Reinventing the Newsroom

Alan Rusbridger and the Way Forward

Posted in Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on January 26, 2010

Yesterday Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, delivered the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication. The text of his speech is available here from the Guardian, and it’s worth reading, thinking about, and then re-reading. It’s one of the best surveys of modern journalism I’ve read. Rusbridger turns a discerning eye on admirable stories and successful investigations undertaken in print and on the Web and through blogs and via Twitter. He does so with generous praise for a range of news organizations’ journalists, not just his own. And his delight in the results is wonderfully evident. That last part makes his speech also one of the most stirring invocations of what journalism can do today, and the new ways in which journalists can do it. Fledgling journalists wondering if they should really commit to this somewhat-battered profession ought to read it — they’ll find their faith renewed.

But having said all that, I was least convinced by the part of the speech that’s getting the most attention. Rusbridger’s discussion of paywalls struck me as lacking much of the nuance that made the rest of his speech so compelling. As articulated here, his vision of paywalls feels like a straw man (albeit a very elegantly constructed one) — one borrowed from mid-Aughts ruminations that I doubt anyone is still seriously considering. Rusbridger spends a lot of time jabbing (in a courtly yet deadly way) at Rupert Murdoch, but seems to take Murdoch’s rhetoric at face value when he knows better. (I know there’s a certain amount of U.K. press-baron soap opera here that’s going over my head, context-wise.)

Rusbridger begins with an aversion to talking about business models, then says he’s going to focus on one that “radically affects some of the most stimulating ideas of what journalism is becoming, or could become.” That model, he says, is the one “that one that says we must charge for all content online. It’s the argument that says the age of free is over: we must now extract direct monetary return from the content we create in all digital forms.”

He means Murdoch’s call for universal paywalls, but c’mon. That’s saber-rattling by Murdoch, aimed in various measures at Google, Microsoft and Murdoch’s own competitors. This is, of course, standard operating procedure for Murdoch — his Journal tenure (which briefly overlapped mine) began with the same kind of bluff charge, except back then the word from on high was that everything would be free. Murdoch’s Sky News is free, and will undoubtedly stay that way. So are other properties of his, such as Harper Collins’ BookArmy. Rusbridger mentions both by way of catching Murdoch in his own contradictions, but he could have avoided all that heavy lifting by simply not professing to believe his rival in the first place.

Here’s Rusbridger’s elegantly stated defense of the link economy: “If you universally make people pay for your content it follows that you are no longer open to the rest of the world, except at a cost. That might be the right direction in business terms, while simultaneously reducing access and influence in editorial terms. It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.”

Beautifully said, but is anyone still seriously proposing such a thing? The New York Times isn’t, not with its metered paywall that’s arriving at the approximate speed of continental drift. (Social-media links won’t count against the monthly allotment.) The Journal opened up its own walled garden years ago — an innovation sometimes credited to Murdoch, but which actually predates him. Even if Murdoch were to revisit previous fulminations and pull his content from Google, that content would still spread via social media, which I bet will soon rival or eclipse industrial search in importance.

Rusbridger goes on to say that “there is probably general agreement that we may all want to charge for specialist, highly-targeted, hard-to-replicate content. It’s the ‘universal’ bit that is uncertain. … Isn’t there, in any case, more to be learned at this stage of the revolution, by different people trying different models – maybe different models within their own businesses – than all stampeding to one model?”

Again, beautifully said: This should be an age of experimentation, albeit one with a sense of urgency. Absolutely, there is more to be learned. But who disagrees? I don’t see everybody stampeding to one model — I think most everybody agrees that the universal bit is too uncertain to be seriously entertained. And I don’t see anyone stampeding to the absolutist model Rusbridger has described. It no longer exists as a viable candidate.

Rusbridger notes that in 1921, legendary Guardian editor CP Scott surveyed how the telegraph and telephone were shrinking the world and exulted, “What a change for the world! What a chance for the newspaper!” In a similar spirit, he notes that the Guardian grew its audience by 40% in a year, and is now read by more Americans than read the Los Angeles Times. (Not the greatest example these days, but I get his point.) But while I admire the spirit, this ignores a rather substantial elephant in the room: The telegraph and the telephone gave the Guardian and other newspapers a chance to extend their reach and their authority in unprecedented ways, but they didn’t destroy its business model without ushering in a replacement. The Web and its associated digital services are doing just that. CP Scott would have of course concerned himself with that rather uneasy bargain, and asked how the Guardian planned to translate its growth and newfound American audience into making money.

This isn’t an argument for retreating to print or erecting impenetrable paywalls. We need to decouple journalism from its longtime business model before that old model drags it under, even though no new business model is in place — the industry is, to quote a rock star, a fish trying to learn to breathe air. It’s not the way anyone would choose to make such a transition, but here we are nonetheless. Rusbridger is right that “if you only think about business models you can scare yourself into total paralysis,” but you can also paralyze yourself by not thinking about business models at all — which is how the industry got so deeply mired in its current mess. Like it or not, we have to think about business models — and not about caricatures of them. I wish his speech had considered this part of the puzzle as eloquently as it covered journalism’s very real new opportunities.


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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Fry, Case Ernsting. Case Ernsting said: "It’s 1 of the best surveys of modern journalism I’ve read" @JasonCFry posts about Alan Rusbridger's lecture yesterday […]

  2. […] through sharing and search won’t count against readers’ monthly counts. (More on this here.) That seems wise, but the more we find content this way, the less paywalls will contribute to news […]

  3. […] I was wrong. (And Alan Rusbridger, you were right.) As Tim Bradshaw writes for the Financial Times’ techblog, when the paywalls go up on the […]

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