How 'pods in a matrix' are the way ahead for Guardian group

Interviewing Alan Rusbridger is truly a multimedia experience. The editor-in-chief of Guardian News and Media’s uses Powerpoint presentations, graphs and charts on a small laptop and hand drawings in a worn notebook to make his point.

One such point is that creating a single news, business and sport team across The Guardian, The Observer and online, as well as specialist sections of writers – or ‘pods’– and a radically different management structure is beyond anything he’s faced in 13 years in charge.

This, coupled with a move from London’s Farringdon Road to new purpose-built offices in King’s Cross at the end of the year, he says, is an ‘impossible amount of change to deal with”.

He says: ‘Within 10 years a generation of people who thought they would be working in a print medium suddenly have to think about how you do stuff on screen.”

The single news, business and sport teams will contribute news to all three platforms and will answer to ‘platform-neutral’heads of national news, international news, business and sport – roles that are all being advertised internally. Guardian deputy editor Paul Johnson is to be the overall head of news, business and sport.

The Observer will retain its features and magazine journalists plus a small staff of reporters to work on investigations and exclusive stories. A head of news for The Observer will also be appointed, though the other section heads will have responsibility for deciding which content goes to The Guardian and which to The Observer.

How can Rusbridger guarantee The Observer’s editorial independence with a shared editorial team?

‘It’s still going to have all its magazines, review section and comment section. I don’t know what [the number of staff] is but it’s as big as it was when The Guardian bought it [in 1993]. It’s not like The Observer is being decimated.

Ambitious

‘But it will be the duty of these ‘heads of’ to make sure that John [Mulholland] has a flow of stories.

‘It’s what happens on The New York Times, Washington Post, El Pais. I can’t see how you would escape having a world something like this – it’s not seven-day publishing, it’s going over to something much more ambitious.

‘Everywhere you look in the world a similar thing is happening – even at The Independent which three years ago was saying there was no economic rationale to websites. The Daily Mail has jumped in with both feet; Rupert Murdoch having gone cold on it is absolutely back in. Apart from Richard Desmond I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t think this now.”

Rusbridger brings up a dense and complicated diagram of the new structure on a laptop, showing the different levels of responsibility, from the editors to the a series of ‘pods’– sections of writers with a shared subject area who will, under the new set-up, autonomously publish directly to their online audiences without necessarily going through the main newsroom hierarchy.

‘The jargon is now, I’m told, we’re a ‘matrix’ organisation. That means you will have to get used to the fact that you are working for two people [a section head and a head of news, sport and business]. John will have to channel some of his requests through Paul. But these heads will also appraise Paul and say: ‘I’m not getting good enough service for The Observer, it’s not working for me.”

Rusbridger uses a well-worn Moleskine notebook to draw his mental picture of the physics of a newspaper: a funnel with a wide opening, the spout representing the journey that all content must travel through leading to a distribution bottleneck.

‘That’s fine for producing a newspaper,’he says. ‘I’ve always thought that news editor on a newspaper is an impossible job – all your correspondents are trying to get the attention of this person. And in the end all their copy has to come through this tiny, narrow funnel.

‘In the newspaper world, if a bomb goes off in Burma or there’s a flood in the Philippines suddenly your story is taken down to two paragraphs. In this world the reporter isn’t going to have to hop around on foot to speak to [national news editor] Nick Hopkins – he can just publish it.

‘That’s what I mean about releasing the creativity, so these people don’t go home pissed off because they didn’t get their story in the paper.”

While Guardian News & Media lost £15.9m in 2006/2007 – its parent Guardian Media Group is relatively healthy financially, with a turnover of £716m and generating operating profit of £105.2m in 2007.

Rusbridger says his reasons for reinventing the structure of the company are not financial but journalistic – he wants loyal audiences to be published to directly by ‘areas of excellence”.

Better and deeper

‘It doesn’t make sense to have people dotted around the building doing the same thing but not talking to each other. You will get better, deeper and richer coverage, and more of it, from people sitting together.

‘The second reason is that we do want a better digital expression of what we are doing. The bet must be that that’s where the industry’s going. Given that The Observer hasn’t been involved in that yet, you absolutely want to bring that into play otherwise you are cocooning a lot of people.’

GNM is not the only paper to have integrated its editorial teams across platforms – Telegraph Media Group now has shared teams and overall editors for sports, business, arts, comment and science across The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and Telegraph.co.uk.

The Guardian sold an average of 350,000 copies a day last month, down 4.2 per cent year-on-year and The Observer 52,000, down 2.4 per cent.

New model

Although Rusbridger says he still worries about print sales, he speaks of an entirely new economic model based on the web taking over.

He shows slides of graphs showing print classified advertising circulation dropping off a cliff while digital revenues and viewer figures curve sharply upwards.

Will the Berliner presses, bought in 2005, really be the last presses GNM ever buys? ‘I was asked that and I think they might be, if you think they have an effective life of 20/25 years.’

‘It’s like all these gadgets,’he says, pointing to his mobile phone. ‘We’re not going to invent them, someone else will. At the moment most of our revenue is in print, we’d be crazy to switch it off but we better be ready with whatever comes next.

‘The newspaper column based on a column of linotype, which is now 600-year-old technology, is so ingrained in people’s idea of what a story is. A story has to be structured as a line of type. But it’s about getting that out of your mind so a story might actually be shaped like a family tree.”

One result of Guardian.co.uk’s digital successes is a growing global audience which currently stands at nearly 20 million monthly users, two-thirds of whom are from overseas.

This and the rising importance of global issues such as war, immigration, the environment and technology gives GNM an opportunity to increase its foreign coverage in the coming years, Rusbridger says.

‘I think the answer is now to have more coverage around the world. You can understand why the US press has scaled back for cost-cutting reasons and that leaves us with the perfect opportunity to step in where they left off.”.

As the third-longest serving national editor, after 13 years in charge of The Guardian, does Rusbridger still enjoy the challenge of seemingly constantly trying to reinvent the journalistic wheel? ‘I can’t see how you could fail to be completely absorbed by it all at the moment. This is the most absorbing time possible to be a journalist.”

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