FRONTLINE/WORLD . News War . Interview With Emily Bell, Editor-in-Chief, Guardian Unlimited | PBS
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Interview With Emily Bell, Editor-in-Chief, Guardian Unlimited

Jackie Bennion: You were one of the earliest newspapers in the United Kingdom to move online. Where are you with that now?

Emily Bell: We have moved into a very interesting space in the last 18 months, making the Web site a successful projection and translation of what the paper is. You'd be amazed how many online newspapers 10 years ago thought that they had to look like a newspaper and follow the newspaper's format and titles. Quite early on we decided we wouldn't actually project everything and do everything at the same rate because there are certain things that are much more Web-appropriate than newspaper-appropriate. At the beginning, we had a collection of sites that covered film and football and news, and originally, we had this site called "Work," which wasn't a mirror of where the paper's priorities were at the time. So we took an online view from a very early point. But the fact is, you are reliant on the main brand -- the paper -- as resource for output.

How are you reacting to changes in reader habits?

We have great facility with text and pictures, which is still valuable, but the consumer appetite now is for much more packaged media. People are interested in moving pictures and not just one or two stills but as many stills as you have on a subject. It's also shifted toward interactivity. The vast majority of people who come to our site still just want to read stuff. But they are undoubtedly attracted to more areas of the site where they can actually see interactivity.

How do you define interactivity?

bell

Well, we don't have the classic interactivity that the Web 2 sites have, like YouTube or MySpace. We have it at a very basic level. We have talk boards that people make themselves on whatever subject they want a thread on. We moderate them very lightly. We don't pre-moderate, we post-moderate them. So they sit out there like a little colony. Readers see these as belonging to them, not us; if we try to moderate them they get very cross about it. We have introduced commenting on articles via blogs, which is probably our most significant project in that area and a big step for a newspaper to take.

Why a big step?

At a time when The New York Times was saying, "We are going to put our commentators behind a pay wall," we did the opposite. In a new generation of commentariat, it will not be people writing 800 words or 1,200 words once a week in a newspaper. There will be writers who have a voice and a presence all the time on the Web, which might occasionally appear in print or might often appear in print. But they have a life online where people can come and interact with them.

How have your writers responded to this?

I think it's been quite painful for writers to be exposed to writing on the blogs and have people come back at you saying, "You're not very interesting" or "You're not very accurate"; or if you say something offensive, they let you have it with both barrels. With the more strident, entrenched columnists, I think people feel they have permission to shoot back.

Was this tearing down of the wall, so to speak, an easy decision to make?

People like me who have spent quite a long time dealing with online audiences -- it's seven years now -- it's just the warp and weft of the Web, and you see it as just like standing at Speaker's Corner. There will be some people who hurl insults from the crowd, and there will be some people who listen and engage. So it was more about cultivating the people who are there to listen and engage and allowing them to engage with each other.

What other ways have you successfully made the site more interactive?

We have a travel site that is made up of readers' tips. Anyone from anywhere can come and affect the article, whether by commenting on it, rating it, creating their own content, or materially altering the article -- [all of that] is a form of interaction with the site. Over the last year, we have increased our rich media. We have started podcasting a lot more frequently. Video is something we will be introducing to the site. We have experimented with it already, and a lot more will be introduced the first half of this year.

Are you talking about user-generated video?

Not necessarily. I think it will be a mixture. When you look at the online video offerings of most places, they are commodity videos. In other words, you can read the Saddam execution story, you can read a background, you can watch a 30-second video clip. But that doesn't have to be shot by one of our reporters. It can come from a Reuters or an AP feed.

Are you looking to your reporters to provide video along with words and pictures now?

We do have a number of highly capable reporters who script and produce television for the BBC etc. We have quite a big talent pool here. We have Maggie O'Caine, who is brilliant and probably the best war reporter of her generation and also a broadcaster who is now editorial producer of our film unit, which produces a variety of films, mostly for broadcast output. Things like Channel 4 Dispatches and short films for Newsnight. The idea is that they will do more things, which again, like PBS does, we will put straight to Web. It's shocking, really, that the number of outlets for that sort of coverage is still relatively small.

What sort of video coverage is proving popular for you on the Web?

We had one interesting example of a film shot by a still photographer named Sean Smith. He took an HD camera out to Iraq on a short embed mission with the American troops, which was quite interesting because you don't see much of that over here. He came back with a five- or six-minute film, which we sold to Newsnight. But the editor of Newsnight, Peter Baron, who's a very good guy, said it was OK if we kept the Web rights. He would use it on the Web, and we could too. We found out that we had something like 80,000 downloads of this film in less than 24 hours -- mostly people from the States, who were really interested in the material and who weren't seeing this sort of thing on U.S. outlets. The film also got emailed and linked around. When you consider it, 80,000 doesn't sound like a huge number, but when you consider it is perhaps 10 percent of Newsnight's total viewing audience ... in one night those numbers aren't bad.

How big is your U.S. audience at the moment?

It is somewhere between 4 million and 5 million unique users a month. It varies -- if you have a sustained international news event, like the World Cup, that your American audience isn't really interested in, then the number of American users dips below the number of U.K. users. But at other times, we have more American users than we do U.K. users. What we do know about the American audience, looking at the statistics, is that they are very interested in news and that a high proportion of them are coming to us through Google News or through blogs. We are not necessarily a bookmarked site.

In terms of media or even technology trends, where do you look to America's lead?

I think in general, the whole liberal debate online in America is much more developed than it is here. Newspapers have led the way over here, and bloggers have led the way in the States, and the mainstream media has slightly stumbled after it. That is how you have your Andrew Sullivans and your Daily Koses and your Arianna Huffingtons who spotted a gap that essentially hadn't been filled. There are bloggers and little initiatives happening online now around liberal comment, which is growing in importance in the United Kingdom, but it is nowhere near the important landscape it is in the United States. Here, it is mainly led and seeded by a small number of players, which I guess the BBC and we are among them.

Who is your biggest competition?

By far our biggest competition, in the States as well as here, is the BBC, which has, I don't know, possibly 800 hundred journalists online -- it's hard to tell, they can never quite give you a figure themselves -- $100 million a year spent online, which is just an amazing resource, and they produce a great Web site.

With audiences and media fragmenting, what role does a big public media entity like the BBC play?

What they do is comprehensive. The truth about the BBC Web site that is quite interesting is that they have gotten the management at the BBC to understand why technology is important. And that sounds like quite a trivial thing, but it is actually the most important thing that has happened at the BBC in the past five or six years. There are a handful of guys there that can be credited with securing the BBC's future because they have done all the groundwork, with the director generals saying this is why you cannot afford not to be in this space. We all know that there was a debate four or five years ago about whether online was the right place to be for mainstream media, and I think they have a comprehensiveness of coverage. In news I will stick my neck out here and say that our news is better written, that we have a more interesting package. But their volume and breadth is incomparable and absolutely phenomenal. The real strength of the BBC is the kids' sites. I have children who are 9 and 6 and 2, and they use those sites all the time. And to them the BBC experience is as much about the Web as it is about the television. One of the BBC's problems, though, is that they are working on some very old technology that they need to replace. And the BBC is uniquely challenged when it comes to forming communities.

In what way?

We know at the Guardian that people will form themselves in groups around your content. But if you have to be completely evenhanded with your representation because you are taking public money, it is really hard to do that if you are not monitoring every single transaction that is happening on the Web. Even if people are self-publishing, if the BBC is hosting it on their site, they have a huge problem. So they have some challenges.

What are your big challenges?

The big challenge for everybody is to get from Web 1 to Web 2. The illustration I use for journalists internally is Salon versus Huffington. Huffington is actually quite Web 1 in some ways, but when Salon launched, everyone said, "It is very well written, it is interesting, it publishes material that is considered very highbrow" ... all the things that perhaps our writers would like us to be online. But it essentially stayed as it was. It didn't become more of the Web as the Web changed. It stayed as a Web magazine because it failed to accommodate those changes -- it didn't grow.

What changes specifically?

You have to say that one of the biggest changes in publishing written material is blog software. I think the idea is that timeliness is a second consideration to access. One of things we use blogs for here is as a way to react immediately. It's a very good way of breaking instantly chronological news. You have to look at Salon and think they didn't react quickly enough or radically enough, they weren't inclusive enough of their audience. They lacked, I guess, some of the big marketing bucks that some of their competitors had. They behaved too much like a magazine, and that was maybe due to their cost structures.

If you look at The Huffington Post, which has now gone to 30 million page impressions a month and something like 3 million users -- this is roughly what they quote -- and compare it, say, to some U.K. newspapers, it's gone past some newspapers. All the time it is moving, developing a spin-off in this area, in that area. And when you look at the patterns of usage on sites, which have greater stickiness, it's through people being allowed to cultivate what they do on those sites. I mean, there was a great set of PEW [media research center] charts that came out last year, where you have Geocities and MySpace, Encarta and Wikipedia -- all digital businesses, all roughly doing the same thing online. They are all about pictures, encyclopedias, people in groups -- but one allows a greater level of interactivity, and that's why it has grown.

Do you trust Britannica over Wikipedia?

Well, Britannica doesn't necessarily have great timeliness. You trust Britannica because it is Britannica, but you would still look at Wikipedia. If you listen to the Wiki crowd and what they do and how they are making it work, they clearly do what I would call editing. They are not necessarily editing the articles and saying, "Oh, I don't think that is well written," but there are a lot of people who do contribute to the site and fix things, and that is an editorial function.

What happens to objectivity and quality when everyone can become a publisher and an editor?

I think the dividing line between them and us is dotted at best, and in some cases, the gaps between the dots are really huge. So in your technology and in your management of your communities online, you have to adopt the same values as you do in your journalism.

What are those values?

You have to be transparent; you have to be trustworthy. And you have to be alive to people manipulating debate. I think you have to be very transparent about your sources. We use all sorts of sources for stories in the paper. Some of them will be Reuters feeds, which we have added, some of them will be the work of three or four journalists, some of them will be the exclusive work of one journalist. What we have that the outside world does not have is access. You know, as someone from the Guardian, I can still ring up a dozen people in the area I cover and get an answer. I can talk to the Director General of the BBC; I can talk to the chief executive of Sky. I can talk to a whole set of people within the media industry or online industry or whatever it is very easily. In other areas, it's exactly the same. Tony Blair would be very happy to talk to our political editor, Polly Toynbee, or whomever. If you have access, you hold a certain amount of knowledge and credibility. But you can only grow your credibility by allowing people to have a go at that credibility. If you say that you're not going to allow people to post or only post the ones you choose to post, you lack a certain transparency in that.

How are you different in this respect from large newspapers in the United States, such as The New York Times or The Washington Post?

I think The Post in particular is getting closer to it. We are all prone to this; we all put a toe in the water and take it out again. The process of engagement has to be gradual. Your differentiation from the rest of the market becomes harder as your competitive set expands. We didn't have to worry about how we looked against The New York Times four or five years ago; it was like, "Hey, it was nice being considered in the same ball park as The New York Times." But we really didn't have to compete with them on any serious footing. Now we do.

We had some people over here from an American media organization looking at what we were doing online. We were showing them some examples of discussion threads, and one of them said, "What do you do about the profanity?" And, of course, in America, that is quite a serious thing. Over here, swearing is part of the culture. And, really, the question is, what does journalism look like in a Web 2 world? How do you keep your credibility and how do you redefine what the craft of journalism is?

How do you redefine it?

The craft of journalism is still about telling a story. It's all about servicing information and explaining it to the public in a way people can understand and engage with it. And also it is about pointing out what is important. I always use the example that you could let the audience edit the front page by virtue of what is the popular story rising to the top. While I would quite like a version of that, actually, if there is something happening in Darfur, it needs to be at the top of the site. I am not saying that our view is the most important in the world, but we seek to represent a particular worldview. Now, if the Web allows more of your readership to tell you what they think about that, then it helps and enhances what you do.

What about when you are wrong and your audience is right?

You have to be prepared to back down and admit you were wrong. We made a big mistake earlier this week when we put Saddam on the front page. Earlier in the week they had a picture of Saddam post-gallows. It was an international news event, and the nature of his death was fairly controversial. Some people doubted whether he was dead or not. Yet putting those pictures on the front page of the newspaper was something our readership just recoiled from and said, "Why have you done this?" Gauging their response, you could say it was an error of judgment, but maybe we feel confident enough to say, "No, it wasn't." But that is where the Web is much more responsive to weight of complaint. You know when you have 300 negative letters about something that it is a representation of a broader feeling that you have gotten something wrong. The way we handle that is by publishing the letters, by discussing in public the decision to publish the photos and by being very open about the process.

Well, of course, there are some people in the country that will say, "That's the pandering Guardinistas for you," but I think that is our strength, bringing our brand of openness and liberalism to how we deal with the new tools we have to play with online.

Do you feel that where the news media is right now in collaborating with its audience is just the tip of the iceberg?

Absolutely. We certainly haven't yet cracked how to use the available resources out there. And I don't think anybody really has. OhmyNews [South Korean online newspaper largely written by "citizen journalists"], for example, is a very different model because you are talking about an incredibly different market.

Could something like OhmyNews be replicated in the United States or United Kingdom?

I think it would be difficult to replicate. What's interesting as well is that technology, I don't think, has quite turned the corner. Things are not quite seamless yet. It is easy to use Flickr if you understand digital cameras and you have a PC, but you still have to know where to go and how to do it. For the average person who doesn't spend his or her life online, these are challenging. Professionally, it is getting easier for us all the time, and we can see the huge leaps that have been made in the last couple of years. As soon as it is as easy to send pictures or video or audio as it is to send a text message or make a phone call, it will take off. In terms of saying we can get value out of people every time an event happens, or people will start to tell us about things in a useful way, we have to extend that network in a slightly more sophisticated way than just by saying, "Give us your stuff."

Do you have any issues with user-generated content living alongside professional journalistic content to the point they become indistinguishable to the reader?

No, absolutely not. For instance, with blogs -- and again I think the Americans are ahead on this -- one of the things we would like to do is build out more of a network of bloggers where their stuff is still their stuff, but there has to be a way where everybody who blogs, who links to the Guardian, who writes an interesting blog about a certain subject can be mapped some way so that we can give them back some traffic and some advertising revenue. That way, we can publish some interesting stuff that other readers can see and come to through us, and we're generating traffic for each other. But to do that, you do have to be philosophically in a very different space.

What do you mean by that?

Take my husband, for example. He worked for the BBC for about 10 years -- he works for the Financial Times now. And when he was at the BBC, first of all, he worked as a researcher, and then he worked in radio production and television production; then he worked as a reporter, then he worked as a correspondent in radio and television. So from the reporting side of things, there wasn't a job he hadn't done. But on Day One of joining the FT, he said he could not believe that his copy had to be seen by six people before it went out.

So what are the new rules for today's news output?

Well, this is the question. Again back to examples, this again is The Huffington Post destroying the model of The New York Times. What is your support mechanism? And is it that much better once it's been through the six or 16 people? Is it that much better than the one obsessive writer, who is desperate to make sure everything is right? Who is on the case? Who has taken in all the comments of people who come back and say, "I think you have got this wrong or that wrong"?

Whoever can crack combining the enthusiasm of the community with the resources of the publisher into a coherent and lively presence is really going to do well.

Name me some sites that are doing that and doing it well.

Well, they are everywhere. This is the roll call of the same old sites. It's Flickr and it's Digg and it's MySpace. You may say MySpace is horrible to look at, but if you want to look at 57,000 profiles of people in the O.C. [popular teen television program set in California's Orange County], you go to MySpace. Amazon, I think, is one of the mainstream sites that has said, "Let's take what we do and combine it with the enthusiasm of our audience." And Amazon is a brilliant example of that. Which is why Amazon is more than a book site. You might look at our book site and say, "Why would you bother when you have Amazon?" Well, with Amazon, the motivation is always the sale. Their business is still about retail and the fact that people enjoy buying there and find it reliable and trustworthy means that they will put their selections onto Amazon for other people to look at. There is still an issue around the transparency of what's theirs and what's ours. I think you can do that with entertainment, but it's harder to do it with news.

Do you see a scenario where there will be a Google and a Yahoo!, name another big aggregator, and the Guardian and The New York Times won't exist as destination sites anymore?

I don't quite know where I stand on the death of the [newspaper] Web site. With Web 2, like everything that happens on the Internet, there is always a wave that carries a big head of foam, and that foam is fashionability. So at the moment, it's all about video and Web 2 and community - it's all the excitement and the froth and the fervor. Having a destination site is so old-fashioned, and expecting people to go there is so old-fashioned. There is no point. You may as well just provide digitized content for lots of other aggregators. And the bulk of the wave is some sort of genuine change. It's not cyclical, it's systemic, and I think that it comes from conceived behavior within communities. But I also think people still want to gather and look at content in an environment that suits them. Google News is fine. But I wouldn't necessarily talk to anyone else on Google News about what was happening on Google News.

Do you think there will be a backlash against all this commoditization of news and content around these big aggregators?

Yahoo! and Google and the big aggregators have got this commoditization down pat. I think if you are perhaps providing a niche where people can see a wider variety of views and voices, slightly more offbeat and unexpected coverage and also where they can talk to each other -- not just to you -- about that coverage, there is a lot of value in that. Yahoo! says, "Well, we have 900 million people in Yahoo! in 90 million groups." But then you look at the optimal size of any Yahoo! group and it's very small -- probably no bigger than our talk boards or even smaller. Our issue is whether we can aggregate enough of those groups around what we do to keep the value of having a Guardian presence.

So are we going full circle here, back to the old-fashioned value of brand and whom you can trust among all these information options?

Your question is absolutely to the point. Lots of us are thinking if you carry this to its natural conclusion, you will end up with aggregation and engines. The broad and shallow behavior on the Web is going through Google or going through Yahoo! And the narrow and deep behavior is going to an individual blog and other very targeted sites written and read by a small number of people. As a newspaper organization -- and this is not just true of us, but of other newspapers and broadcasters -- if you are not one of the top two or three, it's an incredibly frightening prospect.

How do you stay relevant?

What is interesting for me is how we have this window of opportunity to use our reach -- and we do have a pretty reasonable monthly reach. We have about 13 million people who come in and out of the site, which for the United Kingdom is very good. What it means is you do something like the Ricky Gervais [British writer/comedian and star of the shows The Office and Extras] podcast. It wasn't any genius on our part that we must get Ricky Gervais to do a podcast. They came to us and said, "We want to do something on an independent platform where nobody is going to interfere with us on our terms. Would you do it?" After some discussion -- because it wasn't absolutely a no-brainer -- I said, "Well, look, the only thing we can lose by doing this is to learn never to do it again. But it's an interesting thing, and we should do it -- it's an interesting new model for performers and for publishers."

How do you get people to come back?

If people find your content and that piece of content is valuable or good in an area they feel they need to know about, they will come back -- and that is the response we got from the United States, which was, "I have discovered your site post-9/11 and it gives me an extra dimension on international affairs that I can't get anywhere in America. And I am very interested in what the rest of the world is saying about the United States."

What does that say to you about U.S. media?

At the time, I think it said there was an incredible amount of self-censorship going on, which you completely understand. The two things that stand out in my mind is that we ran a Web piece on September 12, 2001, in the paper saying why America is so hated by the rest of the world. So, the in-boxes were clogged -- but it was like, here was this most extraordinary thing that people had just witnessed on television, thousands of people dead, and to say that was to do with your foreign policy was sacrilegious. Over here it was, "Maybe it's a bit too soon to be saying that," but in America it was, "How could you say this?"

But interestingly, exactly the same thing happened on July 8, 2005 the day after the London bombings. The Washington Post and The New York Times ran lengthy pieces about how Britain's human rights policy was fundamentally at odds with its foreign policy. Which is almost like saying the opposite. That "Hey, we behaved like monsters out there, but it doesn't matter because we just put everybody in Guantanamo Bay." It was all about "Londonistan," and to me it was incredibly offensive, but again it was one of those things where in the U.K. media, nobody, even the Guardian, would write that we brought this on ourselves. Nobody would have written that on Day One or Day Two or Day Three or Day Four. So in a way, it doesn't say anything more about the American media other than it is made up of human beings.

Do you think people are questioning what journalism is these days?

They have been for a long time. The good thing about the Web is, I went to a meeting in the European Commission a while ago and it was a rather depressing experience where we were talking about television with the commissioner and she was obsessed by this idea that the Internet would offer right of reply in the same way that linear television would. Two or three of us were baffled by this and said, "But the Internet is a right of reply." The great thing about being out there on the Web and having your stuff in Technorati, or Google, or wherever, is that if it is completely at odds with the facts elsewhere, or if you're corrupt, or if you copped it from somebody else, people will find it and they will embarrass you with it. So that audience will do a lot of the work in terms of keeping you honest.