Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, with Alan Rusbridger

Dec 4, 2018

"Were we a business, were we a mission, were we a public service, or were we a profit center?" Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of "The Guardian," grapples with the questions facing all newspapers in this new age where people "communicate horizontally" rather than via the old, vertical "tablet of stone model." He explains how "The Guardian" has not only survived but prospered and has surprisingly positive things to say about new media.

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for beginning your day with us.

It is a sincere pleasure to welcome one of the most innovative newspaper editors of our time, Alan Rusbridger, to the Carnegie Council. I hope you've had a chance to peruse his bio, which was handed out when you were checking in because if you haven't read it by now, please do so. He has had the most interesting career, covering some of the most fascinating stories of our time.

His book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now covers the 20 years he spent as editor-in-chief of Britain's leading newspaper, The Guardian. In it he writes about how he transformed this progressive British daily into the most visited serious English-language newspaper site in the world.

In the past several years almost every aspect of the news business has changed. It is not only the proliferation and balkanization of news sources or the cloak of web anonymity that has left people feeling that they've been denied trustworthy sources of information, it is more that the old business model, which revolved around print advertising, has been undermined by the Internet, which has forced news organizations to cut back on resources.

In Breaking News, Mr. Rusbridger tells the story of the digitalization of journalism as seen from the front lines and explains what this means for the future of newspapers and in turn for democracy. As readers turn to new media, there is no filter. Anyone with a social media account can bring news to the masses and, should they choose, spread misinformation. Furthermore, having so many outlets to choose from, audiences can cherry-pick information and seek out sources that match their own biases and dismiss the rest. How much this matters and what can be done about it are pressing questions.

For anyone who believes that the free exchange of ideas and the ability to hold power to account are prerequisites for a successful democracy, the challenge is how to regain that central role in helping people understand and engage in the world around us, especially when old-fashioned journalism is being radically altered by political and technological forces.

Simply said, when journalists no longer have a near-monopoly on news and the means of distribution, what does it actually mean to be a journalist today?

In the age of Facebook, fake news, and the Twittersphere, can newspapers survive? For the story of how one editor met these challenges, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a person often described as the "quiet giant of modern British journalism," our guest today, Alan Rusbridger.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, thank you. I didn't expect to see so many people at this time on a Monday morning, but thank you for coming.

I think actually lots of people are terribly interested in this subject. I thought, The next time I write I book, what I'm going to do is do the book tour first and then write the book, because you tune into what people's concerns are about this subject, and I might have written a slightly different book.

I was trying to do a number of things. One was to describe this amazing revolution that has happened in 20 years, really in the last 12 years, as big as Gutenberg, as big as Caxton, as big as anything that has ever happened in the world of communication, and it's only five minutes old, and we're going to be living with this revolution for a long time, and I thought somebody should write about what that felt like from the inside.

The next thing I wanted to do was to celebrate the institutional value of news. I just wanted to describe—because it's not clear that this will last another 10 or 20 years—what a newspaper thought it was doing and the collection of people who came together and why they all worked as a unit and how it's pointless publishing stories unless you can defend them, and if you're going to defend stories, then you have to have great lawyers, and you have to have today great technological people and great commercial people. And you have an institutional robustness which enables you to stand apart from all kinds of power and to challenge power, and if we think that's a valuable thing, again I just thought it was worth describing that before it goes, question mark.

Inevitably, there's a bit of memoir in there because you need a narrative thread to keep people awake, so these are the greatest hits of The Guardian when I was there, and then finally it was to try see where is this story going, where is it going to go next, and that's the part about the "remaking" of journalism.

I found it a harder book to write than I thought. The comfortable book to write would be to say, "Well, there's all this information chaos out there in the world, and we need more journalism." As somebody who worked as a journalist for 40 years, that would have been a book that I kind of believed in, and it would have been I think the narrative that most journalists would like to write.

But I found it difficult to write quite such a simple book. The big image in my mind while I was writing it was one not just of newspapers but of society in general and of societies that had been for centuries arranged in vertical form are now rearranging themselves in horizontal form. In newspapers that meant there were a very few number of people who owned printing presses, usually billionaires or large corporations.

If you owned a printing press, then you were at the top of the vertical arrangement, and you handed down a kind of tablet of stone, and people handed up their money, and they couldn't really challenge that system of authority because they didn't have those sources of information that other people had.

Now, of course, we understand that 4 billion people can communicate horizontally, and that has led to such a fundamental challenge in how people view that old vertical world. So it's not just newspapers, but all forms of institution and authority are feeling the chill of wondering how on earth to understand let alone get into or having any relevance in that world.

The historian Niall Ferguson has just written a book called The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, and it's the same idea.

It's a very difficult thing. There was nothing not to like, to be honest, if you were a journalist and you had a printing press because you were in total control of everything, and people sort of respected you and regarded you as the authority. Now that's gone, and there are some people who describe these people as the mob, and that was a club, and it was very nice being in the club. But the moment that natural appearance of authority goes, then you have to start rethinking your relationship with pretty much everything.

This of course impacts on the economic underpinning of the press, and these two stories of what the press thinks it's doing and what its value to society is and how it currently sustains itself are inescapable. The economic model of the press was predicated on the fact, that of scarcity; there wasn't much information around, so you could charge for it.

It also was predicated on a complete accident of history, which was that you had advertising and you had news, and they came together in a printed product, and that worked well for 200 years, and what the Internet has done is to pull those apart. We know the story that Google and Facebook have said: "Thanks very much. We'll have all the revenue. You can have all the cost." And that's not great.

So you've seen a cycle of events in which newspapers have done the obvious thing, which is just to cut and cut and cut costs until they are increasingly less relevant. My colleague Nick Davies of The Guardian wrote a book called Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media, in which he went to look at what was happening inside newsrooms, and he coined this term "churnalism," in which if you are working for a newspaper and you have to now write 10 stories in a day, you can do the math, and you've basically got 45 minutes in which to write each story, and essentially you're just recycling the press releases that people are giving you, giving it sort of a veneer of authenticity by the fact that it appears and seems to be journalism. So it's the worst of all worlds really and then you wonder why the public, who can sniff churnalism, say: "Well, that's no value to me. I'm not going to pay for that." And so you get into a spiral of decline.

Some newspaper managers, what business they think they're in now because they've seen Facebook monetizing people's personal data and selling it to advertisers, and that looks like a model that seems to work for Facebook, so why don't we do that, and almost the journalism in the middle gets lost as the primary purpose of a newspaper. That's the economic bit.

Then, while I was writing the book, Donald Trump happened. We can't get through the morning without mentioning him. So we know the bad side of Donald Trump—or maybe some of us do—in relation to journalism. We're the "enemies of the people." He wants to delegitimize what we do and bypass what we do and speak directly to people, and he speaks directly to people with things that might be true or might not be true, and quite often aren't true.

The good side I think is that people are realizing that you can't have a society that works like that. You can't have a society in which there are no agreed facts. You can't have government, you can't have law, you can't have science, you can't have progress. The society just doesn't work unless there's an agreed factual basis and there aren't alternative facts or there aren't lies. You have to be able to agree some facts, otherwise society can't work.

I suppose where I thought that book was leading me was to say: "Well if you need facts, journalists are quite good at getting facts, then here we are. We're the answer." And I would write a rousing defense of journalism and I would rubbish social media.

But as I sat down to write the book, Brexit was happening in Britain, and I won't bore you about Brexit because god knows it's a boring subject, but it's also a rather terrifying subject if you're British. It is the most consequential decision Britain's going to make in peacetime in the last 100 years.

By then I was a civilian. I was reading the papers, not creating the papers, and I thought: Well, I know what I want journalism to do here. This is a very complicated question, as I think now everybody would agree because Parliament can't find any solution to it that Parliament would agree, so this is a difficult problem, and what I would like is journalism to explain the arguments on both sides, and then I can make an informed decision that will get to the right result.

That's the classic defense of what journalism does. You inform the readers. They then pick good people to be in power over them, and we get a better democracy.

That's not what most British newspapers did. Most British newspapers, who don't like the idea of Europe and never have—so for some of them it was a 20-year campaign in which they would give one side of the story and not allow that there was anything good about being in the European Union. They produced a series of front pages day after day after day after day that bellowed, screamed, cajoled, blackmailed, and bullied their readers into telling them how they should vote, and they didn't really set out any of the advantages of Europe. It was just, "This is what you must do."

One of the newspaper owners signed a check for ₤1 million to the main Brexit party and so was becoming a combatant rather than a journalist. Another paper, one of Rupert Murdoch's papers, The Sun, had to register as an official part of the campaign because they printed a gigantic poster to put in windows. So again, journalists were losing any idea of what journalism was supposed to be doing, and they were becoming advocates for one side.

So it's quite difficult to say, "Well, here's my book in defense of this thing we call journalism," when you look at most of the journalism in your own country on a really important decision and think, I find it quite difficult to write to book to tell something of that.

The second subject where I thought there is a continuing journalistic failure is climate change. Let us suppose that climate change may well be the most pressing subject of our generation. Not everybody might agree about that in the room, but I suspect that most do. You would expect journalism somehow to reflect that urgency and importance, and yet how often is it on our front pages or leading the news bulletins?

Again, in Britain when it does make an appearance it's quite often with skepticism dripping over the evidence as though we've still got to argue about whether this is actually happening or not.

That to my mind is another failure of journalism to do what we might think we want it to do. If it was journalism in the public interest as opposed to journalism to make a profit, if that was how we were beginning this argument, we might approach climate change in a different way.

Those were two things that made me pause, and it seemed to me that at the heart of these failures was a question about what we thought we were doing as news organizations, what the business model looked like, and increasingly the business model was to try to get very large audiences through clicks, clickbait, because that seemed to be the—if you had these giants now over there that were the most profitable companies the world had ever seen and were, 2 billion people using Facebook or whatever it is, then we ought to be trying to be as big as them because the price of advertising has now scaled accordingly and so on and so forth.

Were we a business, were we a mission, were we a public service, or were we a profit center? These were all the questions that newspapers have been dealing with as they struggle to cope with this.

But I suppose there was an even bigger question at the heart of this, which is, what is journalism? If you're saying journalism is the answer, journalism turns out to be a big, baggy, all-encompassing word that is not very helpful.

Fox News is journalism, and The New York Times is journalism, but they have very different ideas. Try to explain to an 11-year-old how these two different concepts of a craft are in fact the same thing, and we call them journalism. That's quite hard.

In Britain The Sun is journalism, the Daily Mail is journalism, and the Financial Times (FT) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) are journalism, but they have very different ideas of what we think—if you're just saying, "Journalism is the answer," you can understand why people are a big skeptical and say: "Sorry, I don't quite get that. Can you explain that a bit more?"

I've been in rooms with Facebook executives when you've had traditional journalists begging them to subsidize. They say: "It's unfair you're taking all this money. You should be giving some money back to journalism."

And these mild Facebook executives say: "Okay. What sort of journalism do you want us to subsidize? What is it that you're doing?" A genuine question. Maybe a slightly genuine question.

You can sort of see it from their point of view: "Are you seriously asking us to give you hundreds of millions of dollars in order to subsidize people flaunting their curves on beaches," which is what you get if you go to the Daily Mail "sidebar of shame," which is arguably the most "successful" British newspaper. But that's a completely different model from a local newspaper trying to cover the courts and the town halls. "What is this thing that you call journalism, and who gets to be a journalist," and so on and so forth?

Because I think that's such a hard question to unpack, you're seeing these abysmal levels of trust now in what we call journalism. Edelman does this Trust Barometer each year, and it had a rather deadly slide saying journalism is the least-trusted institution now of all.

You think: Well, why is that?

If we've stood on the precipice and we've looked over and we've thought, Actually, we don't like the look of a society in which we don't know what's true and what's not true, and journalists are the people who historically were the people who would say, "Well, that's true and that's not true, and we'll give you the facts," why have we reached the situation where instead of people begging for journalists to come back and save us, they're saying actually, "You are almost the last people we would go to because we trust you the least"?

There are all kinds of terrifying statistics on trust now in the Edelman and almost any survey you look at; 66 percent of people now can't tell the difference between a good source and a bad source, two-thirds of people. There are all kinds of reasons we might discuss why that's happening, but that seems to me a quite frightening figure. Half of people are now disengaging from the news because they don't know what to believe.

We now are in this very dangerous situation where it seems to me it could go either way. You could say, "Well, journalism still has the vital role or a vital role to play," or could you have people saying, "Well, actually we've lost our trust."

And trust is obviously a very complicated word because people trust Breitbart, and often there's an inverse proportion between the most trusted institutions—FT, very trusted but really quite small; Sun and Daily Mail, not at all trusted, but lots of people read them. So there's a sort of dissonance in the audience, so we can't let the audience off the hook for all that.

Then there's the social media piece. About halfway through the book social media suddenly appears. There was the Web, and we were onto the Web quite quickly on The Guardian. There had been an awful lot of confusion. As Warren [Hoge] is here, I describe going to The New York Times in 1993 to find the Internet, and I went to The New York Times, and The New York Times at that point thought that news would never be a thing on the Net. They just couldn't imagine it.

So they had a little unit. It was doing sorts of arts reviews and restaurant recommendations, and the guy who was in charge of it at the time said, "News is never going to work on the Internet."

So nobody had a clue what we were doing, but nevertheless we got to about 2008, and we thought: That's it. We've done that. We're getting to much bigger audiences. The Guardian suddenly found all these readers in America, and we thought we had sort of begun to crack it.

Then my colleague Emily Bell, who is now at Columbia, who was my digital director at the time, came in and said, "There's this thing called Web 2.0" and she said, "You should have a look at Twitter."

I looked at Twitter, and she said, "This is going to be the biggest news organization in the world."

I said: "Get out of here, Emily. This is a lot of people saying what they had for breakfast." I just couldn't see it. I couldn't see Facebook.

What she was saying is that society is rearranging itself on a horizontal level, and we ought to sit up and pay attention. That was a very hard thing for people who had grown up with the printing press. It just seemed wrong on every level, and increasingly you see people who think that. They still think it; they think it more entrenched. You read it in lots of newspapers, that this was a utopian vision about what the Internet could be and how sad it all went wrong, and we must stop it.

But that's not my experience of social media. If I've described to you what I thought about Brexit and climate change in much of the traditional media, I find the opposite on social media. I find very engaged people who know what they're talking about, real experts, and I find the tone of the dialogue really agreeable. Not when I was editing, I used to hate it when I was editing because people were very rude to me.

But now nobody knows who I am. I sit there, and I find intelligent people talking in an intelligent way. I find they listen to each other, they respond to each other. They don't say, "Trust me because I work for The Guardian"; they say: "Trust me because I'm about to give you the evidence. Here's a link. Here's a screenshot."

If you think Twitter is 280 characters long, it is, but people have constructed a new form of engagement, which is to do a thread, so you can do 20 things, each with its own bit of evidence and each contestable and arguable and respondable to. That's very different from the tablet-of-stone model, and it's sometimes uncomfortable.

Also, on the significant issues of the day I find it doesn't last very long because there will always be somebody who will challenge something within minutes, if not within seconds, as opposed to newspapers and their antiquated correction models.

So I think there's a lot going on in social media. It's a difficult thing to measure, trust, but people obviously do in some sense trust this ability to have what are in some senses conversations with people who seem to know what they're talking about and to be able to challenge them and to respond to them.

I think one thing that newspapers might do is to think about social media and think about: Well, if that is the predominant direction of communication in our age, let's think about how people talk and respond and listen as a method of getting at the truth, rather than just saying, "Here's the truth; take my word for it," because people don't seem inclined to do that any longer on the vertical axis.

Some journalists agree with that. I'm not sure all journalists agree with that. Again, it's almost like the pendulum has swung back in the first five minutes of the Internet, and journalists are saying: "Well, we tried that. It didn't work."

The number of newspapers that are now turning comments off under articles and basically saying: "Our readers are morons; we hadn't realized. We gave them this chance to comment, and have you read them? They're appalling people. So if they want to go and have their appalling conversations over there, that's fine, but we're not going to talk with them."

It's a difficult thing. I did it for 20 years, and I'm quite relieved. These are very difficult issues to solve.

Zuckerberg's problem in solving the problems he has got, I wouldn't envy him, and yet the sort of anger that is being—and they've made terrible mistakes, and they're arrogant, and I wish they would pay more tax and all of that, but nevertheless to be asking Mark Zuckerberg to solve all of these problems by next Monday seems to me unfair. The world has never seen the capability that he has created.

In the taxi on the way here, there is a very good media commentator called Frederic Filloux, who publishes a Monday Note each day, and he was just publishing something about how Facebook is to blame for the riots that are going on in Paris at the moment.

That seems to me a misreading of what Facebook is. Facebook is allowing people to communicate very efficiently horizontally, and WhatsApp is doing the same. But they're not causing the riots. They are enabling people who feel discontent rightly or wrongly about the economic system that they live under to communicate, and you could argue that's a good thing, that people who had never been able previously in history to have a voice to have that voice.

Anyway, how did we do this on The Guardian? The Guardian is owned by a trust. It's not a not-for-profit but it's a not-profit. It generally over 198 years hasn't made much money, and it has lost quite a lot of money over the years.

Nevertheless, that was never why it existed. It was brought into existence after the Peterloo Massacre, which is the subject of a new film by Mike Leigh, and it came about through somebody who was in the crowd thinking, Here's this terrible thing the state has done to kill a lot of unarmed, peaceful protesters, and somebody needs to write down what happened.

The Times reporter had been jailed, and John Edward Taylor wrote down what happened and got it to London, and it was printed in The Times, and you had a version of facts. If you read The Times over the next two days in August 1819, you see an editor thinking, Well, how can we prove that this is true?

He did all kinds of modern techniques like crowdsourcing. He published multiple accounts of this massacre as if to say: "Well, look, if 25 people are saying the same thing, it's arguably more true than if it's one person, and it's arguably more true than if just the magistrate is saying this."

The Guardian was put into a trust in 1936, and so it has never existed for profit, which is just as well, because as I say it's doesn't often make it. But it has rather cleverly built up a billion-dollar endowment, which is there to subsidize the journalism, and it hasn't got any shareholders, so it has been able to think a bit long-term about the problem. Because it doesn't have a proprietor, its only relationship is with its readers.

So we set out to embrace digital. We set out to be global if only because all our readers turned out to be global. Now two-thirds of our readers aren't British. That seemed to be an opportunity. We thought we would concentrate on the mission before we concentrated on the money, not that we didn't think money was important, but we thought we had to understand why we're here because otherwise why would the readers ever support us.

Then we had this really fascinating day in 2012. Clay Shirky, who is here at NYU (New York University) and is a very good thinker on digital, came in, and we'd just talked to the readers. We had a group of readers, and we said: "Look, you're going to have to pay us in some form or another. How would you like that to work?"

There were essentially two models. One is, "You pay us, and we'll put a wall around the content, and what you're essentially buying is the ability for you to be able to read our stuff and no for one else to be able to read it."

And Guardian readers, who are rather saintly, said, "No, we don't like that model."

Clay said, "Well, the other model is you pay us in order for The Guardian to be available for everybody in the world."

And The Guardian readers said, "Yes, we like that model."

That's essential philanthropy. That's saying, "We don't like a world in which we don't know what's true and what's not true, so we will give you money in order for The Guardian to be available," a bit like National Public Radio (NPR) or Wikipedia or whatever.

Last week, my successor as the editor announced that a million Guardian readers were now paying under that model. At the same time, we went to other philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, who said: "Look, we understand that you probably can't afford to cover the developing world and Africa in the way that it deserves to be covered. We'll give you some money to do that."

A philanthropist asked us to go to Australia and set up an operation there because 70 percent of the Australian press was owned by Rupert Murdoch. He thought that was bad, and he said: "If it doesn't work, you don't have to pay me back. If it does, you can." That has just moved into profit after five years. The U.S. operation is just moving into profit. The Guardian is now breaking even, and it has still got $1 billion in the bank. Nothing is forever, but it doesn't look like the worst model. But it has required patience to get there.

At the heart of it is the relationship with the reader and saying: "We're not going to hand down a tablet of stone to you and expect you to trust us. We will engage you. We will in some sense co-opt you, harness you, and involve you in what we're doing. And we will try to find some of these things that are working on the horizontal level and make them work for you."

That was what The Guardian has done. I don't think that's a universal model, although I think it could work quite well at a local level. I think that the local papers that are in the deepest trouble and used to have that kind of relationship with readers in which readers would say, "Well, here is this news organization at the heart of the community."

But I think the one thing that you could take away—and this is where I will end—is just to say what that is doing is saying: "We will define what our mission is, and you can then decide whether you want to support us. I promise you no one's going to get rich out of The Guardian. All the money will go back into the business, and it is in some sense a kind of social enterprise."

It makes me wonder whether that's not a good model to think of. If we think that the world is in a dangerous place if we haven't got that information and that the provision of that information is a bit like a police service or an ambulance service or a health service, it's that necessary to a society, it is genuinely a public service, and if the market can't meet that, then we have to start making a plan B because I think it's too important to leave this for another five years and wait for the economic—let's hope the sun might shine on the newspaper industry, and it might all change, but it would be worthwhile having a plan B about the social enterprise version of a business that would support the mission of journalism.

I think readers actually want that. They don't want the clickbait, and they will pay for something that is not journalism, and they will also pay for that to be open because they see the value of that.

I think there's an argument to be had. It could go either way. I like to be optimistic, and I hope the book ends on an optimistic note, saying that I think we can see a route through.

But why don't I shut up, and then you can ask some questions?


QUESTION: Hi, there. Warren Hoge of the International Peace Institute.

Alan, you partially answered the question I wanted to ask you about the Scott Trust and how that works. In this country The New York Times, happily, and The Washington Post, happily, have found models: the Times, the digital subscription model; The Washington Post, the Jeff Bezos model. They're going to survive.

The press that I worry about, that we journalists worry about here, is that middle-range, middle-city press, which was always so important in American life, particularly about holding local officials and businesses to standards. They're the ones who are really suffering right now, and they seem not to have found a model, so I'm really intrigued by your talking about the Scott Trust and how that happened.

You said that locally it may work. That was going to be my question. Do you think the Scott Trust model, which is something of a philanthropic kind of model, can work at the local level, and I'm asking particularly in terms of the United States, which has so much dependence upon cities that used to have two and three newspapers now have barely one?

By the way, by "newspaper," I mean digital form also, not just print.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: This is happening, and it's going to happen more. You're going to have entire communities without any reliable source of news, and I think that's a catastrophe for the community, and I think people on some level realize that.

I think journalists have to—suppose Philadelphia or Baltimore or Chicago suddenly found themselves without such a newspaper. I think you would begin with a conversation with the community, find out how to have that conversation, and say, "Well, what information is it that you feel you need?" You might be quite surprised by what they tell you because it might not begin with traditional journalism.

There's a little story in the book. We used to publish so much advertising on a Tuesday from teachers. Every single teacher job had to be advertised in The Guardian. The paper was that thick, and all that started to go away. So we thought, Okay, well, we'll set up a website for teachers.

We hired two reporters, and then we went to the teachers and said: "Look, we're going to do it digitally in the future, and we've got these two reporters. What would you like them to write about?"

They said, "Well, actually we're not sure we want stories."

We said: "But we're journalists. That's what we do. We write stories."

They said: "Well, if you really want to know what would make our lives easier, we would love some way where we could just upload our lesson plans because we're all incredibly harassed in our lives, and if we could talk to other people who are teaching Hamlet or geography or physics, that would be wonderful."

We said, "Okay, then." So we built that.

It was incredibly valuable. The readers absolutely loved it, and it was another sort of act of philanthropy. It was just an act of sharing. Nobody wanted any money, they just shared all their lesson plans.

But what it did was to give us the email addresses of 300,000 teachers in Britain. We were still then the center for teachers, and if anybody wanted to advertise to teachers they had to come via us.

But it started from a completely different place. By the way, those 300,000 teachers were then a fantastic journalistic resource for the education correspondent.

I just say that as an example that if you went to the community and said, "What is the information that is useful to you because we know how we've done it for 200 years?" I think you would get some surprising answers.

And if they felt they were involved, they might be more inclined to say, "Well, if you're going to set up a nonprofit trust for this and keeping the community as your mission," I think you'd be amazed at the willingness of communities to get behind things like that.

Does that answer your question?

QUESTION: Thank you so much. I'm Latica Kickert, the president of Women's International Forum.

I have two parts to my question: One is, you mentioned President Trump trying to bypass journalism, and we have seen also in his campaigns that he is playing into an anti-elitist sentiment with people. This could lead us to conclude with the billion people who now have access to media and the way journalism is being bypassed that there is an element of an anti-elitist sentiment playing into it.

So I would like your assessment: Is there really an element of class revolt, maybe, in the readiness with which people are dispensing with traditional journalism?

The second part of the question, the relationship to the British monarchy more locally. I have always seen The Guardian to be an actually very patriotic newspaper, very dedicated to the welfare of Britain but also to the whole world, yet you are the only serious newspaper that I have seen publish really critical material, for instance, disclosing the interference of the monarchy into the lawmaking of the country, which is widely unknown otherwise. How do you see that play into this class element?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: On the first question, two quick answers. This business of bypassing the media. You now see that everywhere because everyone is a media company now, and everyone generates their own content.

There was outrage a couple of years ago when the Thames Valley Police force—I now live in Oxford—decided that they would just tweet stuff instead of going via the Oxford Mail.

Newspapers regarded this as a sort of constitutional outrage: "Excuse me. You release your information through us, and we then send it to the people." And the police said: "Well, why? Sometimes you twist the information, but even if you didn't twist the information, we can get it out more quickly and more efficiently."

I don't blame Donald Trump for talking directly to the people. I wish he would tell them the truth. People are going to use these channels to speak directly instead of waiting to be intermediated, and we just have to get used to that.

Yes, if society was arranged like that, there is a kickback against that, and that's a complicated kickback. Some of it, the defensible bit, is people saying, "Well, actually we never had a voice before, and let me tell you, this system is not working for me, and you can disregard that or not, but I have a voice, and I can say that for the first time in history."

There's a more confusing bit, which is Michael Gove, the British cabinet minister who before Brexit said: "We've had enough of experts so we disregard expert evidence. If all the expert evidence is telling us that Brexit is going to be a disaster, well, they're just elitists," said the Oxford-educated Michael Gove. That's a much more confusing picture.

On the second bit, if you say we stand outside all kinds of power and we can't hold them all accountable, that has to include the monarchy. I guess you get that in America. We spent 10 years freedom of information (FOI)-ing the Prince of Wales because we knew he was writing letters to government ministers.

Actually, the letters turned out to be quite boring in the end, but on the face of it it's not for a member of the royal family to be telling the government what to do or think. So we said, "We need to see these letters," and it took us 10 years. We saw the letters, and they were a bit boring. But nevertheless, the monarchy cannot be exempt, and that doesn't make you, I hope, unpatriotic.

QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.

With all of these new sources of information, what's the bottom line? Are people more or less informed about the relevant issues to democracy, say, over the last 15-20 years?

Second, I want to drill down a little bit on what you said. Is it not possible that these traditional news organizations, organizations that do real journalism, become an elite taste? What's the implication of that?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: More or less informed is really difficult. Here we are. We're five minutes into it, and we don't know the answer to that question. People say the Internet creates filter bubbles, that people just expose themselves to the information that they like.

There's lots of academic research that says that's absolutely untrue and that in the old world when I was 11 we watched the BBC and we took The Daily Telegraph. Those were my only sources of information. That was a filter bubble.

Now I go on Twitter too often, and I feel as though I'm exposed to multiple sources of information, and that seems to be what the academic research says, that people are exposed to more and diverse sources of information than before. But what kind of information?

I think there is a danger that the media, by being simplistic and by having a shorter and shorter attention span and boiling things down to shorter and shorter messages as in Brexit—Brexit good, Europe bad. If you make the world look that simple, then what you're going to get is simple politicians, if you understand what I mean. You're going to get simple politics. You will end up with populism, and you will have a world that works on emotion rather than fact, and that seems to me not a good idea. We can think all over the world of the rise of politicians who benefit from that kind of media.

But we mustn't let readers off the hook here. They're the ones who either read or don't read or haven't got the appetite for complexity, or think actually the political system at the moment is such that that old John Dewey/Walter Lippmann argument about what the press was supposed to do and whether we had a duty to be informed citizens because our vote would somehow influence.

If people think: Well, that doesn't work any longer. I look at our politics and it doesn't reflect what I think at all, then why should I read a newspaper? So I think it's a very complicated breakdown of ideas of how traditionally we thought things would work. I think journalists have to think very hard about that.

I wrote something about climate change recently, and somebody at The Guardian said, "Well, actually Guardian readers do like reading about climate change, but that recent IPCC report, they read it, but they read it for 31 seconds." So they're glad that it's there, but they're not going to involve themselves in the real complexities. How to force complexity onto people is a real challenge.

QUESTION: Peter Burgess, TrueValueMetrics. Thank you, Alan.

This has been fascinating. I'm an accountant, and I see the accountancy profession being a little bit like the journalism profession. It's completely ruined in terms of what it was meant to be doing. It's a business now, not a profession.

One of the things that strikes me about the current situation with journalism is that the half-life of a piece of news is about half a day. Yet part of the job of journalism is the holding of people accountable. So how do we get back to the accountability question? How do we structure something so that a story about a crook can actually last long enough for the crook to be held to account and punished?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It's a really important question. One of the things you can see going on nowadays is people who are brilliant at these forms of new social media are fantastic at throwing fish in the opposite direction of what you want people to watch. Does that make sense?

This is not a new thought, but the classic one recently was the row with the CNN reporter. Donald Trump goes in and is as offensive as he can be to this CNN reporter in a way that almost looks staged, and somebody tries to, there's a fight over the microphone, and that's what everybody reported for the next week.

But over there, he sacked the attorney general. Yes, people reported that, but this had visuals and men and women fighting, and it seemed a more exciting story.

I think it's vital that journalists don't allow that to happen. I think the sacking of the attorney general—I guess he woke up in the morning and thought: This could go badly. Why don't I do something even more outrageous than I normally do, and then people will write about that? And he's very good at that.

Another example is that brilliant New York Times investigation into his finances recently which had a half-life, after a day something else happened. I can't remember what it was. But that story, which I imagine had taken maybe a year to report and was just a staggering piece of reporting, had been swept away by lunchtime.

Again, that's not the fault of journalists. That's the fault of us as the reading public. Well, it's partly the fault of journalists. I think other papers could have been more generous in following that up and keeping it on the agenda. But we also must not allow ourselves to fall for these tactics of distraction.

QUESTION: Thank you. I'm Tom Herman. I teach a seminar at Yale on how technology is altering the media landscape.

Could you please share with us your thinking on how journalists should react when a government says, "Please don't run that story on national security grounds"? How do you decide what to do? How do you decide when to print it or whether to tone it down or not print it at all?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I can't think who you're thinking about. I think first of all you have to begin with an acknowledgment that journalists have the right to write about national security, and they have that right even if the government says "don't."

We don't need to rehearse Daniel Ellsberg and The New York Times, in which the government said: "This is going to be terribly damaging. This is an act of treachery," and I think most people think Daniel Ellsberg is now a hero.

So you can't take on face value a government saying this is a terribly damaging thing that you're about to do and that you will have blood on your hands. It might be, it might not be. You might have blood on your hands, you might not. But you can't say that at the moment that a government says to a journalist "don't run" that that the journalist shouldn't.

But the journalist must then take responsibility for what they publish, publish, and be damned. So I think it's up to the journalist to go to the nth degree to keep in contact with the security services in the government and to have a conversation in which you have a relationship of trust, hopefully, in which you can try to make the points that you want to make and establish why you think this material is significant while causing the minimum damage, if that's possible.

Actually, working with The New York Times I learned a lot about that because in Britain we don't have the Pentagon Papers judgment. We don't have a First Amendment, so what happened to us in Britain was that the government came in and effectively smashed up our computers and said stop.

But with The New York Times we were able to go on publishing because there was no fear of the government behaving like that, so you had a more adult relationship in which you could talk. That seemed to me quite healthy, so I think that's how I would answer that question.

QUESTION [off-mic]: [Inaudible]—journalist, but I'm also, this is sort of a joint question with a friend of mine who is a correspondent for The Guardian based in Rome. She's asking—and you could argue that this might apply in the United States as well—if you might have any advice for what makes a good correspondent these days, especially in a country that is leaning much more populist and that depends on social media in a sense to build a consensus over any big events. Maybe it's similar to what's going on in France right now, if you have any advice specifically for individual journalists who are trying to cover these things.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: In this world, the thing I hate is journalists saying, "Oh, that world's rubbish, and it's crap, and they're all stupid." That may be true, but nevertheless if that is how people are talking and communicating, there's something there which needs to be heard and respected.

The criticism I hear sometimes of The New York Times now is that when they talk to Trump supporters it's like sort of anthropology: "Here's this sort of strange tribe. We're going to with a microscope and say how interesting," rather than somehow approaching it a different way and saying: "This is happening. This is a new force in society."

And these people may be right in some ways. Thomas Piketty has just written a gigantic book about the failings of extreme neoliberalism. He's a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), and he gets all kinds of book awards because people say, "Oh, look, there's a book in Britain called The Spirit Level: Why Great Equality Makes Societies Stronger, which is about equality in societies and what makes a good"—if you say that as an academic, you get garlanded; if you say that in social media, people say, "You're really stupid." That's ugly populism.

So we have to find a new word for this and not just to dismiss it. I think if I was the Rome correspondent I would spend a lot of my time there, but I would also meet people.

QUESTION: Thank you, Alan. That was terrific. James Starkman, retired Wall Streeter but news junkie.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: We like those.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Starkman]: We heard Bret Stephens address us just a few weeks ago. I'm going to ask you the same question I asked him, which was: Why has there been such a great migration from the editorial page to the front page, and what is and should be the overriding influence of billionaire owners such as Carlos Slim or Jeff Bezos? Or are we too naïve to think that they would not exert some influence on the reporting of the news and not just the editorial page of the news?

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I find it interesting that after 200 years of journalism we're still not sure what good journalism looks like in some sense. A lot of American journalists, not all, cling to a notion of impartiality and objectivity. You don't have people like me in America who are over the comment pages and the news pages. There's a division of labor.

In Britain it tends to be the other way around. The British press grow out of much more polemical roots, and most British journalists just don't believe there's such a thing as objectivity or impartiality, and you have two systems in one country—BBC kind of impartial; Daily Mail really not impartial.

But as we get more sophisticated as members of the reading public and media criticism is all around us—everybody on Twitter is a media critic or Reddit or any of these forums. So the 200 years in which nobody really could question what a newspaper was or what it was doing or the power of the editor is now rapidly coming under scrutiny.

Just a little example in the last three months in Britain. The Daily Mail was the most rigid, raucous, cheerleading Brexit paper under its previous editor, Paul Dacre, and his rip ran through the whole paper, the front page, the comment pages, the news pages. It all complied to what Paul Dacre thought of the world, and he just wanted Britain out of the European Union.

In June, he moved on. New editor comes in who doesn't believe that. He believes Britain is better off inside. And it's fascinating watching a newspaper change its voice and is now saying the opposite of what it was saying three months ago.

If I were a Daily Mail reader, I'd either be really confused and saying, "But hold on, you were telling me the opposite three months ago" or I would be saying: "Well, what does it mean when a newspaper tells me what to think? Is that the newspaper? How did you evolve that decision? Or is it just one person?"

It's a sort of Wizard of Oz moment, isn't it? Because if it's just one person with a megaphone behind a curtain, you draw it back, and there he is, this middle-aged man bellowing at his readers, you would think, Was that it?

In a way that's healthy. I think it's healthy for people to think: Well, actually what is this process? What does the newspaper voice mean?

I think I'm inclined—I didn't go to the whole—to actually separate comment off from news and say: "Look, news is the primary thing. Commentary is lovely, but it's the facts we need, and the facts shouldn't be tainted."

My predecessor as head of The Guardian: "Comment is free. Facts are sacred," sometimes turned into: "Comment is free. Facts are expensive," which is also true. But I think you do have to separate them off.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for giving us a window on what journalism is like today. I just want to remind you that his book is available for you to purchase. Thank you very much.

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