A perfect online storm is gathering against newspapers, and the editor of The Guardian knows all about it.
Alan Rusbridger spoke to the Royal Society of Arts in London last Thursday night on the subject “Newspapers in the age of blogs.” The Guardian’s editor is almost certainly unique amongst British newspaper editors as having regularly supped with start-ups and Web 2.0 companies in Silicon Valley. He is trying to figure out, understandably, how his newspaper should deal with the pincer movement of the terminal decline in newspaper readership and the loss of display and classified advertising revenue – all thanks to the Internet.
In a wide ranging speech, delivered without notes but with hand-drawn slides, he told the assembled audience “Some people wonder if newspaper have or deserve to have future? Why does it matter?”
The picture certainly looks grim. Revenue is walking out of newspapers, into Internet portals and niches titles.
At the same time, Rusbridger outlined, there is a gap between the time it is taking newspapers to develop their own web sites and the surge in internet revenues among the boisterous technology start-ups and the leviathans of Google, Yahoo! and MSN.
“Newspapers – depending on their ownership structures – will have to face how they deal with this coming period. If you have shareholders, you will probably do what many US newspapers are doing which is cutting expenses and sacking journalists. Regional newspapers are being sold, as some companies try to get out of the business.”
He noted that Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers are trying to “pretend the Internet doesn’t exist” – and Desmond himself is drawing a large salary in the meantime. “At some point,” said Rusbridger dryly “The Express titles will fall off a cliff as the last reader dies.”
The latest research from the Pew Internet Foundation has shown that in the US there’s not a great appetite for reading newspapers among 18-30 years olds. Meanwhile, the existing newspaper readership is slowly dying off.
Rusbridger believes this would be a tragedy, not just because “You can’t read a computer in the bath” but – like wandering through a second hand bookshop – there is a feeling of serendipity that you get from newspapers as you turn the page.
[Rusbridger probably didn’t know it, but I recall “serendipity” being the exact phrase used by editor Max Hastings in his speech at the launch of the Electronic Telegraph in 1994].
He thinks the second hand bookshop is a metaphor for the newspaper industry – we like serendipity, but we also like the fact that the online bookstore can offer us a thousand highly tailored titles to suit out tastes.
At this point in his speech, Rusbridger turned to the revenue problems for newspaper looming from the web start-ups.
“A lot is down to Craig Newmark, an archetypal West Coast liberal who is almost single-handedly destroying the American newspaper industry with Craigslist.org.”
A web site that “will never win any prizes for design” started off as a lark by Newmark, but evolved to offer a unique business model: advertising listings which were free to place and free to view.
This is clearly “a difficult model to beat.”
Craigslist is now in 192 cities, and only charges for want ads in three of them, and only $25 , while Craigslist competitors, like the New York Times, charge $300.
With no marketing costs – it’s all word of mouth – Craigslist has little overheads.
He employs 18 people, in a fairly run-down office in San Francisco and he won’t sell the company to any newspaper he’s put the fear of God into.
As Rusbridger said, “this is a utopian exercise, we think he’s making $10m a year and he’s not going to sell. He’s just interested in creating a space that’s free to both sides.”
The contrast with the New York Times is obvious. It is about to move into a massive new headquarters, employs around 10,000 people: “Craig has a shack and these NYT people are terrified. And that goes for the whole of the American print industry.”
At this point in his speech Rusbridger made a point about how the very advertising revenue which Craigslist rejects as effectively tainting the ability of people to connect with each other, does in fact help to guarantee the freedom of the press.
Think about advertising and editorial for 200 years.
In his 1958 book “Dangerous Estate”, author Francis Williams said the daily press would never have existed without advertising. Before advertising took over the bulk of newspaper revenues, it had been politicians ho had paid for newspapers to exist. Advertisements gave newspapers a form of independence, said Rusbridger.
Meanwhile, for every Craigslist there are hundreds of other niche sites looking to remove newspapers from the equation. Rightmove has been quoted at £320m.
On the other side of the equation is editorial and the traditions of journalism.
As Rusbridger pointed out, the New York Times, along with most newspapers, are considered to be “tablets of stone. Editorial meetings at the New York Times are like religious meetings. What’s the lead story? What goes on page 2? It is very serious people saying this is our expert opinion. ‘Believe us’ is the message.”
This is a model that’s existed for hundreds of years. This is “journalism as revelation” said Rusbridger.
“We are the conduit and we tell you what’s important. Occasionally the little people would write a letter to the editor. We print a few, graciously. This is the paper I inherited in 1995,” said Rusbridger.
“The something happened called the conversation. Email was invented. This was a big challenge to journalists.”
Some journalists ignored the emails. Some journalists replied to the emails coming from readers and worked out it might make them a better reporter.
Columnists got a vast quantity of response. Polly Toynbee, a well known Guardian columnist, would say she’d had 400 emails. Should she reply to the emails or write her column? Of course, she had to do the latter.
So instead, “these people started to talk to each other without asking permission from the newspapers. They also went behind our back to our sources, as information began to be published online. You could read the report yourself and compare it with what we’d written. A bit cheeky of the readers,” said Rusbridger.
The result is that “we have reached a point where the newspaper is in the middle of a fragmented world of interest groups aligned around zones of politics and passions and geography.”
If there were any mistakes in the paper people would challenge it.
In the meantime, the new readers no longer take a newspaper’s view on trust. They are self-selecting and can get in-depth information on what they are interested in and ignore what they are not interested in.
“No stories about Africa please, I want all the stories about Arsenal football club, or whatever,” said Rusbridger.
“They are not wrong, these people. The Internet now does a lot of information on all sorts of subjects better than newspapers. I shouldn’t be saying this live to the world outside, I should be keeping this a secret, but a lot of people have twigged to this.”
He gave the example of how Golf might have had one magazine ten years ago – while today there are over 20 golf sites which are rich in information. And old sports brands like Wisden are now online, bypassing the newspapers.
Newspaper critics are being bypassed by web sites where people are allowed to become critics themselves: “And nearly all these sites are a two-way conversation.”
Especially in areas like Travel, the younger generation wants to read information “by people like themselves.”
“So a newspaper has a choice. They can say we are the experts, or they can say ‘this is interesting’ ask their readers to comment.”
As a result, the Guardian has launched two new sites which are directly intended to provoke a response from readers. “Been There” where readers write about their travel experiences. Similar things have been done on The Guardian’s sports coverage, which has evolved into a more blog-like coverage.
As Rusbridger outlined, “This is the beginning of a complete inversion of the newspaper model. It’s not us telling you it’s us saying to you ‘why don’t you take part and we’ll give you the space.’ ”
As Rusbridger hinted, space is not at a premium on the Internet. If people want to talk they can go anywhere. Technorati is the Google of Bloggers and there are now an estimated 25m blogs where they can “publish their thoughts, desires notions and opinions.”
“This is a really interesting phenomenon and there’s no point in criticising, it’s just happening. In many ways it is entirely positive. You don’t need large amount of money and printing presses. Anyone can get there.”
Last week Rusbridger said he spoke to a bunch of 25 year olds Internet geeks who are building the tools to aggregate and personalise people’s experience online.
He mentioned sites like Flickr, Pluck, Blogburst, Shadows, MySpace, Tribe, Last FM, Digg.
“Google is now in danger of being passé – as a purely mechanical way of finding information.”
And just to be “really terrifying”, hundreds of sites are scraping the ads out of sites and aggregating them.
The Guardian looked at the phenomenon of how people are looking to these technical aggregators. So for instance, “Overheard in the UK” has had 457,000 visits in the last month.
“Comment used to be our field. Now there are web sites for fragmented audiences who want stuff they are interested in by people who are like them… However fragmented you want to be, it can be done better than a newspaper. What does a newspaper do?”
Rusbridger said that he decided to launch a new Guardian site, “Comment is Free”, after seeing how a liberal-minded blog in the US, The Huffington Post, a had overtaken The New Republic, The Nation, Mother Jones and The New Yorker in web traffic.
All of this content is created for free.
The contrast in strategy over at The New York Times couldn’t be more different. There, they have put comment behind a subscription firewall. Although they claim 400,000 subscribers, this includes print subscribers, so it is probably closer to 250,000. That’s about $10m dollars a year: “Great, but it’s not going to pay the gas bill on their huge new building.”
This strategy, said Rusbridger, is creating a “massive gap” between the free part of the Times and the paid-for, but also between the young and the old, who go to different places to get their opinions.
“Comment is Free” is therefore The Guardian’s solution to this issue – and it’s all free to access..
It contains comment from the paper, the editor’s picks, and then other people’s views. All contributors have a blog. Most are not being paid, unless they are columnists. But the site is a level playing field where paid commentators are ranked alongside unpaid and the user can see how many times an article has been viewed.
Rusbridger also joked that the brave new world of online was throwing up strange new ventures, like the about Ricky Gervais podcast, which soon became the most downloaded in history.
“Should a newspaper do that? Our readers don’t seem to have a problem with it. At the other extreme, you have Jon Snow talking about Channel 4 news being a radio station.”
Ultimately, he believes that the penny is starting to drop among teenagers that what newspapers do can be interesting” “most of the content they are aggregating is from newspapers and we provide content and context. So it seems mad to be sacking journalists.”
Concluding, his speech, Rusbridger asked “where does the newspaper sit in society?”
If newspapers can’t afford to report the news because the economic support has been taken away; If chunks are taken away editorially; If people follow only their own fragmented range of interests, then papers are trouble.
But for a society to work well, citizens have to be informed across a range of subjects. Politicians, in fact, would find it hard to govern without informed citizens. And newspapers stand outside government and can critique it.
Rusbridger drew on an anecdote about a dinner he attended where representatives form the highest levels of politics, the military and judiciary were present, just after the Iraq war.
“One by one they said we all failed. All the parts if the state that were supposed to work didn’t. The only thing that did work was newspapers and broadcasters.”
In an age where some parts of the world remain no-go areas to ordinary people, like Baghdad, it’s newspapers which are sending reporters like Jonathon Steel, 67, who said “he wanted to go. What happens if all the journalists pull out? There’s a duty to go. There’ aren’t any bloggers volunteering to go.”
“I will never lose sight of the role of newspapers and their role,” said Rusbridger. “In some ways it’s the most exciting time to be in newspapers. There’s a revolution as big as Gutenberg and Caxton going on, but in many ways it’s also frightening.”
Rusbridger’s attack of Craigslist was ironic. Across London that evening Newmark was holding a bash of his own at a London club, ignorant of the critique being made of his strategy.
Not only that, but since Newmark is a self-avowed believer in the new wave of ‘citizen journalism’, which is beginning to gnaw at the edges of the mainstream media. Some might say he appears to want to supplant the media, not only by destroying it revenue base, advertising, but its editorial foundations as well.
But the Guardian’s launch of “Comment is Free” does suggest a fighback is in the offing. Not only does the Guardian appear to want to borrow the better ideas from the blogging and citizen journalism, but could more be on offer?
Would the Guardian ever “do” a Craigslist for instance? Launching a free or extremely low cost form of online classified advertising into the market ahead of Craigslist’s incursion into the UK? It seems unlikey – a lot of money is a stake. Plus, the Guardian would have the wrath of the rest of the newspaper industry to deal with.
For now, the Guardian will encroach on the technology aggregators turf, just as they are encroaching on the Guardian’s.