I recommend that every American journalist and news executive listen to this speech on newspapers in the age of blogs by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who I think is a rare and likely singular visionary in the newspaper industry. He also is the editor I know who has the most courage to face and embrace the future. To those of you who read this space and various of the sites that link in and out of here, there’s not much unheard-of in his speech — except that you won’t hear any of it coming from the mouths of editors elsewhere.
Mike Butcher does a great job blogging the speech. You can listen to or download it here. I’ll un-live-blog quotable bits of it now, undigested and in order. But I will caution my fellow Americans that this lecture is delivered in the native British tongue: irony. So please resist literal-minded comments to wry lines. [Full disclosures: I write and consult for the Guardian, though this isn't an act of sucking up to them; they don't pay me that much. I consult for The New York Times Company, which Rusbridger talks about. Craig Newmark, whom he also talks about, invested in the news startup I'm working on. He talks about meeting the Digg guys; I introduced them. And I've posted on both Comment is Free and HuffingtonPost.]
Rusbridger begins speaking about the fundamental question of the future of newspapers. “Some people,” he says, “think it’s an even more fundamental question than that: whether newspapers have a future. And wrapped up in all that is whether newspapers deserve to have a future. And if they do have a future, as what?” This from the editor who dared wonder whether his company had just installed its last presses.
Rusbridger shows the audience a chart he showed me that describes the fate of newspapers in the Western world. This is my very crude rendition of his crude drawing: The line headed down, to the left, represents newspapers’ circulation and revenue, declining. The line on the right, moving up, is online news traffic and revenue, both rising. In the middle, in the the pincer between these two lines, is the green blob where newspapers are stuck, trying to figure out how to survive and how to leap onto the line that is moving up. The added challenge — this is me talking now, not Rusbridger — is that advertisers still value print, the line on the left, even though it is declining, while consumers — especially the young, which is to say, the future — clearly value the line to the right, online, and that is where the growth is. So newspapers must continue to produce the old, expensive product in print to get higher ad revenue even though the audience they want is already online. A stinky blob, that.
Rusbridger talks about how ownership affects one’s view of these lines. Publicly held companies are, of course, cutting back or selling off to get “out of this business of managing decline.” One British company tried recently to sell its regional papers but couldn’t find a buyer willing to pay the price. Some people, like Richard Desmond, he says, “don’t believe in the internet so they’re just going to pretend it doesn’t exist…. Probably at some point the Express titles are just going to fall off the edge of a cliff as the last reader dies.”
“I love newspapers,” Rusbridger says, still by way of introduction. “I’ve worked in newspapers for nearly 30 years. What I’m saying tonight is not advocacy and wishing the end of newspapers. I think it’s sometimes a bit like the world of second-hand books, because I love that feeling of going ’round second-hand book shops, and the people in musty old cardigans who work in second-hand bookshops, and that feeling of just looking down shelves for books that you didn’t know existed, that serendipity — it’s a very similar experience to reading a newspaper.” But he knows that searching the internet for a particular book is better than going to such a shop. He also acknowledges that his shopping online is “killing my local bookseller off even though I value and treasure my local bookseller. And that’s a kind of metaphor for what’s happening in the print industry today. And a lot of that comes down to this man….”
Cue picture of Craig Newmark. Russbridger explains Craigslist, its impact on the newspaper industry, and its “very unusual business model: It’s free to both sides…. Now that’s a difficult business model to beat.” He says that “the people who are really terrified of Craig Newmark are The New York Times.” He explains that job ads on Craigslist in three cities cost $20 — and that adds up to $10 million a year among 18 employees, he estimates. Then he demonstrates ordering a deluxe $958 ad on the NY Times site — he makes up a call for journalists to work in Guardian America, “and I told them to apply to C.P. Scott in Manchester” (the Guardian’s legendary editor of 57 years). The contrast continues: He shows pictures of Craig’s humble headquarters and the new Times headquarters — “and you see the nature of The New York Times’ problem.” Of course, falling advertising is the problem. Rusbridger reviews the history of newspapers. In Britain, in the beginning, newspapers were supported by their politicians until “advertisers gave newspapers a form of independence.” But now those advertisers are going elsewhere. “There are great, bleeding chunks going out of newspaper revenue at a time when sales are down…. Most journalists are finally getting this The penny is finally dropping….
But he continues: “They’re not necessarily quite up with the next bit, which is about the changing nature of editorial. And this is a thing which is more difficult to grasp and for journalists in a way much more threatening. And I think we’re only at the beginning of trying to figure what this one is all about.”
He calls papers like The New York Times “a tablet of stone, it is a paper of great authority. And if you ever go to a New York Times editorial meeting, it’s a bit like a religious ceremony.” He talks about the effort and resource that goes into the front page. “‘Believe us,’ is the message. If it goes onto the front page of The New York Times it’s there because it’s important…. ‘You may not want to read it but it’s our opinion.’ And this is a model that has existed again for a hundred years….
“This is journalism as revelation: ‘We are the figures of authority. All these important people at the top speak to us. You can’t speak to because you’re too little…. We are the conduit and we tell you what’s important. It’s like this. Believe us.’ And occasionally, the little people would write a letter…. And we’d print a few of these letters very graciously. But most of them we’d drop in the bin…. This was the paper I inherited in 1995, which had been printed since 1821….”
Then came technology that enabled the conversation, first in the form of email. “This was a big challenge to journalists because they didn’t know quite how to respond and some journalists got quite huffy about this and said, ‘Look, push off, I’m the figure of authority here… Our job is to tell you what’s what. We don’t want to hear from you because frankly we’re the experts around here.'” Others, he said, found it valuable to improve their journalism.
But often, the people were ignored, so: “What happened next is that these people started talking to each other. They didn’t ask our permission to do this at all… And they started forming little groups of people who began critiquing newspapers… They went behind our back to our sources because, increasingly, the information that we were using was available on the internet…. A bit cheeky of the readers to do that…” (Remember my warning about irony, folks.)
He says it got to the point where he would come into the office and if the paper had made “a mistake about anything, dozens of people around the world had already spotted this and were challenging this. This was a different kind of audience. The old audience… were willing to take on trust your view of a wide range of information that we were saying is important. And these people are, to a much greater degree, self-selecting…” That is, they follow the news that interests them. “Now they’re not wrong, these people, because the internet now does an awful of information on an awful lot of subjects that’s better than newspapers. I shouldn’t be saying this, live, to the world outside. I should be keeping this as a secret.”
He shows his audience a wide range of sites — across the arts and books and travel — with a great gobs of opinion from the public. “It’s infinitely deeper than the experience of simply reading one critic in a newspaper,” he says. “I’m not saying it should replace that. but it’s a very rich medium.” He says this is “the beginning of a complete inversion of the newspaper model. It’s not us telling you.”
He talks about Arianna Huffington — whom a colleague of his once described as “the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus” — and how her HuffingtonPost is bigger the Philadelphia Inquirer and The New Republic online. He concedes that it is sometimes “a rather cloying snapshot of liberal America” but adds that unexpected voices pop up. And he compares Huffpost with TimesSelect — opinion in public for free vs. opinion in private at a cost — and goes through the numbers to estimate The Times makes $10 million dollars a year on the pay service (I’m quoting Rusbridger, remember.) But that is “not going to pay the gas bill” on The Times’ new headquarters, he says. So The Guardian follows Huffington’s lead and starts Comment is Free.
And he talks about Ricky Gervais and his record-setting podcast for The Guardian and how, 10 years ago, if he’d suggested to his bosses that they go into the comedy audio business, he wouldn’t have gotten the job. “Now, should a newspaper do that? Our readers seem to think so… But I don’t think it would have occurred to many journalists inside the building.” He talks about TV and newspapers both meeting in radio. It is convergence at last.
And, of course, he asks the question everyone asks:”Where’s the revenue? This is my favorite quote from the book about Google: ‘They had no revenue model until 2001’…. And it’s now worth, depending on the day of the week, between $40 and $80 billion.”
He tells his audience about a wide range of Web 2.0 companies and talks about having dinner with the Digg guys, who he says will “either be multibillionnaires in a few years time or just go on being geeks.” He does take some hope that the aggregators find newspaper content interesting; that’s what they’re aggregating. This is why he says it’s “mad to be sacking journalists,” because we need the content they produce, though he then adds, “we may need to sack some.”
Later, he is asked about aggregators and whether he objects to what they do and whether he can stop them. He replies that, yes, you can tell crawlers to “push off.” And he confesses to sitting with the Digg guys, seeing them make money while The Guardian loses money, and wondering about building a wall. “But actually, they are driving traffic back to the Guardian site. The more of a wall that you put around, whether it’s a wall of payment or a wall of registration, the more you’re repelling people rather than building an audience for the day when we hope that advertising will come in like the cavalry and rescue us. So I think at the moment, the smarter thing to do is to make your content available everywhere and to have it aggregated and linked to like mad by everybody in the world, because that way you will reach a gigantic audience. And that matters journalistically. If you’re in the business of journalism for influence, and because of the Guardian worldview that you believe in, it’s terrific to have an audience of 14 million instead of 400,000. That’s wonderful. So why would you want to turn them away?”
It’s still a controversial issue in some quarters of the news business. See questions from Simon Waldman, bizboss of Guardian Unlimited, here.
And see my Guardian column about the World Association of Newspapers kvetching about aggregation and my arguments with that here.
Rusbridger talks about the value of newspapers to an informed democracy. I won’t try to transcribe that bit, because you do hear this from American editors as well.
“In a way, it’s the most exciting time to be in newspapers. It’s the most revolutionary time since Gutenberg and Caxton [the first English printer]: Everything is being challenged. But it’s also frightening because many of the things we took for granted are also being challenged.”
My transcription is clumsy. Please do listen to the talk in full, with benefit of accent, irony, and intelligence.