, it is supported by Murdoch, via The Sun, the News of the World, BskyB [satellite television channel]. I don't quite know where the money goes, but it is losing a great deal of money. The Independent is supported by Tony O'Reilly's group of newspapers; the Financial Times by Pearson, and we have the Scott Trust. It does mean that you can go out and produce high-quality, serious journalism without the kind of pressures of having shareholders and what conventional business ownership entails.

How is your day-to-day job different without those constraints? What can you do that other editors can't?

rusbridger

Well, I do think you edit the paper in a different way. Editorially, you haven't got a proprietor or a publisher or anybody else telling you what to think or what to do. When I look at my fellow editors who have very powerful proprietors with very set political views, I think I am very lucky. For instance, we begin every day opening these doors and anyone from the paper can come along and pitch in with their views of what we should be writing or how we should be writing or what we did wrong yesterday. So you end up with an editing style that is different. Commercially, I don't have to sit down and think, "How am I going to lay out this front page so that I can sell as many newspapers as possible?" I can still have the luxury of saying "What is the most important story or what I am going to lead with?" rather than "How am I going to sell copies?"

So circulation is less important?

The reality is nobody likes losing circulation, and there is a link between circulation and advertising. I don't produce a paper that looks like the Frankfurter Allgemeine or The Wall Street Journal because I want to sell copies. I am not under that pressure. Another difference is that I am not under huge pressure to cut costs. My editorial budget has remained intact. We still have 20 to 30 people either on contract or on staff living abroad in the rest of the world that enables us to report internationally. When there is the pressure to cut back, that is generally where people start.

How does this affect you competitively and commercially?

Well, you have to be careful that this isn't a blank check and become totally self-indulgent. The Scott Trust has always made it clear that the Guardian has to be managed efficiently and constructively and instructs it to be profit seeking if not profit making. They always say we are not here to featherbed the journalists' lifestyles or allow you to be completely self-indulgent. I also sit on the commercial board of this newspaper and I have to account commercially to my colleagues. Funnily enough, I think the Guardian has been a commercial paper. I don't think there has been the same anxiety over the separation of news and advertising that you generally get on some American newspapers. Here they are not so terrified about being polluted by one another.

How has trust ownership changed you in terms of innovation?

Most papers are pyramids -- you have the editor at the top and a small group of executives and the pressure is all downward. And I don't blame it for being that way. If you have a proprietor with very firm views about the world, you would be mad to allow an editorial anarchy to rule. Here, the traditions of the Guardian have always been to create a bottom-up devolved organization where the editor edits with a very light touch, and I think that does help cultural innovation. Individuals are much more empowered to take individual positions and set up little units to do things. In the early days of the Internet, we were on to it much more quickly than anyone else in this country. We went in ambitiously early on, and we weren't waiting on the view of one publisher or proprietor who didn't believe in it or hadn't caught up with it. And I think there are lots of examples where we are ahead of people in that respect.

You have opened up the vaults and embraced the idea of participatory journalism, for want of a better term. Where do accuracy, integrity, legitimacy and all those traditional values of journalism fit into this new structure?

Well, if your only relationship is with each other and your readers and that's the boldest thing about what you do, then you put serious journalistic endeavor at the heart of what you do and what you believe in. In our case, that has led to having independent leader editors so that you are monitoring when you get things wrong and also you can set up mechanisms so that you are open to challenge and you are an openly transparent news organization. Therefore, you believe in producing trusted content that is going to survive the scrutiny of the Web. If your conscience is reasonably clean on those fronts and you are behaving ethically in the way that you practice your journalism, then you can be much more relaxed about opening up everything.

How do you know it's working?

We set up an ethical audit once a year that we publish so that people can judge whether we are living up to what we preach.

What does this entail?

We conduct surveys of the staff; we ask them, "Do you think the paper is edited according to the beliefs of the Scott Trust?" We ask readers, "Do you believe what you read in the Guardian?" We do an environmental survey on whether we are running an environmental business, whether our diversity policy is fair -- all that kind of stuff. And we publish it all, which can be uncomfortable when we see there are areas where we are not doing as well as we should.

What has developed from this openness?

We are putting our commentators in the same space as all our readers and letting them fight it out. That's very challenging for journalists and the paper. You create an area on the Web where readers write all the travel pieces because you have crossed that barrier where you say, "We as journalists are the only people that possess the authority and expertise." When, really, in this community of Guardian readers, there are a lot of intelligent, well-versed people actually traveling. So let's open it up to them.

Is this the direction you are taking for other content areas?

In time, yes, we will do more with that idea of community ... pursuing the idea of contributions from a global community of liberal intelligent people, who are probably a bit starved of content and ideas outside those provided by the mainstream media.

How does this translate to building a global audience for the Guardian's liberal form of journalism?

We have a lot of traffic in the United States, which has just arrived in the last five years, without our trying, as it were. We haven't advertised ourselves or marketed ourselves. So that suggests to me that there is quite a thirst for this kind of content. We are actively thinking, "What more should we do in America? What about India, what about China, what about the Middle East?"

So what is your strategy for growing your overseas market?

Well, we are going to start in America. And start from the premise that we could never really claim to report America better than American media. We just wouldn't have the resources or scalability to do it. But you could do something like "Comment Is Free" and link that audience, which is about 4 million in America, and which is a debating space, and which may be broader in its perspective than anything you can get in America. It would bring an international dimension that is generally missing and would be a kind of meeting space between these types of Americans and these types of Europeans or Indians ... and so I think that's an interesting idea. Also, creating a custom international front page for Americans who are interested in the rest of the world. And maybe an area where you could aggregate what the rest of the world is saying about America.

How well do you think the American mainstream media covers international news?

I think there are quite big gaps in what the American media do that an outside organization could fill.

What sort of gaps?

The New York Times should be doing this, but they've gone in the opposite direction, which is to retreat behind a paying firewall. So they have deliberately made their comment more inaccessible to a mass audience. In any case, The New York Times has some wonderful columnists. Take the major geopolitical subject of the day, which is the Middle East, Iraq, Iran. If you are an intelligent American looking for intelligent Arab, Iranian, Muslim voices in order to gain a completely different perspective, I don't think you can find very many of them in The New York Times. But there are an awful lot of them in the Guardian.

Why do you think these voices are absent?

It's probably something to do with having a hallowed, august print op-ed page. ... I love Krugman and Dowd, Frank Rich, Tom Friedman -- they are all brilliant, but they are all roughly the same age and they are all American; and they all roughly share the same political outlook. So it's not a huge diversity of voices, but they are all fantastically prestigious, so it's about a page's worth every day. If you don't transfer these opinions onto the Web and say, "This is our offering" -- and by the way you've got to pay for it -- it's a different approach than saying, "Here are all these highly intelligent people, not all of them American -- in fact, most of them won't be -- and they/we will give you a complete alternate view ...." I don't know why The New York Times can't do that. It seems such an obvious thing to do.

How much does this have to do with America's political position in the world?

Well, it would be odd after 9/11, which was such a shock to the country, if that didn't have an affect on the national psyche and make it more difficult for alternative voices to be heard. You can draw a comparison with Britain. When Britain was under siege from the IRA, it is possible that the American media covered some aspects of the Irish question better than the British papers because we were under attack. And it wasn't until the middle to late 1990s that we would get any Republican voices in the British media at all. So that was half the debate excluded. And you can understand why, because there were bombs going off in London all of the time. That may explain why the American media found it difficult to report this subject after 9/11. I am speculating, but it is also probably quite a lot to do with the commercial reasons we have been discussing.

You mean ownership and profit margins?

Yes, ownership and commercial imperatives. If your major imperative is doing the figures and reading the return on investment, then expensive correspondents in expensive parts of the world or covering news items that are not going to be widely watched do not make economic sense.

Where does public service media fit into the economic reality of all of this?

If you had a different financial ownership model, then something you could call public service journalism could still flourish. Public service journalism grows not only out of the economic and ownership conditions but also out of a belief that it is still important for us to construct a world that seems to us important even if the public seems indifferent to it. Your public may not think they are interested in Iran or Islam, or China or India, or the Russian energy problem, or climate change, whatever, but we have a duty as journalists to say, "Even if you are not reading about this stuff, it's still our duty to put this on to the table and tell you about it because at some point it will impact on your lives."

In the current climate, isn't that a losing proposition?

Currently the zeitgeist pendulum is swinging away from public service journalism. There's a belief that the mainstream media has nothing to teach us -- that there's a greater wisdom in social networking. Clearly there is a lot of energy around that idea, and we all have to negotiate that and be part of it. But you can't simultaneously lose sight of the idea of some sort of public service ideal in journalism. There are going to be big economic question marks about how you provide that. Either you have an indifferent public or a public that wants information for free. You are up against the problem of shifting economic models. At the Guardian or the BBC, where money is not the first thing you have to think about when you get out of bed, it is easier to maintain a belief in that kind of public service journalism.

How do you deal with these shifting economic models -- craigslist, YouTube, Digg and others that are causing mainstream media such problems?

Craigslist, to take one example, is a huge problem for newspapers. It is cornering the market in classified advertising in a way that is almost impossible to beat. And it is destroying the classified advertising base that used to be a really important revenue for newspapers and an important reason to buy newspapers. Newspaper revenues are melting before their eyes. And they [newspapers] have, not unreasonably, said, "How on Earth are we supposed to carry on doing the kind of public service journalism that the older journalists still believe in?" Because they simply can't see how to pay for it. And editorially, we are under attack -- in this country [England], anyway -- from free media, free newspapers, so if you want to graze on news, you can get quite good free newspapers; there's not much original reporting, but you can still give many people what they want. If you want deep news about a particular subject that interests you, there are many Web sites that can give you that when you get to work and that's all free too. And serious newspapers now have to fit in the gap between. That sort of wide, free availability of ambient news has major implications. If we are talking about London, a city of 11 million people, one of the great cities of the world, it has one paid for newspaper, which I think probably won't survive.

You're talking about the Evening Standard ...

Yes, the Evening Standard. Murdoch had set up a free rival evening paper, and as a result the Standard has been forced to set up its own free evening newspaper to compete. And the sales of the Evening Standard are down 25 percent year on year, and the newspaper was already losing money to begin with. So it is difficult to see how the Evening Standard with its 100 editorial staff is going to survive. So if that goes under, you have two free sheets, none of which do much reporting about London -- neither the governance of London nor covering the 33 boroughs of London. So there will be almost no original reporting being done in a city of 11 million people. When in history would we have considered that prospect anything other than frightening? So it is those sorts of issues that need to be talked about.

But won't other forms of coverage replace the old way of coverage? Like more localized blogs, for instance?

Of course there are dozens of bloggers all across London writing about London in lots of ways that are probably invisible to the mainstream media. They are there, and they will begin to surface in ways we can't yet anticipate. There may be networks of citizens around localities or subjects. Whether that's better or worse than what's historically existed, it's too early to say. It may be better in some ways. But it hasn't broken through in a significant way yet. But the more the mainstream media implode, like the Evening Standard, the more society will need these exchanges of information and unpolluted sources of information.

As a newspaper editor, does this worry you or excite you?

I think it's completely fascinating. It's not all gloomy that something new springs up to replace something old. The only question when you are doing a job like mine is to try and read those trends.

And then do what?

It's hellishly complicated. What you're saying is, "Here we are, an old media organization, and we still believe in all the things we used to do. It is still important to us to go on reporting the world as we see it, and there are enough of you out there who still see this as valuable, which has been the major reason for our existence. But in addition to that, we believe there is a community of you out there who share our values and our tone of voice and our independence. And we will create spaces for you to meet and exchange views." So you rapidly stub your toe on what happens if you go into those areas and the people don't see much especially liberal or intelligent. We're at the stage now where we're thinking, "To what extent do we wade in now and start moderating or shutting down or censoring? And is this a truly unmoderated space? And if it remains that way, how useful is it to enough people? Who has the time to wade through unmoderated spaces?"

How else is content changing?

There is clearly a shift from text to picture. It seems the next generation -- the 16- to 24-year-olds -- are a very visual generation. We have to completely reinterpret what the right balance of text and pictures is and move from purely linear narratives to different forms of storytelling that are nonlinear. Tagging and searching is going to become much more important. Assuming there is going to be an exponential explosion in people wanting to make their material available, how you find it and rank it is going to be one of the big issues.

In this increasingly aggregated market, is a force like Google good or evil?

It is evil to the extent it dominates the advertising market and is the default search engine; both have the potential to be frightening. But you don't believe Google is going to be dominant forever because nothing on the Web has been so far. Probably these technologies like Digg will prevail, where the more human interaction there is the more you can get human intelligence allied to computer algorithms and the more sophisticated the search will become. It's the human ranking that makes Digg interesting. Instead of the rather formulaic Google News, which often comes up with silly choices, like reports about Saddam's hanging ... I don't want to read about it in The Straits Times or The Times of India, but readers are just as likely to get those choices rather than others. So a Digg version of Google News would be people saying, "Actually, this is the version of this story you must read, and this is what you would have missed."

What is your sense of how adaptable American mainstream media is to all these new Web tools?

I don't look at it often enough. But from what I have seen, The Washington Post is doing the most interesting things in terms of video. It is more interesting than The New York Times. And I think there is something about the American media culture -- and I really mean newspapers -- where you have these big single-city monopolies, where you are editing for the whole city, allied to which there is this great belief in the need for objectivity. Britain, for all its faults -- and it has many as a journalistic culture -- is adversarial and polemical and grinds out truths. Sitting there rather grandly editing a paper and presenting all sides -- of course there are many arguments for that kind of journalism. But it's not always going to get at the truth in the way the British media can.

Is this just cultural?

There's always an active debate about whether newspapers exist outside society -- whether you are outside observers or active advocators. Are you more accusatory of your governments or are you more a passive reporter of events? There is something about the American media that tends toward the latter -- objectivity, fairness -- and there are dangers in both approaches. All I am saying is that British media, which is more overtly political and adversarial, somehow, whatever that problem is, whether it is immigration, or the economy, or the provision of public services, you will get two completely different views coming into collision on a subject without much overlap or consensus.

You've always been known as a paper with a staunch left bias. Where does the Guardian fit politically today?

I don't mind saying that we are a liberal progressive paper. There's no point in disguising that. But how we express that interests me. ... I don't like stories with a political bias, though I acknowledge in our story choices that we're influenced by our political comment, which will be overtly liberal.

How much do you give editorially to completely opposing voices?

The way we are owned and edited, I think there is as much if not more diversity in the Guardian. For the debate on Europe, we had people who were thoroughly and passionately anti-Euro. Whereas the [Daily] Telegraph and The Times would say this is the big issue of our time and we are not interested in pro-Euro commentary, we will only give you the anti-Euro stance. That would be even more the case for the [Daily] Mail. The whole paper is edited as one spine -- through news comment, leaders, they all say the same sort of thing.

With all the news and information available now, aren't people more sophisticated in their choices than to rely on the editorial biases and polemics of their national newspapers?

People do have a much greater sampling of information now. And the level of trust in the British media is pretty low, very low. On the other hand, people go on buying these papers. The papers they trust least, they buy most.

There isn't much I can do to change the way people consume information. That's really down to technology and readers' preferences. So all I can do is to make our journalism as good as we can so that people will want to come to it and to make it as appropriate as we can for whatever platform. So the question becomes how you arrange it and when you broadcast it. So to state the obvious, you don't have a broadcasting schedule anymore, you have to do a number of mutually uncomfortable things, like making stuff available around the clock as soon as it happens. If you don't, people go elsewhere. And then there's the consideration that comes with waiting, thinking about things, making phone calls. These are two fairly incompatible things. But they have to be done with the same staff because we can't afford to take on extra people. How do you do both without driving everyone crazy?

In terms of the future of the newspaper and the direction you are heading online, is it all sustainable?

Google shows that you can sell adverts against content in the digital environment. The problem is, Google is getting all of that money. They are getting something like 86 percent of all the digital revenue in Europe. There's no point in whining about that, you just have to go out and take some of that off Google. The point is that it's growing at 50 percent a year in this building, digitally.

Advertising revenues?

Yes. And your gut belief is that advertisers have always followed the audience. There are advertisers that want to get at our readers, so it's important to have as many readers as possible. Even though it is not entirely clear when the advertisers will follow.

Are you worried that newspapers will go away?

No. I love print. I would love to see my days out producing newspapers, and maybe I will. But they will probably have to cost a great deal more than they do now. I love the newspaper's portability and putting it on the kitchen table and all that it elicits .... Everything that everyone says about why newspapers are wonderful is true. The printing press revenue is going to be under attack, the advertising revenue is going to be under attack and the next generation of 16- to 24-year-olds isn't going to feel the same way about print, which means the economic model is going to work even less than it does at the moment. In which case, there may come a moment you have to switch off the printing presses. I am not frightened by that. It is the journalism that matters, not the delivery medium.