The transparent Guardian

We’re starting, just starting, to talk a good game about transparency in some quarters of American journalism — and, I’m afraid, still arguing over whether it is a good idea in others. But at the Shorenstein Center’s 20th anniversary fest this weekend, Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, put us to shame, I’d say, with a talk about his paper’s open discussion of its corporate values, accountability, and transparency — in short, “what it means to run a newspaper along the sort of ethical lines we tell everybody else to run their corporations.”

Each year for the last three, the Guardian has issued a “social, ethical, and environmental audit” of itself, publishing it online and in print and hiring an independent auditor to check them on it. It is an impressive document that sets context by explaining the mission of the Scott Trust that owns the paper and by reviewing the changes in the business in the last year, trying to open the door on debates within the institution (see the discussion of objectivity in this post, below). The report reveals the results of reader surveys criticizing and praising the paper’s performance. It goes into considerable detail about the company’s relationship with its employees, rating itself on many measures. And, being a liberal institution, it pays homage to environmental concerns like recycling and power use.

Transparency in the UK means something different from transparency here. The papers here are, of course, mostly once-size-fits-all monoplies that are hung up on “the notions of impartiality and balance,” while the papers there engage, Rusbridger said, in “highly polemical argument… There is something about the British dustup that does grind out the truth.” The papers there start by wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Rusbridger showed a slide with many self-ascribed adjectives and assets of the paper: Liberal. Progressive. Trusted. Edgy. Serious. Independent. International. English-language but not American. Context. Analysis. Diversity. Well-resourced. Open. Un/self-regulated. That, already, is an ocean away from how we look at newspapers. Here, we start with and end with “objective” and haven’t’t much cared whether anyone believed that. In the UK, they start with “liberal” or “conservative” and then discuss the quality of the journalism, not the hidden agendas. Clearly, I prefer the UK model. But transparency must mean more than simple, shallow labels, of course.

Rusbridger explained the unique situation he works under: a newspaper supported by a trust, which is, in turn, supported by other profitable businesses (an auto magazine that clears 100 million a year plus radio and regional papers), and a mission to inform from a position of independence. “There is no proprietor and no conventional corporate structure telling us what to think,” he said, and I could hear the wheels whirring in the heads of the journalists in the room: No vice-presidents, no stockholders, no Wall Street. But Rusbridger was quick to add: “I will try to convince you that there are some things in this which are as much about self-interest as the desire to behave well.” That is, transparency is about serving our public well.

He quoted C.P. Scott, legendary and longtime editor of the Guardian, who wrote on the paper’s centennial in 1921 (see the post below): “A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly.”

Rusbridger said that when he walked into the editor’s office 11 years ago, he was “rather shocked about the power I was about to acquire.” It sobered him. “Newspaper people are talking more about rights and less about transparency and responsibility. But the explosion of the web has changed all that, allowed readers to challenge us… or to bypass us altogether…. It boils down to the word we have been using a lot this weekend: trust. We should think rather more about trust than we used to.” He showed the latest of many surveys that showed how little newspaper people are trusted (39 percent believe the British broadsheets, 9 percent the tabloids, but 48 percent local MPs).

So in 2002, Rusbridger made its code of conduct for journalists public and hired a readers’ editor he could not fire. “In no other walk of life would the person who makes the mistakes be the court of appeal,” he said. That readers’ editor gets 18,000 complaints a year; 300 emails a week. Rusbridger said he feels confident that “very few errors escape detection because we have millions of fact-checkers.” And he showed one such error: a decision to “bleach” out a red severed limb in a picture of a train bombing, which was “the wrong decision if you’re going to have a code that says you’re not going to do that.”

He told about the morning conference, which anyone from the paper may attend — as many as 70 have — and everyone knows they are free to criticize the paper. That meeting is blogged (note also that NPR’s Morning Edition meeting is now blogged as well). I blogged the Guardian’s meeting once.

Since the last paper audit, the Guardian also started Comment is Free: “You are putting your commenters in the space where they can be rubbished… It’s quite a bumpy ride, we have to admit. But it is all part of the media experimentation demanded by the web…. We’ve opened the doors, we’ve widened the liberal debate to hundreds of people who previously would have had no access to a mass audience.” This is partly about good journalism, Rusbridger said, and partly about not acting like a monopoly and not watching readers desert you because they are not heard. To date, CiF has played host to 6,000 blog posts and 240,000 response.

The paper performs a survey of its staff and find good and bad news there (I would love to see the same survey taken in American news organizations, for comparison): 91 percent are proud to work for the Guardian, 79 percent enjoy work, but a substantial number believe the selection process for internal jobs is unfair. And, of course, it surveys readers.

“Why do newspapers find this stuff so hard to do?” Rusbridger asked. He acknowledged that newspapers feel beseiged and do not want to “give them, the baying mob, more meat to attack us… But I think that’s simply not going to work in the future, whatever our business model. The benefits of opening up in these kinds of ways outweighs the pain.”

He ended quoting David Broder from a book in which he said that newspapers are not exercises in perfection but in imperfection, “a complete reversal of the story we always tell about ourselves.” If we make our imperfections clear to people, he said, they will trust us more, not less.


Transparency is about being human.

: One interesting part of the audit addresses the Guardian’s effort to find its proper voice:

We were aware that the increasingly competitive nature of the media sector had, over time, led to a drift away from traditional standards of reporting across the industry as papers sought to grab the attention of potential readers. We were not exempt from the charge of sometimes stepping across the line in terms of exaggerating stories to make them appear as strong and interesting as possible.

To counter this, we looked at the US model of journalism, which has an institutional separation between news and comment and seeks to be completely “objective” in its news coverage.

But a number of journalists felt the Guardian would suffer if it followed the American way. One said: “I find the big American metropolitan papers excruciatingly boring… We have to tread carefully not to lose the exuberance that makes our papers fun.” A former US correspondent added: “I would hate it if the Guardian became so passive and ponderous.”

The result of this debate was to find a Third Way. In a presentation to his senior editors, Rusbridger introduced his vision for the paper’s journalism saying that it was not realistic to be completely objective, but that we should strive to be fair: “There are such things as verifiable objective facts; they are the building blocks of any story. Beyond that, there are numerous complications of the sort they teach in the better sort of journalism school. We accept that, from the moment reporters write an intro, they
are introducing an element of subjectivity into an article… We want good writing — including writing brimming with passion and humour and immediacy. We don’t want over-statement, hyperbole and lazy acceptance of prevailing ideas and journalistic lines.

: Disclosures: I write a new-media column for Guardian, occasionally consult, and admire the paper and its leaders.

: LATER: See also this week’s column by the Guardian’s readers’ editor on making errors.

: RELATED: Jack Shafer wonders why papers have such a problem correcting errors of judgment as well as fact.

In theory, objectivity is a terrific concept: By considering all the facts impartially and presenting them in a balanced and fair manner, you find the truth. But journalistic objectivity fractures when its practitioners get many important details right–as the Times reporters have in their Duke dispatches–but still manage to botch the essence of the story. As long as they satisfy themselves that they’ve been objective and accurate in the presentation of facts, newspapers have no elegant mechanism for saying, “Whoops!” and correcting course. Instead, newspapers tend to reinforce their mistakes in judgment or ignore them until the noise from critics forces them to confess to a kind of journalistic malpractice. This is how the Times finally extricated itself from its flawed Wen Ho Lee and WMD coverage.