Rusbridger: 'Insecurity is condition of journalistic age'

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger revealed last night that Guardian News and Media considered six different paywall plans before dismissing them in favour of a free access model.

Rusbridger the annual Cudlipp Lecture, at the London College of Communications, to issue a series of robust counter arguments to the News Corp-led campaign to start charging for newspapers online.

Rusbridger revealed that GNM’s commercial department has “done lots of modelling around at least six different paywall proposals and they are currently unpersuaded”.

He said: “They’ve looked at the argument that free digital content cannibalises print – and they look at the ABC charts showing that our market share of paid-for print sales is growing, not shrinking, despite pushing aggressively ahead on digital. They don’t rule anything out. But they don’t think it’s right for us now.”

Saying that The Guardian made £25m from digital advertising last year, he noted that any paywall model would deliver just a fraction of that figure.

Rusbridger said that debates over future business models for journalism were in danger of “crippling journalists into paralysis” adding: “Insecurity is the condition of our journalistic age.”

Rusbridger paid tribute to Rupert Murdoch calling him “a brave, radical proprietor who has been a good owner of the Times” who had “often proved to be right when he has challenged conventional thinking”. However, he added that many of Murdoch’s admirers had “nagging doubts” about whether he is right about paywalls.

Rusbridger pointed out that Murdoch has himself “ruthlessly cut the price of his papers to below cost in order to win audiences or drive out competition”. This included cutting The Times to as low as 10p, he said.

He insisted that despite the pressures brought to bear by the recession, journalists would be wrong to reject the open, free and transparent principles of the internet.

He said: “If we turn our back on all this and at the same time conclude that there is nothing to learn from it because what ‘they’ do is different – ‘we are journalists, they aren’t: we do journalism; they don’t’ – then, never mind business models, we will be sleep walking into oblivion.”

Here are some of the highlights from Alan Rusbridger’s Cudlipp Lecture:

On business models

The one thing [Hugh] Cudlipp and [Harold] Evans hardly ever wrote about was business models. For one thing, they didn’t have to. They lived at an age where, if you got the editorial product right, money was usually not the burning issue. There was cover price and there was advertising and – though, of course, there were many newspaper failures along the road – there was no great mystery about where revenues came from. Secondly, they didn’t see that as their job. Their job was to edit great papers: other people worked out how to pay for it.

Yet the most common question most editors are now asked is: “What’s the business model?”

Of course, you know why people ask. Journalism may be facing a kind of existential threat. Whether you are a 22-year-old thinking about a career in journalism, or a 45-year-old wondering if your chosen calling will see you through to retirement, it’s the question that nags away all the time. Insecurity is the condition of our journalistic age.

So it’s a vital question. At the same time it’s a kind of deadening question for journalists to be asking of other journalists. One – honest – answer is that no one can currently be sure about the business model for what we do. We are living at a time when – as the American academic Clay Shirky puts it – “the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place”.

And it’s a bit deadening because journalists are, as a rule, better at thinking about journalism – including the most fundamental question of all, hinted at in my title tonight – of whether there is such a thing as journalism.

If you think about journalism, not business models, you can become rather excited about the future. If you only think about business models you can scare yourself into total paralysis.

On Rupert Murdoch:

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.

Rupert Murdoch, who has in his time flirted with free models and who has ruthlessly cut the price of his papers to below cost in order to win audiences or drive out competition (“reach before revenue” as it wasn’t called back when he slashed the price of the Times to as low as 10p) … this same Rupert Murdoch is being very vocal in asserting that the reader must pay a proper sum for content – whether in print or digitally. The New York Times announced last week that it would be reinstating a form of paywall around its content. Casual readers will get the NYT for free. Repeat, or loyal, readers will be expected to pay.

Many people would like Murdoch and the New York Times to succeed – who could be against anything which could be relied on to support this thing which looks like journalism well into the future?

Now, I happen to believe that Rupert Murdoch is a brave, radical proprietor who has been a good owner of the Times and that he has often proved to be right when he has challenged conventional thinking. But many people who similarly admire him have nagging doubts about whether he’s right this time.

To put it another way, it may be right for the Times of London and New York, but not for everyone. It may be right at some point for everybody in the future, but not yet. 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.

On the BBC:

I know it is regarded as an act of faith by some that all print journalists should be baying for BBC blood, wanting it neutered or drastically reduced. I find it difficult to join that particular chorus for three reasons.

Firstly, look across the water to America, where newspapers are in as much trouble as they are here. They have no public service broadcaster to speak of to contend with, and yet they are still in desperate trouble. So you could do an awful lot of damage to the BBC and still find you had not solved the problem of newspapers because it is actually a worldwide challenge, not a specifically British one.

Secondly, as a citizen rather than competitor, I’m afraid to admit that I really like, admire and respect the BBC – including, even, its website. Now, of course, there is plenty to criticise – the BBC can be arrogant, hard to work with, complacent, needlessly expansionist and insensitive to the plight of their colleagues in the commercial sector. We need to agree, or understand, the limits of its expansion. But the BBC is almost certainly the best news organisation in the world – the most serious, comprehensive, ethical, accurate, international, wide-ranging, fair and impartial. So I hesitate to join the sometimes deafening chorus of BBC denigration, even though I suspect the Guardian would undoubtedly thrive even better in the digital world were the BBC’s website, in particular, to be curtailed.

Thirdly, there is another really excellent broadcaster with an irritatingly good news website – Sky News. I have seen nothing to suggest that there is any intention to put this website behind a paywall. So, any British newspaper intending to charge for general content would have to contend – not only with the BBC – but with the free availability of a first rate Murdoch-owned general news service on the web. All the arguments about competition from a ‘free’ BBC online apply to a ‘free’ Sky News website.

The effect of paywalls on the business model:

As 2009 ground on there was no shortage of digital sceptics who were ready to call time on the business of digital publishing – mainly on the grounds that search engine optimisation (SEO) was bringing in readers who didn’t stay and who were hard to monetise.

There was something in their critiques. The indiscriminate chasing of numbers will do no good long term for any serious news organisation. And it is perfectly true that 2009 was a disappointing year for those who hoped for an unbroken pattern of growth in digital advertising.

But to dismiss the potential growth of digital right now – on the basis of the worst economic crisis since 1929 – may be a little premature.

My commercial colleagues at the Guardian – the ones who do think about business models – are very focused on that, want to grow a large audience for our content and for advertisers, and can’t presently see the benefits of choking off growth in return for the relatively modest sums we think we would get from universal charging for digital content. Last year we earned £25m from digital advertising – not enough to sustain the legacy print business, but not trivial. My commercial colleagues believe we would earn a fraction of that from any known paywall model.

They’ve done lots of modelling around at least six different paywall proposals and they are currently unpersuaded. They’ve looked at the argument that free digital content cannibalises print – and they look at the ABC charts showing that our market share of paid-for print sales is growing, not shrinking, despite pushing aggressively ahead on digital. They don’t rule anything out. But they don’t think it’s right for us now.

The effect of paywalls on journalism:

As an editor, I worry about how a universal paywall would change the way we do our journalism. We have taken 10 or more years to learn how to tell stories in different media – ie not simply text and still pictures. Some stories are told most effectively by a combination of print and web. That’s how we now plan our journalism. As my colleague Emily Bell is fond of saying we want it to be linked in with the web – be “of the web”, not simply be on the web.

Some stories can be told in one sentence plus a link. Some journalists are fascinated by the potential of the running, linked blog. Andrew Sparrow’s minute by minute blog of Alastair Campbell’s appearance before the Chilcott inquiry was a dazzling example of this new form of reporting, which relies on the ability to link out to sources and other media, including original documents and even (in the lunch break) Campbell’s own Twitter feed.

You can see journalists everywhere beginning to get all this.

Ruth Gledhill at the Times is, for me, an inspired example of how you can layer reporting – with the most specialist material in the blog (linked to yet more specialist source material on the web – and the most general material in newsprint.) The paper will carry a paragraph on a controversial sermon by the Bishop of Chichester. Gledhill will explain its significance on her blog, and link to the full sermon for those who want the source. Readers can then debate the text on the blog and follow other links. It’s called through-editing.

Ben Brogan does something similar at the Telegraph, as he did in pioneering form at the Mail previously. Robert Peston and Nick Robinson increasingly regard their blogs as the spine of what they do at the BBC. That’s where they put the detail: the Ten O’Clock News is the icing.

This, journalistically, is immensely challenging and rich. Journalists have never before been able to tell stories so effectively, bouncing off each other, linking to each other (as the most generous and open-minded do), linking out, citing sources, allowing response – harnessing the best qualities of text, print, data, sound and visual media. If ever there was a route to building audience, trust and relevance, it is by embracing all the capabilities of this new world, not walling yourself away from them.

Two further points about this fluid, constantly-iterative world of linked reporting and response: first, many readers like this ability to follow conversations, compare multiple sources and links. Secondly, the result is journalistically better – a collaborative-as-well-as-competitive approach which is usually likely to get to the truth of things, faster.

When I think about universal paywalls, I wonder how this emerging world of editing and writing would change. How would you handle a story like the Guardian’s exclusive revelation that Google was about to drop censorship in China – a hugely significant story that bounced around the world within seconds of us breaking it online at 11pm on January 12?

Had there been a universal paywall around the Guardian that would have been a difficult story to handle.

– Wait and publish in print? But we knew that Google was about to post the story on its own blog at 6pm Eastern.

– Publish digitally and hope that people would buy a day pass to read it? But in the time it took to key in your credit card the essence of the story would have been Twittered into global ubiquity.

If you erect a universal paywall around your content then it follows you are turning away from a world of openly shared content. Again, there may be sound business reasons for doing this, but editorially it is about the most fundamental statement anyone could make about how newspapers see themselves in relation to the newly-shaped world.

Why rejecting online could lead to ‘oblivion’:

The internet has, of course, has had a dramatic impact on the economics of newspapers. But it has changed almost everything else as well. The whole world is in the middle of a revolution. This may sound an old-fashioned thing to say, because it has been true for at least 10 years. Things are still changing overwhelmingly and fast; in part, because the first digital generation is still growing up.

I try to imagine the Guardian deciding it doesn’t want openly to be part of this world I’ve just described and I struggle. And do, please, forgive me for talking about the Guardian a bit, but it is necessarily the thing I am most focused on, and which illustrates the point that one size may not fit all.

The other day I interviewed the playwright Michael Frayn for the Guardian and Observer archive. He described life on the Manchester Guardian he joined in 1957 – just over 50 years ago, but within one working lifetime.

The paper he joined was still a provincial morning paper, hugely influential, but not always readily available on the day outside the north-west and parts of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

Today, in print, the Guardian is, even now, the ninth or 10th biggest paper in Britain.

On the web it is, by most measurements, the second best-read English-language newspaper in the world. If the New York Times really does start charging for access, the Guardian may become the newspaper with the largest web English-speaking readership in the world.

In December, the journalism we’re producing at GNM was read by 37 million people around the world – very roughly a third in the UK, a third in North America and a third in the rest of the world.

Go back to the 1956 Manchester Guardian ledger of sales outside Manchester [shows illustration], the paper Frayn joined.

The last line shows the worldwide sales of the Guardian – “foreign agents” – to be 650 copies. We had more readers in Colwyn Bay than in the rest of the world.

In Michael Frayn’s professional working life the Guardian has grown from sending 650 copies abroad to becoming one of the eight most read newspapers in the world, a ranking that includes two Chinese, one Japanese and one South Korean.

In an industry in which we get used to every trend line pointing to the floor, the growth of newspapers’ digital audience should be a beacon of hope. During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40% more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company – you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape – has grown its audience by 40% in a year.

Nor is all this being bought by tricks or by setting chain-gangs of reporters early in the morning to re-write stories about Lady GaGa or Katie Price. In that same period last year, our biggest growth areas were environment (up 137%), technology (up 125%) and art and design (up 84%). Science was up 81%; politics 39% and Comment is Free 38%.

This is the opposite of newspaper decline-ism, the doctrine which compels us to keep telling the world the editorial proposition and tradition we represent are in desperate trouble. When I think of the Guardian’s journey and its path of growth and reach and influence my instincts at the moment – at this stage of the revolution – are to celebrate this trend and seek to accelerate it rather than cut it off. The more we can spread the Guardian, embed it in the way the world talks to each other, the better.

Yes, there are lots of concerns about this world I’m describing, not least the ignorant, relentlessly negative, sometimes hate-filled tone of some of what you get back when you open the doors. That can sometimes feel not very much like a community at all, let alone a community of reasonably like-minded, progressive intelligent people coming together around some virtual idea of the Guardian. So there are a throng of issues around identity, moderation, ranking, recommendation and aggregation which we – along with everyone else – are grappling with.

But let’s grapple with them rather than dismiss them or turn our backs on them. Let’s not leave the field so that the digital un-bundlers can come in, dismantle and loot what we have built up, including our audiences and readers. “Comment is Free” … “Publish and be Damned” … Fleet Street is the birth place of the tradition of a free press that spread around the world.

There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started – here, in newspapers, in the UK. It’s not a “digital trend” – that’s just shorthand. It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.

As Scott said 90 years ago: “What a chance for the newspaper!” If we turn our back on all this and at the same time conclude that there is nothing to learn from it because what ‘they’ do is different – ‘we are journalists, they aren’t: we do journalism; they don’t’ – then, never mind business models, we will be sleep walking into oblivion.

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