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A Future With Less News

Alan Rusbridger’s account of his time at The Guardian illustrates the possibilities and limits of journalism in the digital era.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

“I think news is incredibly important to society and democracy,” Mark Zuckerberg told a group of editors and media executives in May. The Guardian and its sister newspaper, The Observer, had reported two months earlier that a Donald Trump-aligned analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, used Facebook to target users with personalized political ads. The revelations fit neatly within a pattern of Facebook failing to police its platform on various fronts. After testifying before Congress on how it happened, Zuckerberg convened the gathering with journalists in Palo Alto as if to prove he believed in the type of reporting that brought the episode to light. At the same time, he didn’t suggest any way Facebook could protect it.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $30.00

A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media. Deeply reported and scrupulously fact-checked stories now compete with click-bait, memes, bots, trolls, hyper-partisan writers, and fake news produced to rack up views on social platforms. Local news is vanishing as Facebook, Google, and increasingly Amazon dominate the advertising industry on which publications long relied. And national news outlets now grapple not only with how to recalibrate their businesses, but also whether to tweak their journalism to fit a media world in which they are the exception rather than the rule. The question of how to serve the public interest hangs in the balance.

Alan Rusbridger frames these developments as nothing short of a potential crisis for liberal democracy in his new book, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now. Access to trustworthy information is a key feature of an open society, and the internet promised to further democratize it. But we are now drowning in information of varying quality and from unreliable sources. The resulting confusion threatens to upend the way we understand the world and to empower those who thrive in chaos. “We are, for the first time in modern history,” Rusbridger writes, “facing the prospect of how societies would exist without reliable news—at least as it used to be understood.”

He understands the stakes: He edited The Guardian as it made a Herculean attempt to morph from a mid-sized British newspaper to international standard-bearer for progressive news, and saw all of the obstacles. Rusbridger’s Guardian is instructive of the possibilities and limits of journalism in this world. He has seen how digital media can liberate new voices but also ravage the business models that used to support newsgathering. What remains unclear is just how many institutions like The Guardian can survive—and how often their civic mission and commercial interests will clash.

Rusbridger’s career, which began at the Cambridge Evening News in 1976, tracks closely with the fortunes of the media industry. The newspaper of 40 years ago enjoyed something of a regional monopoly in the distribution of what’s now known as “content.” Fat with classifieds for jobs, cars, and anything else now found on Craigslist, the daily print edition was sold to readers at a relatively low cover price; media companies made most of their money from advertisers.

Within that moneymaking vehicle, journalists passed down information in a vertical exchange with their audience. “We owned the printing presses,” Rusbridger explains, “they didn’t.” Reader suggestions and criticism were largely relegated to word of mouth and letters to the editor, lending news outlets unmatched power to judge what was worthy of public attention. “Most of the news … was pre-ordained,” Rusbridger writes, “in the sense that the news editor in each newsroom kept an A4 diary on his desk in which he or she would record every upcoming council committee along with the relevant health, fire, ambulance, water and utilities boards.” The end product, free from many of the competitive pressures of today’s media, veered more toward recounting the events of the day rather than interpreting or questioning them.

High profit margins paid for large staffs of reporters and editors who produced at-times expensive work that held powerful interests to account. Rusbridger was a cub reporter when All the President’s Men portrayed The Washington Post’s Watergate investigation as a high point of investigative reporting. Rusbridger didn’t think journalism was as heroic as the film made it out to be, but he came to believe deeply in “a more flawed, tentative, iterative, and interactive way of getting toward something truthful.” His paper in Cambridge scrutinized public officials, even those who could be valuable contacts or sources in other stories. Rusbridger recalls a mentor’s crass view of this relationship: “You got their respect by kicking them in the balls at regular intervals, because, in the long run, they needed us more than we needed them.”

The expansion of TV news would eventually pressure newspaper hacks to introduce more context, analysis, and lifestyle coverage into their daily menu. But the core advertising business that subsidized their work remained robust. In the United States, the profits enticed far-off chains to buy out independent owners and gradually form the publicly-traded conglomerates we know today: Gannett, Tribune Publishing, McClatchy, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The shift took crucial strategic decisions out of local hands; corporate satraps aimed to maximize quarterly financial returns, sometimes cutting staff when margins were still high. The short-sightedness sapped newsrooms of value just as they cautiously tiptoed to the edge of the digital revolution.

As the internet quickly rendered print advertising obsolete, many publications’ revenues plummeted, and parent companies blindly continued the cost-cutting with sometimes mass layoffs. Since 2007, tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in the United States alone—so many that a trade group stopped counting. During this time, more and more unverified information spread online and particularly on social media, often fueling confusion. A generation of journalists would vanish just when the public needed them most.  

Rusbridger developed his vision for digital journalism outside the traditional constraints of corporate governance schemes. The Guardian, where he was named Editor in 1995, had long been owned by the Scott Trust, an umbrella organization formed by previous proprietors to support its costly, progressive journalism through other ventures. Between 2007 and 2014, the Trust sold its stake in the highly profitable car magazine Auto Trader to contribute to an endowment for The Guardian topping $1 billion in value.

With this measure of financial flexibility, The Guardian pushed ahead into the digital world. As many national and international competitors tepidly replicated their print products as static websites, The Guardian attempted to tap into its readership as a resource through new story formats and proactive engagement, all while pushing out investigative work like its reports on phone hacking. News outlets’ audiences also had the ability to publish information in comments sections, message boards, and blogs. “For 200 years journalism had been about pushing stuff out at readers,” Rusbridger writes. “And now.… Here were real live readers—sometimes thousands of them—responding instantly to things you were telling them.” 

Rusbridger sought to harness this through what he calls “open journalism”—reporting that actively encourages audience participation, prizes transparency in its processes, and updates readers with new information from outside sources. The philosophy was particularly appealing to American liberals who felt misled by the press in wake of September 11, and The Guardian began racking up global readership that would come to rival that of The New York Times and Washington Post. While such massive digital audiences did not initially prove lucrative, Rusbridger and most others assumed that advertisers would eventually follow as they had previously.

This emphasis on maximizing reach incentivized news outlets to cover subjects with as wide an appeal as possible. Reporting on national politics or Hollywood news would bring in more readers, the thinking went, than reporting on municipal governments or local culture. Digital startups like BuzzFeed structured themselves around the notion that made-for-virality content distributed on social platforms could pay for more substantial journalism and keep it free for readers. Many newspaper and magazine companies also followed this gospel, chasing fleeting clicks that often diluted core coverage of their communities.

The Guardian had considered charging digital readers for content as early as 1996, but Rusbridger had long pushed back on the notion: “We were coming to believe we had to work out how journalism was best done in the twenty-first century before retreating to the apparent safety of nineteenth-century payment models (which might not, in any event, work for everyone now).” A paywall would supposedly confine high-quality news to a relative handful of elites, thereby limiting journalism in the public interest. “If legacy businesses were going to insist on revenues before reach they would lose every time,” Rusbridger writes. “That was the theory.”

The Guardian’s American invasion, which culminated with the launch of Guardian US in 2011, proved a thrilling contrast to the agonizing retrenchment elsewhere in the media industry. It was one of five global news outlets that partnered with WikiLeaks in 2010 to publish classified cables exposing the dark underbelly of international diplomacy. A young National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, approached it a few years later to share documents revealing the U.S. government’s global surveillance apparatus. The reporting would go on to share the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with The Washington Post in 2014.

In Rusbridger’s mind, the Snowden revelation “demonstrates … why the institutional strength and independence of the press is so imperative.” Such stories would be impossible without costly legal defenses and other in-house safeguards against government interference. They also require analytically-minded journalists to judge what information is in the public interest, especially as the “public” to which news outlets speak appears increasingly balkanized on the internet.

Despite all the validation for its journalism, The Guardian burned through tens of millions of dollars in cash annually. And while the paper had counted on growing ad revenue to offset its costs, many companies now preferred to advertise directly on social platforms, where they could hone in on highly targeted groups of potential customers. Rusbridger characterizes the financial turmoil of his final days as editor with no small measure of understatement: “I had stepped down at the end of May 2015 with the commercial board pronouncing themselves pleased with the shape the company was in.” But mounting losses were so great that they began to take substantial bites out of the paper’s endowment, requiring his successor, Katharine Viner, to slash costs by about 20 percent, including deep cutbacks at The Guardian’s burgeoning US office.

The Guardian has stuck with its ideal of open journalism by enticing some readers to pay without forcefully excluding those who don’t. Viner announced last month that 1 million people worldwide have voluntarily supported The Guardian over the past three years. Results from the fiscal year that ended in June suggest that more than half of them are regularly donating members, including upward of 70,000 in the United States. The endowment has stabilized, revenue is on a slight uptick, and Viner hopes to break even by next spring. But survival for this would-be flagship for progressive news hinged on tempering global ambitions just at the moment when its mission might have been most urgent, as liberal democracy teetered in countries across the world. 

Elsewhere, the march toward a world with less news continues. Many digital publishers remain beholden to Facebook, Google, and other tech firms for page views, even while they report that those same companies’ algorithms reward fake news. With Silicon Valley holding the keys to online and on-demand video, cable and broadcast news will likely face a similar moment of reckoning as their TV viewers age out. A few elite American publications took an exit ramp from this highway to oblivion by launching paywalls: The New York Times; The Washington Post; and other prestige or hyper-focused brands among them. It’s likely that those in the middle of this continuum—local newspapers and other outlets that have made important contributions—will continue to fade away. The bifurcation has in some ways begun to resemble the dystopian media world of haves and have-nots that Rusbridger fears. 

The Guardian remains unique among these English-language media in its ownership, mission, and model. In this sense, it’s no surprise that Breaking News is descriptive of structural problems rather than prescriptive in how to respond. Rusbridger concludes by throwing up his hands and putting the onus on tech giants to help save journalism. “The question now is how will it be sustained in the age of the hyperglobal corporation: the untaxed, rootless entities that know more about us than our own mothers,” Rusbridger writes. “Will they destroy, or support, a critical, independent, professional cadre of people and news outlets that—at their best—perform an ever-more necessary public service?”

To answer this question would require Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants not only to acknowledge that they make editorial decisions, but to accept a form of responsibility for the public interest. They could just as easily snuff out what’s left of journalism. In that world, a gated community may be preferable to no community at all.