“We Have To Be As Good As We Possibly Can In What We Do”

Can we fix the news? Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of the Guardian and author of “Breaking News“ is optimistic. An interview about the future of news and the importance of journalism in our modern world.

Alan Rusbridger is one of the best and most successful newspaper editors of our time. At the helm of The Guardian from 1995 to 2015, he saw the newspaper through turbulent times — both economically and politically. Under his watch, the Guardian published investigations into the British phone-hacking scandal and covered the Wikileaks Afghan War documents. He also oversaw the Pulitzer prize-winning reporting of Edward Snowden’s revelations of American and British state surveillance — stories that would see the Guardian rise to a position of international renown. Rusbridger’s decision to embrace the digital revolution in news helped expand The Guardian’s audience, making it one the world’s most-read newspapers on the Internet.

Having stepped back from his position as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief in 2015, he is now the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, a constituent college of the University of Oxford, as well as the Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

I met Alan in Oxford to talk to him about his new book “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” which reflects on his time at the Guardian, the transformation of the news industry over the last decade, and the future of journalism.

You stepped down from your position as editor in chief in 2015. How does it feel to no longer be in the thick of things? Do you miss your time at the Guardian?

I like newspapers, and journalists and news. I also like thinking about news and the future of news. So I miss all that. There are two things that I don’t miss. One is jumping out of the bed early in the morning, trying to do six things before breakfast. The second is the unrelenting nature of being editor in chief today. In the past, you didn’t have to think about re-inventing the news. It was the same as it had always been. There is a bit of me that feels quite relieved that that’s now somebody else’s job.

You began at the Guardian as a reporter in 1979 and became the paper’s editor in 1995. During your time as editor, you have had a front-row seat to extraordinary change. What do you think is more of a threat to journalism these days: the disruption to the industry’s economic models or the increasing loss of trust?

The economic bit is obviously the most pressing bit. It’s a very complicated picture and it’s a different question for every news outlet. There is not going to be one model that works for everyone.

But the economic threat is related to the question of what journalism is trying to do and whether people trust journalism. The traditional reason for being informed was that you could then help create a better society. But do people still believe that? Or do people feel powerless and disengaged? There are now so many reasons why the way we convinced ourselves news happened is not working properly. And there is going to be an awful lot of hard thinking about how to address that.

He pauses.

Obviously, I start from a position where I think journalism is necessary and that there should be journalists. He laughs. But I don’t think journalists are always the best advocates of what they do. And some of them haven’t thought deeply enough about what it is that the public wants them to do — and/or trusts them to do.

Would you argue that one way to rectify this, to re-establish trust in journalism, would be for journalists to communicate more clearly what they do and why?

Yes, I do believe that. But how do you do that is the key question. We know that in the age of digital it is not enough to say “Trust me!”. It’s not enough to say “I work for the Guardian, trust me”. You have to earn trust through the way you do journalism.

I also think some journalists haven’t thought enough about what that trust means. That’s one of the things I am trying to demonstrate in the book. How do you demonstrate that you are worthy of trust, rather than just asserting it?

Part of what has affected people’s trust is the Internet. You were one of the first editors to see both the threat and the opportunity provided by the internet for journalism. Your book describes in great detail how you embraced the internet, despite not knowing the outcome. How did it feel to plunge into the unknown? How many nights’ sleep did this cost you?

He laughs dryly.

Most of them.

The very big picture which seemed obvious to me at the time was that print was going to go like that (His left hand points down) and that digital would go like that (His right hand points up. Both form a cross.) Broadly that’s how it turned out, but it was obvious even back then that you couldn’t neatly jump from one thing to the other and expect that the money would inevitably be in place. It was going to be messy, expensive, confusing.

Nevertheless, we knew that we had to reinvent the digital version of the Guardian, otherwise there would have been no Guardian. That was obvious when I took over as editor in 1995. We can all argue how much we got right in the end.

Well, the current success of the Guardian seems to prove you right. They are close to breaking even for the first time in many years.

Well, essentially, they haven’t changed the business model since I left and so I think it’s fair to say, immodestly, we didn’t do badly. But even if they break even this year, will they break even the following year? There’s never going to be that moment when any newspaper can say “Phew, we are safe.”

One big woe for outlets these days are the big tech companies. But while they essentially undermine journalism’s old business model — advertising — they also seem to try to support journalism. The Google News Initiative is a good example or Facebook announcing its support for local journalism. Based on your experience — both as an editor and in writing the book — what is your opinion on initiatives like these and the role of tech companies in journalism more generally?

There is a cynical way of looking at it which is that these are very unpopular companies in the news world. They don’t want to be criticised so they try and reach out to calm the main players down by offering them large sums of money. And there is probably something in that.

Or you can say, well, actually, these people were very young when they started these companies and they’ve created things infinitely bigger and more complex than they could ever have imagined. Now they have to deal with the immense problems these things have created. And maybe they are beginning to realise that it would be better to work with journalists.

I think that maybe both of these things are true at the same time. There’s a cynical reason for doing it and there is a public-purpose reason for doing it.

The cover of the US-edition of Alan Rusbridger’s new book “Breaking News”.

Walking the tightrope will continue for the media…

Yes. These companies have got scale on their side, they’ve got technology on their side, and they’ve got data like no one else. Journalists are never going to match that. But, we’ve seen in the last year how quickly a company like Facebook can blunder into areas they don’t understand, lose trust, squander popularity — monopolies tend not to last. So who knows if they are still going to be with us in 50 years time? At the same time, many news companies have been a bit more resilient than people might have guessed 10 years ago.

Coming back to your book: You wrote “Breaking News” as the Brexit campaign was unfolding, and so was the election of Trump. What did that tell you about the role of the media in politics?

Well, there’s something I mention in the book. In the past, the world was arranged vertically. If you had a printing press you would hand down the news to the people. That’s being challenged by a world in which 4 billion people can talk to each other on a more or less horizontal plane. It seems to me impossible to imagine that that horizontal conversation is not expressing itself in Trump and Brexit, as well as other countries. We now have a different kind of politics, dialogue and activism.

The programme for mainstream journalism is how to insert itself into that conversation, to be heard; and to be thought relevant and be trusted. I personally think we should be in that conversation, more perhaps than we are.

These days, the media are often seen as a detached elite, especially by right-wing populists and their supporters. How should the media deal with the rise of populists and the distrust and hostility often expressed by their supporters?

I think one answer is to stick to our knitting. A quote by Washington Post editor Marty Baron is quite fitting in that context: “We are not at war, we are at work.” I think this is right. We have to be as good as we possibly can in what we do. You can only survive the internet if you’re better than the internet. People will hopefully respect the best of what we can do and feel a need for it. That’s number one.

Number two is: We may have to think of journalism as a public service as well as a business. That is, we have to work towards a mission rather than just for profit. If we are going to require the public to support us in whatever way — be it through advertising, membership or subscriptions — we have to make the case that what we do serves a public interest. And there is quite a lot of journalism that doesn’t look like that. It’s about entertainment, or clicks, or pandering to advertisers, but not about a public service. Of course, you have to pay the bills — no-one’s questioning that — but most experiments in trying to cut or clicked your way to profitability haven’t worked.

Number three is: If you want to be trusted, you have to listen, especially on social media. We have to allow a response. At the same time, we have to change the way we work, for instance by working more with source material. Our aim should be to say: “I am not just going to tell you this. Here is how I know it, here is my evidence.” It’s a basic thing which many journalists and outlets still don’t do. A bit more modesty would do us good, especially on social media. People are more inclined to trust that kind of interaction, than just journalists’ saying: “Here it is, believe it.”

Populist politicans around the world as well as their supporters often distrust the media. Left to right (top): Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro. Bottom: Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump. © Duterte & Trump: Public Domain; Boris Johnson: Chatham House, CC BY 2.0; Jair Bolsonaro: Marcos Brandao/Senado Federal, CC BY 2.0

On the question of trust, the “Relotius Affair” comes to mind where a German reporter for “Der Spiegel” was found out to have faked articles on a grand scale. How should the media deal with the loss of trust resulting from this affair?

It feels to me they’ve been handling it quite well. They’ve been flagellating themselves and have taken it very seriously. That’s the only thing you can do. You have to be completely transparent. The question is, if processes can be improved to prevent this from happening again.

As for the general question of trust, I quote [the late Washington Post columnist] David Broder in the book. He argues that instead of saying “we are the truth” and “we tell truth to power“, journalists should be a bit more modest because nobody believes that anyway. Why don’t we say instead: “This is our best stab at getting close to the truth.“ Why don’t we say: “We are highly professional people who in difficult circumstances are going to do journalism. And journalism is imperfect and you wouldn’t believe the number of people that are trying to throw us off the trail.” Why don’t we say: “This is difficult, we are not claiming to be perfect, but our promise to you is that we will always tell you when we get things wrong and we will be as open and transparent as we can.”

I always thought that this is much better because it’s more believable. There are some voices who say “Why would you admit to mistakes, people won’t trust you.” Well, but funnily enough they do trust you more when you admit to mistakes. It’s about honesty.

You earlier described journalism as a public service. The journalist David Neiwert recently wrote in the Guardian that the internet and corporate ownership of local media had basically gutted local news — in itself a form of a public service. His argument was that the remaining gap was increasingly being filled by “alternative news“ and conspiracy theorists. Do you agree?

Both are true. It’s the thing I write about in my book early on, using the example of Sweden. We’ve now got a world where you have an awful lot of bad actors putting out bad information, with many local outlets struggling or shutting down to financial problems. Other good players are increasingly saying “We are over here, but we also are behind a paywall.” I am not saying this is wrong but obviously, the act of putting yourself behind a paywall means that you are only being read by the people who are paying — and you’ve left the public playing field open to anybody else who wants to occupy it.

For the first time in human history, you have got a mass means of creating and distributing falsehood. If journalism is saying “We are not in the public service of broadly informing people” this leaves the space wide open for malicious actors. Again, this is not to decry paywalls. But this is a by-product of paywalls which we cannot ignore.

What could be a solution to this? Obviously, something like the Guardian’s model won’t work for everyone.

If your readers think you are doing proper journalism and you are doing it in the public interest, that you are “on their side“, so to speak, then I think they are quite sympathetic to the idea of supporting that. What the Guardian has done is to turn that into a mission, asking its readers “Don’t you think it’s a good idea that we should be available for everybody to read?” At the moment, that seems to be a convincing enough proposition.

Any paper could theoretically do that, but you can only do it if you produce really fantastic journalism that people value. If your starting point is “We want clicks” or “We want to build an enormous audience through pictures of minor celebrities on beaches flaunting their assets”, you might have a great business model, but no one is going to give voluntarily to that.

For the first time in human history, you have got a mass means of creating and distributing falsehood. If journalism is saying “We are not in the public service of broadly informing people” this leaves the space wide open for malicious actors.

Coming in from the other direction, there are more and more people coming forward with money who say: “There is reporting that needs to be done in the public interest and we’ve got the money.“ And states are increasingly looking to bolster journalism too, for example, Canada. If we think that journalism is a public service, then that’s a function in society which the market might not pay for but there is still a need for it to be done. And these could be potential ways forward.

Finally, another solution is of course Public Service Broadcasting. The BBC has a very good model and is the most trusted news organisation in Britain. Their cause is public service. It’s not being done for profit and available to everybody.

So you argue that at a time when Public Service Media are increasingly under threat and some people are growing weary of them, we actually need more of it, not less.

Yes, it’s never been more necessary. As the world is being flooded with rotten information, having a publicly funded, reliable source of information is crucial. It’s the worst possible time to be undermining the public broadcasters idea.

Are you worried for the BBC given that it has faced increasing cuts, and scrutiny from politicians as well as other news outlets?

Not at the moment. What generally happens is that some private newspapers campaign against the public broadcasters, claiming that they are preventing them from having commercial viability. That concern is partially understandable because it’s so difficult to compete with them, given the funding they have.

But when you look at America, they don’t really have a public service provider and the American press is in just as much as trouble. You could kill off German, Swedish or Swiss public broadcasters and still have the news model that does no longer work.

Another thing you emphasise in your book is the importance of investigative journalism. You also argue that it’s good for business in the long run. But it’s costly, so where do you see its future?

I do think the people with a long view are the people that are going to win. The short term view is to cut all costs, splatter adverts all over the news site and go for clicks in hopes of getting a large audience whose data you then can sell. But that doesn’t seem to work.

The alternative business model is to do amazing journalism that is so unusual that people will want it. It was scary at the Guardian when we had to make that decision. But I do think the reason that the Guardian has now got a million people who are willing to pay is linked to the investigative journalism we did. There is no tension between investing in long-term investigative journalism and people’s willingness to pay for it — in fact, it’s the other way round: That’s the only reason they are willing to pay for it.

Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University. Alan Rusbridger is the college’s current principal. © Herbi1922, CC BY-SA 4.0

Let’s talk a bit about the future of journalism and the news industry. One recurrent theme in this context is diversity. As the principal of Lady Margaret Hall you’ve started a diversity initiative at the college, the foundation year. Does journalism need a diversity initiative, too?

Yes, definitely. Newsrooms are still very white and middle class and newsrooms recruiting practices haven’t changed much over the years. The obvious danger is that you then become out of touch with trends, stories and groups in society who think: “Well, you’ve got no relevance to me.”

But it’s difficult to be diverse. The difficulty at the Guardian was that not many people ever left. Broadly speaking, we had a shrinking editorial staff and at the same time in an insecure world people were not leaving, so we hadn’t got many opportunities to hire. It’s a problem that you can’t solve overnight. More initiatives like what we are doing here at Oxford — a bridging scheme where we make people “oven ready” — are needed to address this.

Apart from managing its diversity problem, how well is the industry prepared for what comes next? And what comes next in your opinion?

Journalism doesn’t deserve to survive if it cannot explain what it is what it’s doing and if it’s not better than what’s elsewhere on the Internet.

There are two examples for that in the book: One is Brexit. Is journalism there to tell people what to vote and how to think? Or is it there to inform people about the complexity of that decision? These are two fundamentally different views of what journalism is for. My guess is that the journalism that tells people what to think is not going to be tremendously valued in the long term. Anybody can do that, really. But journalism that is reliable and informed and trustworthy about the huge choices we face, that sort of journalism deserves to thrive.

The second example is climate change. This is on any account the biggest story of our lives. But what is journalism there to do? Is it there to give you the best information about it? Or is it there to sneer at it and to say that it doesn’t really exist?

Any business model that is not based on producing fantastic journalism cannot work. The ones who don’t understand that won’t survive — and they probably don’t deserve to.

Would you agree that one of the greatest failures of journalism over the last years is its coverage of climate change?

Yes. It’s not only that it has been largely missing. I mean, where is the coverage given its importance? Worse is the fact that even when it is there, it’s quite often in the hands of people who don’t really believe in climate change. If we are ourselves facing an existential crisis if we are at the risk of becoming extinct, why would you define your journalism by letting people write rubbish about a subject they clearly don’t know a thing about?

What would be your one piece of advice to your former colleagues and the media in this context?

He pauses and thinks.

Try and behave as human beings. If all that is happening is making you a bit scared, then shouldn’t you use your one skill — which is the ability to produce and distribute reliable information well — shouldn’t you want to harness that to try and save the species?

“Breaking News” is a long book and you cover a great many topics but what is the message you really want people to walk away with?

Well, one thing is that societies without facts are terrible societies. Nothing can work unless we have facts. Yet, I don’t think the public is post-truth, the environment is post-truth. It would be patronising to say that people don’t really care any longer about what is true — in fact, I think they do. But it has become harder to identify what is true and what is not.

The second thing is: The world of information is now so visible and transparent and if you are not brilliant, people are going to reveal that. Everybody knows now when you get something wrong. You just have to be better. Any business model that is not based on producing fantastic journalism cannot work. The ones who don’t understand that won’t survive — and they probably don’t deserve to.

Felix Simon is a journalist and researcher and regularly writes for the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Die Welt”, the “NZZ”, “Telegraph” and other outlets. He holds a BA in Film- and Media Studies from the Goethe-University Frankfurt and an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford, where he works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He tweets under @_Felix Simon_.