Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, was the guest of honour at Lincoln Cathedral on September 10th when he received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University.
Having apologised for his “silly hat” in reference to his ceremonial attire, Rusbridger spoke of his pleasure at receiving the award: “It’s a great honour. It’s the first time. Actually, I’ve had a degree before, but this is my first degree ceremony. I think it’s very nice — that journalism is not only taught at Lincoln, but is also rewarded and recognised.”
A far cry from his first days as a journalist, Rusbridger received his award alongside Lincoln’s 2009 digitally-aware Journalism graduates. He has watched closely as his industry is quickly transformed by a digital revolution.
The technological face of journalism is one every aspiring journalist should recognise, something he emphasised: “They need to understand digital — by which I mean not simply mastering new technologies, though that helps, but also understanding the way digital is transforming the way people collect, share and respond to information today.”
Rusbridger is also known for writing children’s books, such as The Smelliest Day At The Zoo. He also has writing credits for the BBC drama Fields Of Gold, which he co-authored with Guardian colleague Ronan Bennett. Cont. p3
Listen to the whole interview with Alan Rusbridger:
Even over 30 years as a journalist can’t safeguard you from the current crisis consuming the industry. Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, is wading through the mire like every other journalist out there, as they all face journalism’s toughest time in history.
However, despite news outlets taking a battering as their circulation and advertising revenue crash, he is optimistic that the necessity of journalism in communities will help it survive: “Imagine living in a town like Lincoln and there was no radio station, no newspaper and no websites. How on earth you would inform yourself about what’s going on and how you would keep power accountable, if nobody knew what decisions were being taken about the town or city? That’s not such a remarkable thing to imagine – that could happen in towns. And that, I think, leads you to the answer. This is the kind of information I think a society needs in order to live, which leads you to what journalism is. It may not be the sort of traditional journalism on a local newspaper ten years ago, or twenty years ago, but it’s still going to be necessary.”
Journalism’s survival could come through an increase in citizen journalism, with so much technology at our fingertips in gadgets like the iPhone: “I’m fascinated by how journalism is changing. We’ve been through the phase where everyone has a website and we sort of understand that phase of the digital revolution. I think the next bit is going to be incredibly interesting because it’s going to involve readers much more in generating content. I think there’s going to be a new kind of relationship between journalists and readers, which I think will have profound implications for democracies – that’s what stops the job from ever becoming mundane. It’s changing so fast that you feel as though you’re almost reinventing journalism every day.”
The BBC and its free online content is often cited as a blockade in the corporate news industry’s attempts to find a profitable online business model. Does the BBC undermine Rusbridger’s efforts?“At the margins, but as a citizen I would prefer to live in a country with the BBC as it is.”
One interpretation of the corporate news industry is that it only serves its own business interests as opposed to those of the people. Maybe the downfall of corporate news isn’t so bad? According to Rusbridger: “We should be thankful to anyone who wants to take the risks — and absorb the losses — of newspaper publishing at the moment.”
Aside from the worries of journalism’s future, Rusbridger is also concerned about the UK’s libel laws. He has himself defended the Guardian against defamation suits, most notably with former MPs Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton. He is a strong critic of our current defamation legislation and has said in the past that reformation is needed. I asked for specific changes he believed should be made:
“Switch the burden of proof to the claimant, as in all other areas of civil law. Cap costs, especially no-win-no-fee arrangements. Stop large companies from being able to sue unless they can prove actual damage or malice.”
So who does he think is the best journalist out there? “The bravest, most enterprising journalist I think at the moment is Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who writes for the Guardian. [He] is an Iraqi who had started as an architect and over the last five years has been into the most incredible hotspots in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. He blends into the background, seems to be completely fearless, and writes and takes pictures of the most extraordinary things. I think he is a remarkable journalist.”
Lastly, we’re back at the burning issue. What’s the most important change needed to save the news industry? “Well, the obvious thing is finding the revenue model that works. It feels to me as though we’re not far away, and we’ve known for a long time that there was a declining line in circulation and print revenue, and that digital was one day going to prove the solution. The problem is you get a recession in the middle of that and it makes everything much more difficult. But I think a combination of software, hardware, mobile platforms, changing habits, and actual recognition of what you would lose when journalism disappears. I think people will then work out the fact that you do need verifiable sources of news in communities.”
An optimistic outlook to say the least, but if he believes we’re close to finding the business model will he reveal any Guardian plans for securing their future? “We are owned by a Trust whose only purpose is to ensure the future of the Guardian.”Tweet