James Meek: The Shock of the News
Tech

James Meek: The Shock of the News

Back in 1997, when liberal capitalism bestrode the Atlantic and history had been abolished, morning came with a newspaper. The paper you got depended not just on your taste, but on where you lived: if you were a coastal American, you might get a vast informational department store like the New York Times, the Washington Post or the LA Times, but the great cities in between had their equivalents, from the Chicago Tribune to the Arizona Republic. If you were British, you might buy one of this country’s bitterly competitive national counterparts, such as the Telegraph, Times or Guardian. Or you might prefer a raucous purveyor of scandal and moral bile like Britain’s Daily Mail or the Sun or the New York Post. These were big titles, but most cities and towns had a daily paper of some kind, with a mix of local and national and international news, comfortably financed by cover price and advertising. During the day, on the way to work, in the workplace, in the canteen, there would be news on the radio, or continued picking over the carcass of the paper. In the evening, there would be the TV news, from NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC or ITN, which you’d watch once, at a regular hour (even as late as 1997, CNN and Sky News were quite niche; Fox News had just started up, and the BBC’s 24-hour news channel launched that autumn). After the network news, there would be the local TV bulletin. Some evenings, there were news specials, longer shows like CBS’s 60 Minutes, ITV’s World in Action or the BBC’s Panorama. At the weekend, you might settle in to read one of America’s news magazines, Time or Newsweek, or one of the Sunday papers: Britain’s Observer or Mail on Sunday or the immense Sunday edition of the New York Times (its biggest ever number, on 14 September 1987, had 1612 pages and weighed 12 pounds). Undergirding the whole news media ecoverse were two dominant news agencies (the wires, in newsroom argot): the Associated Press and Reuters, which together with the Press Association in the UK made it possible for editors to expand their coverage beyond the limits imposed by their own staff and budgets and, invisibly to the news audience, exerted a powerful agenda-setting effect.

There was no shortage of people in the business who understood that things were about to change. But it was hard to predict what the change would look like, let alone how destructive the process would be to the old order. This was an era when the Guardian toyed with the idea of buying each of its readers a printer to print the newspaper for themselves at home. The internet was well established by 1997, but usage hadn’t taken off. Some newspapers had basic websites, but few visited them. The dominant mode of accessing the internet was the slow and inconvenient dial-up method; few home users had broadband connections. Pictures loaded line by line. It could take minutes. Even if there had been a YouTube, home computers wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to stream the clips on it. There was no Facebook or Twitter, there were no smartphones to hunch over. The managerial class looked at early websites and tried to put them into existing categories: this one was a bit like an encyclopedia, that one was a bit like a library, this one was basically a mail order catalogue, and that one, well, it was just a newspaper, wasn’t it, only on a screen, and instead of turning pages, you chose from a menu. But 1997 was a critical year for the undermining of complacency. Two PhD students at Stanford registered the domain google.com. Steve Jobs, returning to Apple, made Jony Ive his chief designer and set out on the path that ten years later would lead to the iPhone. The main wireless protocol – the system that later acquired the ‘Wi-Fi’ trademark – was launched.

On the morning of Sunday, 31 August 1997, for no particular reason, I got up first thing. In Moscow, where I was living at the time (employed by the Guardian, as it happens, the paper Alan Rusbridger edited from 1995 to 2015), dawn comes early in summer and it was hot outside, though the city was asleep.[*] I switched on the computer I’d recently bought and connected to the internet. Once the screech of the dial-up had subsided and the browser was open I visited a site that had started up the previous year, an online edition of the Sunday Times. My first thought when the front page loaded was that somebody in the Murdoch organisation must be in terrible trouble. They had obviously been messing around with imaginary stories on their system in the small hours of the morning, and one of them had accidentally gone live. I can’t remember the exact text of the headline I read, something like: ‘PRINCESS OF WALES SERIOUSLY INJURED IN PARIS CRASH.’ I verified it with the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio and understood it was true. Can there be anyone who wasn’t shaken by the news of such an unlikely event? If I’d thought about what the princess’s death and secular canonisation meant for the newspaper business, then or for many years afterwards, I would probably have mulled over the tabloids’ creation of the paparazzi market that led to the crash. The pursuit of a certain kind of news killed Diana, and, grotesquely, produced more news as a result. But looking back now, the moment of reading that article was also my own first glimpse of the crash traditional newspapers were skidding into.

There were two things that were encouraging for the papers about how the news happened to reach me as an individual that morning. The first was that a newspaper was actually breaking news: news in the most traditional sense, news that the most cerebral editorial writer at the New York Times and the most feral chequebook merchant at the Mail could agree was news. News of the rare kind that makes people call someone they know and say ‘Hey, did you hear … ?’ was – for me at least – not being broken by a voice on the radio or TV declaring ‘We interrupt this broadcast to bring you …’ but in written form. Without realising it, I was seeing the rebirth of text as the natural purveyor of immediacy, a status that seems natural now in the age of Twitter and news alerts pushed to your phone, but in 1997 had, for generations, been ceded to the oral.

The other cause for newspapers’ confidence was that I was in Moscow, reading an edition of a paper published in London, more than 1500 miles away, a four-hour plane journey. Not actually published, in fact, since it hadn’t been printed yet. The first edition of that day’s Sunday Times, already on its way to newsagents and homes in Scotland and the North and West of England, was out of date – it carried no mention of the princess’s accident – and got to those places only through a heroic effort of distribution by fuel and wheel and muscle. A few copies would trickle overseas, to appear on a handful of newsstands in places like Paris or New York a day or two later, but for practical purposes paper dailies were confined to within a few hundred miles of where they were printed. Britain’s national newspapers couldn’t be international; the biggest of America’s regional dailies struggled, with elaborate satellite printing operations and syndication services, even to be national. Now, at a stroke, the only limit to instantaneous global distribution of any newspaper was the speed of uptake of the internet itself.

This collapse of physical constraints on a news organisation’s reach, however, was as threatening as it was promising. If you could instantaneously read the London-based Sunday Times’s live coverage of events in Paris while sitting in Moscow, you could just as easily read its rival the Observer, or the Boston Globe, or the South China Morning Post. Or, if your French was up to it, a newspaper like Le Monde that was actually based in Paris. Most threateningly to the old media establishment, you could dip into them all. The ordinary reader could become not exactly their own editor but their own news curator, summoning whatever sources they liked. And, from the point of view of the newspapers, there was a further troubling aspect about the way I got that morning’s news from the internet. It didn’t cost me anything. I didn’t have to enter a password. I wasn’t being charged a penny, either directly, through a one-off fee or a subscription, or indirectly, through my clicks being sold to an advertiser. News International, the owner of the Sunday Times, was carrying vast production costs – journalists’ salaries, the huge expense of printing and distributing a physical paper – then giving me the product, the news, for nothing.

Why was that? Why was news ‘free’, when it was so expensive to produce? In the early days of the internet, when most people didn’t have access, it seemed there was room for experimentation. Nobody wanted to be left behind by the digital revolution, and for a news organisation to offer some or all of its words and pictures on a website for nothing seemed in the beginning less like a giveaway and more like a bonus for the nerds and news junkies, a gimmicky adjunct to the main, paid-for product. There was also a more hard-headed calculation. Nobody who worked in the newspaper business before the internet came along was unfamiliar with the concept of ‘free news’, the kind that came in the weekly or daily freesheet. This newsprint wrap, a mass of small ads stuffed into a thin tortilla of cheaply sourced news, gossip and comment, home-delivered gratis, was a fixture of the pre-internet media world. Indeed, in the late 1990s, it was a toss-up whether British executives at organisations like the Guardian were more worried about the effect of the internet or about the erosion of their market by a new freesheet, Metro, which the parent company of the Daily Mail began handing out to commuters. The economics of newspapers were such that advertising always made up a bigger share of income than cover price. Cover price income was seen as essential in providing the richer journalism that made the difference between the paid-for papers and the freesheets – to pay for reporters’ time, foreign correspondents and all the rest – but newspapers funded solely by advertising were there for all to see. It seems likely that very early on certain newspaper execs – and Rusbridger may have been one of them – made a guess: soon enough, the paper part of newspapers would disappear altogether, and the money saved from having to print and distribute paper news would compensate for money lost from cover price. Like commercial TV stations, newspapers would become broadcasters, funded by ads alone.

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There were other reasons the idea set in that you shouldn’t have to pay for news on the internet. On the idealistic side, communitarian notions, lent glamour by the way they could be made to sound at once just, piratical and revolutionary, coloured the zeitgeist: the notion that it was indecent to deny access to the fruits of brain-work to those who couldn’t pay for it. The differences between the rights and wrongs of free access to medical research, computer software, songs, films, books and newspaper articles – indeed, the very definition of ‘free’ – got blurred. An out of context fragment of an old remark by Stewart Brand, the former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, from a hackers’ conference in 1984, was much quoted: ‘Information wants to be free.’

Alongside this idealism, to which staff and readers of the Guardian were especially drawn, was fear on the part of newspapers that they would simply be bypassed by alternative free information sources. This new form of dissemination allowed for the razing of a rigid pyramid of privilege and authority that the high cost of distributing information under the old system had created. On the internet, information could be stripped of the old markers of authority – authority both in the sense of power and in the sense of being reliably accurate – by which we, often without thinking, judged it. It was hard and expensive and required a lot of clever people and technology to design a newspaper page and to print it in hundreds of thousands of copies without smudging or blurring, the headlines and columns crisp on durable paper, the pictures clear, well chosen and well placed. An individual or small organisation wanting to produce an alternative information source would be constrained not only by the difficulty of reproduction and distribution, or by weaknesses in content, but by the physical difference between their output and that of the ‘authoritative’ media. On one side, a newspaper; on the other, five pages produced on a typewriter, with the mistakes painted out and typed over, plus maybe some hand-drawn graphics and photos cut out of a magazine, each page then photocopied and stapled together and the few dozen or hundreds of pamphlets that were made to be distributed … how? For every person drawn to the authenticity and possibility of arcane truth in the underground and samizdat press, there were thousands more conservative readers who wouldn’t take such sources seriously because they reeked of mania, lonely obsession and amateurishness.

In the 1990s this presentational hierarchy collapsed. Any punter with a computer could type ‘DIANA’ in the same clear, elegant Times Roman font used by the Murdoch broadsheets, as they were then, and the word they typed would have exactly the same crisp outlines, the same neat pixels in pure clear space as the word that had been sent to them by the Sunday Times in London. Former passive readers of big publishers’ writings could become active writers and publishers themselves: they could blog, they could design their own websites. What they produced no longer necessarily made them look like scruffy eccentrics or fanatics. True, presentational hierarchy persists on the internet: there are slick, beautifully designed sites, and there are grungy, clumsy ones. But the big social media platforms have been great presentational levellers over the last decade or so. Twitter and Facebook provide the design framework that gives everybody’s text, everybody’s ideas, everybody’s bullshit, the same professional sheen. Why not take a headline like ‘diana killed in crash,’ add ‘by MI5’ on the end, and share?

Rusbridger says he saw the future on a tour round the US media in 1993, though the Guardian and the Observer, its Sunday sister, weren’t to launch their fully fledged internet offering until 1998. ‘After just four days,’ he writes of that first new media recce, ‘it seemed blindingly obvious that the future of information would be mainly digital. But how on earth could you graft a digital mindset and processes onto the stately ocean liner of print? How could you convince anyone that this should be a priority when no one had yet worked out how to make any money out of it?’ As Stewart Brand put it ten years earlier, in the full version of his notorious aphorism: ‘On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.’

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For old-order news organisations in general – often now referred to by the snarky phrase ‘legacy media’ – and newspapers in particular, the past two decades have been spent trying simultaneously to embrace the possibilities and ward off the menace of the internet while financing paper editions to which significant, if dwindling, numbers of readers and advertisers remain loyal. Smaller local newspapers, unable to impress the rest of the world with their deep knowledge of affairs in Des Moines or Sheffield, have suffered badly as their print circulations collapsed, and as the advertisers they relied on – estate agents, car dealerships, local retailers, already chainifying and consolidating anyway – migrated to search engines and aggregator websites. As income fell from advertising and paper sales, the papers had to cut costs. Workforces were slashed. They’re still being slashed: this July, the new proprietor of the New York Daily News cut its journalist staff by half. With fewer journalists, the articles become fewer and thinner, giving people even less reason to buy the paper version, and degrading the online version at the same time.

In the US, print newspaper advertising has fallen from a high of $67 billion in 2000 to well below $20 billion today; taking into account increases in population, the circulation of US newspapers has halved since its peak in the mid-1980s. In Britain, the circulation of regional and local newspapers has halved in the past ten years. Over the same period the number of news journalists has fallen from 23,000 to 17,000. In 2006 Associated News, publishers of the Daily Mail, turned down a £1 billion offer for its chain of local papers. Six years later it was obliged to settle for £53 million and shares in another local news company that was already in a death spiral. Rusbridger doesn’t say what he thinks the Guardian Media Group, parent company of the Guardian, would have got had it sold the Manchester Evening News when it began to perceive the approaching crisis in 2005 – but it would have been by a similar order of magnitude more than the £7.4 million cash plus forgiven liabilities it got when it did sell five years later.

The picture for the big beasts of the old newspaper forest was more complex. For some, the fall was steep. Newsweek – a profitable and influential middlebrow news magazine whose circulation in 1997 was soaring towards 3.4 million – was dumped by its owners in 2010 for $1, merged with the upstart website the Daily Beast, became digital-only for a couple of years between 2012 and 2014, and earlier this year, released from the Beast and now a hollowed-out, understaffed shell of its former self, saw its managers fire a group of their own senior journalists in an unsuccessful attempt to suppress an investigation into the magazine’s finances. Newsweek was particularly vulnerable to the flood of free information and images unleashed by the internet. It was staid, bland and overdigested; the internet, by contrast, seemed to offer a magical unblending of current affairs cud into the original vibrancy and detail of events themselves. But at the same time even Newsweek’s blandness was incomplete. The magazine strove for balance at a conceptual political centre-point which, the arrival of the internet showed, was more tolerated in the absence of an alternative than liked for itself. Inoffensive as it was, if you read it, you were likely to find something in it that contradicted the way you wanted the world to be. The arrival of the internet, in other words, exposed Newsweek and magazines like it as both bland and disagreeable. Just as the revolution in global food distribution has allowed people in rich countries to renounce seasonality and scarcity to create all-delicacy diets for themselves, regardless of whether they are harmful or not, the internet enables, and encourages, people to build news diets that contain only what they want to hear – excitement without challenge, pudding without greens.

Other old media titans with more distinctive voices wouldn’t wither so easily. Even as early as 1997 some of the big players were making clear they’d have no truck with free news. The Wall Street Journal began making readers pay a subscription for online access – a paywall, as it came to be called. Others were slow to follow, but in the late 2000s and early 2010s, a series of big papers made the leap. The London Times and Sunday Times went behind paywalls in 2010; their New York namesake a year later. The Washington Post, the Economist, the New Yorker and the Telegraph – and the London Review of Books – are the same, though most of the subscription models are more portcullis than wall, in the sense that you can visit the website and read a few articles before the restrictions come rattling down. The online subscription model has been easiest for specialist publications like the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal – which now have hundreds of thousands of readers paying two or three times as much for access than, say, Spotify subscribers pay for music – and for newsletter-like professional intelligence mags that specialists like engineers or doctors or horse breeders have no choice but to read. It’s tougher for the general newspaper, with its legacy of pre-digital striving to cover everything, Chinese trade policy and Manchester United transfer policy, criminal trials and medical trials, social change and climate change, with recipes, film reviews, weather forecasts and a crossword thrown in – ‘a random bundle of information,’ as Rusbridger puts it of the pre-digital Guardian, ‘held together by the glue of appearing in the same printed package’. When Rupert Murdoch tried to paywall the Sun, the readers wouldn’t cough up.

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But what if you didn’t put up a paywall? What you lost in revenue, you would, in theory, gain as a consequence of having a great many more readers. This is the route the Guardian took under Rusbridger and has maintained under his successor, Katharine Viner. By keeping its website free to the general reader, the Guardian joined an eclectic assortment of big free news sites hustling for attention out on the English-language street, each with its own funding model: the BBC, the Daily Mail, CNN, MSNBC, Buzzfeed, Vice, Fox News, the Huffington Post. And the English-language Al-Jazeera, and Sputnik. And any one of a million blogs, online fanzines, discussion sites, hobby forums, gossip mills and conspiracy exchanges, all of them capable, in theory and quite often in practice, of offering something a reader might take as ‘news’. How could a free online newspaper with global aspirations keep the reporting heft that would make it more than a worldwide freesheet, groaning with clickbait and lightly rewritten third-party copy? There were hopes among some legacy editors – Rusbridger was one of them – that the internet would release a pent-up desire among their readers to share what they knew about the world, and that digital newspapers could open up new channels for knowledgeable specialists, or general readers with unique experiences and good ideas, to help produce rolling coverage. Readers would become collaborators, co-workers, contributors – unpaid, of course.

On 29 February 2012, a new one-minute commercial for the Guardian was aired for the first time. The idea was to promote Rusbridger’s belief in ‘open journalism’, the theory that a digital news organisation’s readers should be empowered to help steer its coverage. At the start of the advert the POV zooms in on a PC screen where a headline is being typed onto a Guardian front page: ‘BIG BAD WOLF BOILED ALIVE.’ We cut to a police SWAT team breaking into the home of the Three Little Pigs to arrest them for the wolf’s murder. We see the arrest being covered in a Guardian video broadcast, then on mobiles, and a gathering number of viewer/readers – all young, with the intense expressions of actors showing how focused they are on something important – responding with a flood of thoughtful, polite, informed challenges to or endorsements of the Guardian’s first draft of history. ‘This isn’t right. The three little pigs are the victims.’ ‘The wolf blew down two houses, he got what he deserved.’ Somebody sends the Guardian a video of the wolf on the bus gasping from an inhaler. How could he have blown down the pigs’ houses? ‘WOLF SUFFERED FROM ASTHMA,’ a fresh Guardian story reports. In a nod to 9/11 conspiracy theorists, we see the Guardian running a graphic to illustrate the claim that even a healthy wolf would lack the huff and puff to blow a house down. Informed reader scepticism about the official version, pursued by the Guardian, pays off: the pigs plead guilty to framing the wolf so they can pay off their crushing mortgage with a fake insurance claim. Now the banks become the focus of popular anger and journalistic interest. Anti-finance demonstrators clash with police. ‘RIOTS SPARK REFORM DEBATE’ is the final Guardian headline, and in the end we see the readers squared away again as passive recipients of information, reading the story on a tablet, on paper, on a phone and on a laptop.

Rusbridger’s ideal news article would be one that is constantly tweaked by reader input, like a Wikipedia article but with the article’s author as its curator, long after first publication. He claims success in the canvassing of reader volunteers in, for example, sifting through data from corporate tax avoidance documents: ‘Sometimes we just threw a question out to the readers: we don’t have the immediate knowledge to hand to interpret this offshore arrangement, but we know some of you will. Can you help us?’ The resulting journalism, he says, ‘was often better than we could do on our own’. Similar approaches have been tried in the US, where it’s called ‘transparent journalism’; David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post got crucial reader intelligence when – over social media – he broadcast gaps in his investigation into Donald Trump’s charities and got some of them filled in.

This use of social media by journalists to appeal to the public for information – at the minor risk of revealing to rivals what the journalist is working on, what she knows and what she doesn’t – has brought some good results. These can be hard to distinguish from the ‘tip-off from a reliable source’, an institution as old as news; and the expansion of a journalist’s contacts book to include Facebook and Twitter followers risks drawing in misinformation as well as truth, not to mention futile labour. You wonder, for instance, who on the Guardian staff was given the task of processing the responses to questions ‘just thrown out to the readers’ about the legally fraught domain of tax avoidance.

The more ambitious collaborations Rusbridger hoped for relied on an assumption that in the digital world people would want to use an established media organisation like the Guardian as an outlet for their ideas, their inside knowledge and their experiences. But why would they, when they can go to Facebook or Twitter and get instant comments and likes and conversation? Legacy news outlets find themselves reporting on happenings that are aired on Twitter or Facebook first. That may be an actual happening in the real world – an act of racist police violence, say, exposed by the ubiquity of camera-equipped mobile phones – or it may be that social media itself generates a ‘story’ fitting the model: ‘Person A’s tweet about Person B has been greeted with fury and satire, see for example this funny tweet by Person C.’ Rusbridger’s hope that readers would help shape news stories looks less reasonable now set against a legacy news media bound to feed on stories broken on social media by people who may or may not be its readers.

What the modern news reader may lack in collaboration, they make up for in reaction. Sometimes the below the line comments responding to Guardian articles are constructive, useful, knowledgeable. Eliot Higgins started out as a punter posting in the comments section underneath Guardian articles about the Middle East; he now runs the investigative outfit Bellingcat, which has used analysis of social media to expose foreign arms supplies to Syrian rebels, track Russian intervention in Ukraine and identify the agents who spread nerve agent in Salisbury. But often the comments are partisan, shrill or abusive. They also tend to be anonymous. Rusbridger describes what happened when, in the spirit of open journalism, the paper expanded its online op-ed section to bring in a broader range of outside voices and urged its highly paid resident columnists to engage with the below-the-line posters sniping at what they had written:

For every piece above the line there would be dozens, sometimes hundreds – occasionally thousands – of comments below the line. This felt like what the web was destined to be: the polar opposite of the old world in which a reader would compose a letter in the hope it might catch an editor’s eye. This was the democratisation of opinion. Or was it? The resident writers couldn’t decide … For some it was philosophical. ‘The world has always been divided between the Club and the Mob,’ one veteran columnist, channelling de Tocqueville, said … ‘I’m afraid I’m on the side of the Club.’

If a column was about economics, culture or science, you could have ‘quite a reasonable discussion. If it was about feminism, or Israel/Palestine or Islam or immigration, then the threads could soon turn ugly.’ Readers poured onto the site straight from search engines with no idea what the Guardian was, or that they were on the website of a news organisation called the Guardian at all. Others came spoiling to get a rise out of a Guardian writer just because they were a Guardian writer. The paper introduced moderators. They couldn’t keep up. The paper tripled the number of moderators. They still couldn’t read everything. In the end, Rusbridger says, ‘the mods’ job became firefighting – whacking trolls wherever they cropped up.’ Among the sceptics of lightly policed comment threads was Jackie Ashley, who wrote to Rusbridger: ‘There will always be those who know much more about a subject than a columnist. And equally there will always be those who think they know much more. I’m delighted to hear from both: just so long as you make proper arguments and don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.’

Last year the advertising industry magazine Adweek ran an article about the Guardian’s ‘Three Little Pigs’ commercial, praising it as a ‘truly transcendent’ all-time great. But the piece also included an interview with the then creative director of the agency that made it, David Kolbusz, who spoke of the ad as a relic of a more hopeful age, a mere five years earlier. Open journalism, he said, had failed to account for ‘movements based on the subjective interpretation of facts, and the creation of alternative truths perpetrated by spreaders of misinformation – mostly for profit’. Open journalism was based on the idea that non-journalists would help news organisations navigate their way to an objective truth, when the world we’re actually in is one where different sets of people subscribe to different geographies of truth altogether. Newspapers weren’t the only legacy information organisations that stepped out onto the internet. There were also the present-day successors of Service A of the KGB’s First Main Directorate, responsible in the pre-internet days for planting fake stories in the capitalist media. There were the descendants of the right-wing American media activists of the 1940s and 1950s, originally radicalised in opposition to America’s joining the war against Hitler, who set up the first network of conservative radio shows and magazines to propagate their idea that, as Nicole Hemmer puts it, ‘objectivity was a mask mainstream media used to hide their own ideological projects.’ And there are people who just make stuff up, but can spread their fake news worldwide more effectively than the most powerful press baron in the glory days of newspapers, and be anonymous when they do it. Rusbridger quotes the internet guru Clay Shirky on funding public interest journalism as a social good: ‘Social stuff is how most birthday parties are produced, how most picnics are produced, right? It has just not been a big feature of the landscape. But now it is.’ Birthday parties and picnics are, indeed, good examples of ‘social stuff’. So are lynchings, pogroms and witch hunts.

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The stability or virtue of the English-language news media in the days before the internet should not be exaggerated. The spread of television in the mid-20th century cut a swathe through the newspaper landscape: Britain’s left-wing Daily Herald, which once sold two million copies a day, was one of a number of titles whose poorer working-class readers abandoned them en masse for TV. The advertisers followed, and in 1964, fifty years after it launched, the Herald closed. In all the time I worked in newspapers, beginning on a small town daily in the Midlands in 1985, there was a perception that the medium was declining, and the nagging question: when people can find out ‘what just happened’ from TV and the radio, and ‘what’s going on’ from magazines and books, what exactly are newspapers for?

There is a tension in Breaking News between the book as, on the one hand, an autobiographical account of a career journey from local reporter in Cambridge to helmsman of the new, globalised Guardian and, on the other, as a broader examination of the crisis of ‘news’ in the hyperconnected age. There are reasons to weave the strands together. Rusbridger’s career happened to coincide with vertiginous disruption. It began when newspapers were still made by men hand-working giant machines that set words from drops of molten metal; he stepped down from the Guardian just before the election of a US president able and willing to lie directly to more than fifty million readers from a device in his pocket. If at times the book does read like a retelling of the greatest hits of the Guardian under Rusbridger’s editorship, this could be justified, too, as a ledger of the kind of public service journalism that might not have been pursued had the Guardian and its like not been around, from the investigation into Jonathan Aitken, who ended up being jailed for perjury, to Nick Davies’s exposure of tabloid phone-hacking, which led to the closure of the News of the World.

For Rusbridger the culmination of his editorship was the Guardian’s role in the revelation in 2013 of industrial-scale spying by Western intelligence agencies on their own citizens, thanks to Edward Snowden’s release of thousands of files purloined from the NSA. The reason most of the first wave of Snowden shocks appeared in the Guardian (the Washington Post shared in the early revelations) was that the previous year Rusbridger had poached Glenn Greenwald, a radical critic of the US security establishment, from the website Salon, to strengthen the Guardian’s growing American operation. Greenwald’s blog had a million readers. Rusbridger was prepared to have the Guardian host Greenwald on his own terms, rather than try to slot him into the newsroom like a traditional journalist. Greenwald, Rusbridger writes, was a paradigm of the ‘open journalism’ reporter, who

thought the most interesting point of the day was when he pressed ‘send’. That was when the story began its real life. People would start responding to it, attacking it, praising it, sharing it, adding to it, pointing out errors, suggesting new leads … If he’d made a mistake he wanted to know about it as soon as possible so that he could correct it. If there were things that were missing, he added them. He got new ideas for next week’s column. Readers could check things that weren’t clear. He could add detail or sources or links if people doubted him. During the hours immediately after publication his story would improve.

Snowden was one of Greenwald’s readers. When he made up his mind to tell the world what he knew, and to identify himself as the whistleblower, he had a deep mistrust of the establishment media: the New York Times’s slowness, as he saw it, in publishing an earlier intelligence exposé ruled them out as presenters of his material. But nor did he want to go down the WikiLeaks route of dumping files onto the internet. He wanted to leak through a responsible filter. Snowden also reached out to the filmmaker Laura Poitras, who in turn sought advice from the Post’s Barton Gellman. But by recruiting Greenwald, Rusbridger advertised the Guardian to Snowden as a news organisation that was edgy enough to antagonise the most secretive parts of government, while still offering the status and reach of legacy media.

It’s easy to see why Rusbridger wanted Greenwald: even if you don’t set much store by the open journalism idea, you could see his recruitment as a smart traditional move – the hiring of a distinctive voice that chimed with the Guardian demographic. But it’s interesting to consider why Greenwald was ready to move to the Guardian. The paper, he said when he started, ‘offers the opportunity to reach a new audience, to further internationalise my readership’. The Guardian, in other words, had become international and cosmopolitan in a way it wasn’t before the internet. It wasn’t just a small British newspaper anymore: it was an American news organisation too, a fact acknowledged by the award of a Pulitzer, shared with the Post, for its Snowden reporting. In the 1990s and early 2000s, in terms of circulation and international name recognition the Guardian lagged behind its closest British rival, the Times. When you told people in the US you worked for the Guardian, most people hadn’t heard of it; if they had, they tended to be older people who thought it was still called the Manchester Guardian. In October 2014, the Guardian overtook the New York Times to become, for a while, the leading serious English-language newspaper website in the world. (Measuring internet audiences is a fraught and controversial affair, but at the time of writing Amazon’s Alexa rankings for global news sites puts the Guardian fifth, after Reddit, CNN, the New York Times and Google News.) It has become, in a phrase Rusbridger uses a few times in his book, a global brand. This didn’t happen just because of the internet. It happened because the Guardian invested heavily in digital operations and in US staff, and it happened because, when its rivals were putting up paywalls, the digital Guardian stayed free – the other side of open journalism, the principle that what a news organisation produces should be open for everyone to read.

Rusbridger wasn’t the only person responsible for this, but he was a dogged proponent. It was, and remains, a risky strategy, and has been controversial inside the paper. Rusbridger’s slogan was ‘reach before revenue’: burn through your cash while you build your client base. You can worry about monetising it later when your more timid, backward-looking competitors have fallen by the wayside. That’s fine for a Silicon Valley start-up, but the Guardian isn’t one of those. It doesn’t have investors: it’s owned by a trust, the Scott Trust, forbidden by its charter from selling the organisation to a rival, floating it on the stock market or paying dividends to shareholders. The Guardian doesn’t have licence fee income like the BBC, or state funding like Al-Jazeera and Sputnik, and isn’t cross-subsidised like CNN or Fox. Its overheads are high, its commercial income low. It has cannibalised itself, making staff redundant in the UK and eating into reserves in order to expand in digital and in the US. The Guardian’s print circulation has declined to 138,000 – less than a third of what it was before the internet came along – but online it now has, we can estimate, around ten million visitors a day. There were high hopes that this extraordinary expansion in readership around the world, particularly in America, would lead to a corresponding boom in US advertising: that being able to market millions of readers to advertisers, rather than the hundreds of thousands who read it in the pre-internet days, would compensate financially for the loss of income from plummeting print circulation and its refusal to put up a paywall. But just when the Guardian seemed poised to take advantage of its new reach, the digital advertising market got swallowed up by Facebook and Google, internet phenomena that weren’t so much websites as technology platforms created to profit from the content of others. The era of programmatic advertising arrived.

It’s hard to convey the strangeness of programmatic advertising. As Carl Miller describes it in The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab, ‘You do not buy space in a particular publication; you buy space in front of a particular kind of person, wherever they happen to go on the internet.’[†] Thanks to the Russian election interference scandal in the US and the Cambridge Analytica affair in the UK, largely uncovered by Carole Cadwalladr at the Observer, a lot of people understand this. We also understand that Google and Facebook know more than anyone, perhaps even ourselves, about the particular kind of person we are, in the sense that they know what we look for, what we like and dislike. The actual process by which we get served ads on the internet is less familiar. Broadly speaking, each time you visit a website, more often than not these days on a mobile phone, your signature – or as much of your personal profile as the website can glean – is broadcast to robot ad exchanges around the world, which robotically solicit bids from robot advertisers to put an ad, tailored for you, into a slot on the page you’re looking at. The robot advertisers bid according to how much their algorithms value you as a potential consumer of their client’s product. The winning robot bidder’s advert is sent to the exchange, which sends it to the website, which displays it on the page you’re reading. The whole process takes about two hundred milliseconds – quicker, literally, than the blink of an eye. In the mid-2010s big news publishers that had just begun to think they might have righted the ship found themselves obliged to run Google or Facebook advertising scripts on their sites which, after the giants took their cut, left them with a pittance. In 2017, the duopoly took 63.1 per cent of the total digital ad spend in the US; the figures in Britain are believed to be comparable. More recent figures show a dent in the Google-Facebook rise, but only to the benefit of other internet giants like Amazon and Snapchat.

*

It is too soon to write legacy media off, or to assume newly familiar giants won’t one day fall victim to the same dynamism that allowed Facebook to go from nothing to world-smothering leviathan in a decade. When Rusbridger stepped down from the Guardian in 2015, the operation was beginning to haemorrhage money. By the following year Guardian Media Group, the paper’s holding company, was looking at a pre-tax loss of £173 million. It seemed the Rusbridger years had brought readers by the millions, great journalistic achievement and empty coffers: reach without revenue. Plans to install Rusbridger as chairman of the Scott Trust were dropped and he left the organisation. But two years on, the picture looks more hopeful. The remainder of GMG’s old investments have been consolidated into a £1 billion endowment fund that will provide income to support journalism, working much like the Wellcome Trust. Although Katharine Viner shares Rusbridger’s dislike of paywalls, and paper sales continue to dive, the Guardian has come up with another way to raise money from readers: soliciting donations, like Wikipedia, or the prominently positioned cash box at the entrance to a nominally free museum. Anyone can read the Guardian online for nothing, but Viner said in November that a million readers have made some form of voluntary financial contribution. It hopes to break even in 2019. On the other side of the Atlantic, another generalist newspaper, the paywalled New York Times, earned $340 million in digital subscriptions in 2017, and is growing revenue as fast as Facebook, and faster than Google.

Towards the end of his book Rusbridger allows the possibility that he may have been over-optimistic about the reader participation aspect of ‘open journalism’: ‘Most readers, it may turn out, don’t want to be involved in the news: they just want to read or watch it.’ He notes that in 2016, NPR axed reader comments from its online stories, as did Vice, which declared: ‘We don’t have the time or desire to continue monitoring that crap moving forward.’ Rusbridger’s ambivalence towards a collaborative approach to news runs deeper. As much as he insists on the importance of the voice of the readers in the digital age, he doesn’t quote any. Implicitly the Guardian speaks in defence of the wronged and the powerless, but post-Snowden, when the top levels of the British government and many of his fellow editors were ranged against Rusbridger, accusing him of betraying his country by undermining the security services in their fight against terrorism, he turned for support against a national elite to an international elite: ‘There was also a memorable Guardian private dinner in Davos attended by Eric Schmidt from Google; inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee; the boss of Vodafone, Vittori Colao; the former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt; the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman; and Fadi Chehadé, the CEO of the body charged with co-ordinating the internet.’

It’s worth dwelling on this, because the position of the Guardian editor must to a large extent reflect the position of its readership, and more broadly the position of the hundreds of millions of university-educated, left-leaning, avowedly tolerant, socially concerned people around the world – global liberaldom, for want of a better expression. ‘A private dinner at Davos with Eric Schmidt from Google’ is, on the face of it, the opposite of looking at the world from the perspective of the ordinary citizen. And yet that’s where global liberaldom finds itself, trafficking between power and powerlessness, at worst wanting all the street cred that comes from standing with the crowd and all the benefits from hanging out at parties with the powerful, at best endeavouring to be the honest messenger between the two. Unable to choose between the Club and the Mob, in other words, but wanting to be accepted by both, and as a result not quite trusted by either. Reflecting on the Guardian’s mutually beneficial but uneasy relationship with Julian Assange during the WikiLeaks affair, Rusbridger writes:

I once remarked to a senior intelligence figure that the British and American governments, instead of condemning our role, should go down on their knees in thanks that we were there as a careful filter. Without newspapers, they would be dealing with a much scarier and intractable problem … how contemptuous Assange would be of such a thought. How he would despise even my contact with such a person, or the fact that I leave him anonymous in this narrative.

In this case being found slightly untrustworthy is the honourable position, but it’s never going to be comfortable.

There are odd moments of cognitive dissonance when Rusbridger drifts from the simple truth that, no matter how much a paper builds its readership, that readership will always be a public rather than the public. Just as to report the news the Guardian must both infuriate power and transact with it – a state of affairs that some on the left find hard to accept – the Guardian can’t both preserve its identity as a liberal voice and extend its reach without alienating, and perhaps even in some small way adding to the isolation of, those who don’t share its preoccupations. When the internet opened the door to a new freedom of distribution, the Guardian, as a liberal British newspaper, might have gone deep, by offering readers a more liberal take on local affairs in different parts of Britain, or gone broad, by offering a British-originated take on liberal affairs in North America and beyond. It took the second course, by investing heavily in the US. It’s hard to escape the impression that, having reached the bottom of the well of Guardian readers in the UK, rather than trying to deepen the well – by having editions tailored for different regions of England, for example – the paper went looking for people in America who were already Guardian readers but hadn’t realised it yet. Not until November 2015 did the Guardian set up a North of England ‘news hub’ in its ancestral home of Manchester.

Rusbridger describes a series of exchanges with Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times. Baquet, raised in New Orleans, worries that paywalls like his paper’s are creating a divide between a well-off minority, who can afford a healthy and varied information diet, and the poor, information-obese on junk news. ‘I fear a world of only rich elite media,’ he writes to Rusbridger. ‘I may be comfortable sitting at dinner in the Savoy but I’m also a guy who grew up in a poor neighbourhood in the American South. And I’m not so confident the people like a young Dean will be able to afford the reports we all edit. That would not help the divide that plagues the world.’ The odd thing about this is that the actual young Dean Baquet wouldn’t have found it easy to read the New York Times in New Orleans because it was an out of town product that wasn’t available on every street corner. He would have been able to read New Orleans’s own daily paper, the Times-Picayune, with its own mix of local, national and international news, but only if he or his parents had paid for it or somebody gave him a copy. In the new digital world, the possibility for a young Dean to subscribe to the Times if he can afford it, or to read the Guardian for nothing, are two of the many factors that are killing what’s left of the Times-Picayune.

At times, Rusbridger evokes the pre-internet era of news media as if it were a golden age compared to today’s post-truth maelstrom. ‘Throughout recent centuries anyone growing up in a Western democracy had believed that it was necessary to have facts … We took it for granted, perhaps, that facts were reasonably easy to obtain; and that, over time, we’d developed pretty effective methods of distinguishing truth from falsehood … The fundamental importance to any community of reliable, unfettered news was one of the most important Enlightenment values.’ Elsewhere, the identity of the ‘we’ comes into question, given the ubiquity of what we now call ‘paywalls’ before the internet came along. When Rusbridger quotes, with approval, Baquet asking ‘whether anyone else … shared his concern about the new reality in which 98 per cent of Americans were now excluded from the NYT’s journalism and might well have to make do with substandard information’, what they’re saying also implies that the pre-internet age was horribly tainted by elitism and exclusivity because the New York Times wasn’t free and was hard to get outside New York.

There is also an assumption that the 98 per cent of Americans who can’t or won’t pay to read the New York Times actually yearn to read it: the possibility that free access to the Times might be a kind of reality dose, a cure for the sickness of fake news with which previously healthy Americans have become infected. It would be comforting to believe in the invasion-of-the-bodysnatchers theory that people have actually changed since news migrated to the internet, but I suspect the truth is people are the same as they ever were, with the same latent tendencies. Rather the internet has brought these tendencies to the surface in new ways. ‘We took it for granted,’ Rusbridger writes, ‘that facts were reasonably easy to obtain.’ Perhaps some of us did. Many would put it differently: ‘We took it for granted that we didn’t really know, or weren’t really being told, what was going on.’ Some have always privileged the simple, secret explanation over the complex, open explanation; have always struggled to separate their own notions from ‘common sense’; have always parsed their powerlessness as a conspiracy by the powerful to keep them in the dark; have always been tempted to believe whatever story confirmed their prejudices; have, in fact, resisted the very definition of ‘news’ by preferring repeated variations on ancient stories of thieves, killers, champions, heroes, monsters, lunatics, knaves, kings and harlots.

*

The internet hasn’t so much changed people’s relationship to news as altered their self-awareness in the act of reading it. Before, we were isolated recipients of the news; now, we are self-consciously members of groups reacting to news in shared ways. Marvellously, this facilitates solidarity for the truly oppressed, for campaigners, for those with minority interests. But it also means that the paranoid, the suspicious, the xenophobic and the conspiracy-minded know they’re not alone. They’re conscious of themselves as a collective, as an audience, weeping, cheering, heckling and screaming from the safety of the darkness over the stalls, occasionally pulling on a mask to jump onto the stage and pull down the trousers of the performers or to start a false panic that the theatre is on fire.

Rusbridger recognises that the public as a whole, even as it hopes to learn what’s really going on, is alienated from the news media, and legacy media in particular. He calls for humility from journalists, and admires David Broder’s characterisation of a newspaper story as ‘a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours’. His concept of ‘open journalism’ is, in part, an exercise in humility. An open journalist should start out with a confession of ignorance and an invitation to those with genuine expertise to help her. ‘Journalists,’ Rusbridger said in 2012 at the time the ‘Three Little Pigs’ advert was launched, ‘are not the only experts in the world.’

It was a curious statement, since journalists aren’t expert in anything except, eventually one hopes, being journalists. ‘Expert reporter’ was always a contradiction in terms. A certain amount of prior knowledge in technical areas won’t hurt, but the journalist who starts on a story believing they already know what it is cannot, by definition, be working on ‘news’. The confession of ignorance is always implicit: an event occurs, or the journalist becomes interested in something, and she needs to know more about it to write about it, so she looks for people who do know, and tries to talk to them. This is true whether the story is about a murder, a vote or an oil spill. The open broadcast to readers and social media followers for help is a useful new addition to the tools at her disposal, but it’s neither reliable nor efficient; the journalist still has actively to solicit expertise and inside knowledge. And when the journalist finds her knowledgeable source, her acceptance of her own ignorance is indispensable. And as the journalist’s ignorance about the matter at hand lessens, she has to keep in mind the perfect ignorance of the average reader. Long before open journalism came along the fundamental journalistic skill was to be able to go from a state of not knowing something to a state of knowing it without forgetting what it was like before you knew it.

*

The alienation is real, and goes back a long way. I’d like to think that people distinguish between one big news organisation and another, that they see a difference between a journalist working for the Sun and one working for the Guardian or the LRB. I know from experience that while some do, many don’t. If one journalist cheats and lies, the rest are tainted: disillusionment sets in. Back in the pre-digital days, when Sergeant Ian McKay, a soldier who died in an act of extraordinary military sacrifice in the Falklands, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the Sun tried and failed to interview his widow Marica, who spoke to the Mirror instead. So the paper, then edited by Kelvin MacKenzie, simply made up an interview and published it under the tag ‘WORLD EXCLUSIVE’. Mrs McKay didn’t take it further, but a journalist on the Observer made a complaint to the Press Council, which deemed that the Sun had carried out ‘a deplorable, insensitive deception on the public’. It was fake news, big time, or, as it used to be called, lying. In their book about the Sun, Stick It Up Your Punter! (2012), Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale describe what happened next:

Years afterwards a hack went to interview Mrs McKay for a magazine and asked her why she had been so reluctant to make a complaint. She showed him a grudging letter of apology from [the Sun’s managing editor] and asked if he had still got his job. The hack said he had. Mrs McKay then asked if MacKenzie still had his job. When the hack replied that he had as well, the widow just looked at him. ‘There you are then,’ she said.

In 2003 the New York Times discovered that one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, had been systematically faking elements of his stories, plagiarising, claiming to have been places he hadn’t visited and met people he’d only spoken with by phone. On one occasion he described tobacco fields and cattle pastures visible from the porch of the West Virginia home of a family whose daughter had been captured in Iraq. There were no such fields; he’d never been to the house. Unlike the Sun, the Times was horrified by Blair’s deception, but dismayed and confused that the family hadn’t complained when they read the story in the paper. It seems they had extremely low expectations of journalism, generically. The missing soldier’s sister said: ‘We just figured it was going to be a one-time thing.’

One of the more extraordinary investigations of the last years of Rusbridger’s editorship was Rob Evans and Paul Lewis’s series revealing how police officers had infiltrated British counterculture movements by assuming false identities so deep they had formed long-term sexual relationships with activists. The Guardian unmasked one of the police spies, Bob Lambert, in October 2011. The article was on the front page of the paper edition, and by that time the online version was all over the internet. And yet the mother of the child he fathered when he was posing as an animal rights activist didn’t see it. She only found out that the man who’d vanished from her and her son’s life in 1987 was a police spy eight months later, when she saw his picture in another newspaper. ‘I don’t read the Guardian,’ she told the New Yorker in 2014. ‘Nobody I know reads the Guardian.

It’s one thing to be humble, as a legacy news organisation, in the face of you’re-all-the-same disaffection towards journalists as a class. It’s another to accept that for all your global reach and good deeds in the fight to defend the interests of the public, a member of the public in your own backyard took eight months to realise you’d broken an important story that happened to reveal the true identity of the father of her child. Humility in respect of people who just aren’t listening is less satisfying than humility towards hostile sceptics; the struggle to find out what’s really going on in the world isn’t as wearying as the realisation that on the rare occasions you do find out, not everyone is waiting eagerly to hear about it. That doesn’t mean the struggle isn’t worth it, just that if a certain humility is required in the more conscientious newsrooms, it’s in recognising that the ‘we’ of a single readership, the ‘we’ of believers in public interest journalism, and the ‘we’ of the public as a whole, are three very different ‘we’s. It is a stretch even to get them to touch.

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December 4, 2018

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