17 September 2010

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor, interview with El Pais - translation

On 12 September 2010, Spanish 'quality' daily El Pais published an interview with Alan Rusbridger, editor of UK 'quality' daily The Guardian. This is the translation of that interview. The interview was accompanied by a video: Alan Rusbridger: ""Journalism should be open, collaborative" which is in English, subtitled in Spanish.

"I should be more radical in the digital field

He directs the prestigious British daily 'The Guardian', with the second most-visited English-speaking site in the world for quality newspapers. He is ahead of his time, a visionary, and an addict to new technologies. He affirms that the IPAD and iPhone applications are big steps in the digital media revolution

A year ago, Alan Rusbridger had in his hands information that he could not publish. It involved a petroleum company. He was tied hand and foot by a court order. So he put a message on Twitter, the social network of short messages, which, he recalls, went something like: "Sorry, we cannot publish the story of a company I cannot name for reasons that I cannot tell." Rusbridger says that in a matter of 24 hours, Twitter users managed to unravel which company it was, what the incriminating documents were and what was preventing the British newspaper from publishing the story. The snowball effect became so great that the story ended up breaking and the health and environmental abuses the oil company Trafigura had committed in the Ivory Coast became known.

This is the strength of the digital revolution. These are the advantages of the new tools. So says, enthusiastically, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the legendary British newspaper The Guardian, a journalist radically convinced that the best is yet to come, that the possibilities offered by new technologies will lead to better journalism. The website of his newspaper, www.guardian.co.uk is the second most important in the world among the quality English-language dailies, behind The New York Times. It can certify 35 million unique users, one third of them Americans. The old Manchester newspaper, which was founded in 1821, is today the paper of reference for the left that lives across the ‘pond’.

Rusbridger sits in a chair by the huge window that lights up his office. His hair is somewhat untidy, he doesn’t wear a tie, he doesn’t look anywhere near his 56 years of age. He gives the impression of being a calm man. He does ten minutes of yoga every morning and plays the piano and the clarinet. Furthermore, he is a real geek in the most technological sense of the word, a true addict to the new generation of gadgets. The first thing he does is to pick up the digital recorder with which this interview is being recorded and examine it carefully. He turns it around, fingering it. "Umm, it must be a very recent model," he murmurs.

"Twitter is the most powerful journalistic tool that has emerged in the past ... um ... ten years," he says hesitantly and after some thought about if it’s ten, fifteen or twenty (years). He speaks looking at the canal, which flows below his office, housed in a gleaming glass building standing in the middle of an old London industrial footprint. "When Twitter arrived I thought it had nothing to do with journalism. I was so stupid. For three months I thought, 'I'm too old for this'." Only 140 characters, forget it ". I was completely wrong. The media that have too narrow a view of what journalism is and how it is done are doomed. "

Rusbridger uses a recent example to explain the strength of the digital revolution. Two weeks ago, The New York Times published an obscure story about Rupert Murdoch and illegal wiretapping. It revealed that a reporter from the tabloid News of the World, owned by Murdoch, had tapped phones to get information and the editor at the time, Andy Coulson, now director of communication for new prime minister, David Cameron, was aware of it. "For 48 hours, no one in this country echoed the story," says Rusbridger. "Neither the BBC nor Sky News said anything. However, on Twitter, thousands of users were crying out: 'What’s happening, that's not a story'? The moment arrived when the power of people made the story impossible to ignore. And this is just one example."

Q: It's obvious that the traditional neswspapers (*originally translated as media) are (* originally translated in the singular 'is') failing somewhere, they are (*originally translated in the singular 'it's') doing something wrong...

A: Yes. There we have Wikileaks, which has become a brand of confidence, the place to leak documents. What has happened that traditional newspapers have been overtaken, from the point of view of customer confidence, by an Australian and a gang of hackers situated in different parts of the world? What have they done that we haven't?

Q: Perhaps the traditional media hobnobbed too much with the political, economic powers, with the large corporations? Perhaps they (the media) have forgotten what they should report?

A: People would like us (the traditional media) to investigate those big corporations, those centres of power; they'd like us (the traditional media) to do good journalism. But that kind of journalism is expensive, and we (the traditional media) don't think it's very ‘sexy’, so we (the traditional media) stopped doing it. (Update 12.00 17 Sep 2010: Please see Alan Rusbridger's comments below)

Irony appears. Rusbridger, with clear and discerning discourse, couldn’t be more British; he accompanies the start of each intervention with those little stutters so characteristic of the more ‘polite’ English.

He argues that, precisely because of this abandonment of traditional press functions, an open and collaborative web is key: "This philosophy of being open, publishing, linking, making information available, is a simple and powerful idea. As a means of communication, you have two options: you can be part of that open world or say: 'What we do is so valuable that we are going to hide it here. "

With regard to his own medium (The Guardian), he is clear: "The conservative, now, is to be radical. Thinking about the future of The Guardian, in preserving it, should I be conservative or radical with Internet? Seeing the future possibilities of print, which does not augur very well, if I want to be conservative on the issue of protecting the Guardian, my instinct tells me that I should be more radical in the digital field."

P. You are a staunch advocate of an open web and you're convinced that pay sites are not the way forward.

R. It's what my instinct tells me. The web is a matter of being open, of linking information. Journalistically, I think it's better to be part of this system: If you are open and collaborate, all the information that’s there will make you gain in wealth, power and will give you resources you aren’t going to get on your own. So I think there is a journalistic imperative and also financial imperative to be open. Linking to other sites perhaps publishing other people’s material, we become a content platform and not just our own editors. I think this is a very strong idea.

Instinct, instinct. Rusbridger uses the word six times during the interview. It was instinct that led him, without beating about the bush, to bet on the web in 1998. From the beginning, in The Guardian, it was clear they needed technology and a good team of (web-)developers. They invested more than twelve million euros to build a custom web site. They bet early on interactivity, the social point of view, they embraced blogs. The integration process between the digital culture of the recent arrivals and the print journalists was gradual, slow, measured. This, he says, is one of the factors that help explain his success: "If you carry out the integration too fast, you overwhelm the print people. You have to let people come to terms with things bit by bit."

Four years ago, at a time when some media companies cut their employees' access to Facebook to avoid distractions, Rusbridger made his journalists open pages on the social network to upload photos, videos. He did the same two years ago with Twitter. He says that of the 640 journalists writing for The Guardian, The Observer (Sunday paper) and the website, 90% are already "digital journalists."

P. How are you going to compete with new-age media, which have much fewer staff? Should we expect further job losses at the newspapers?

R. I do not know what the income will be, so I don’t know the answer to that question. At the moment, the money isn’t there, but the industry can change ... My instinct tells me it will be difficult to keep the staff sizes we've had in the past.

P. In fact, here at The Guardian there has been downsizing, and last year, 50 journalists left, is this the hardest part of the process?

R. In two years we lost 80 people, but all those who left did so voluntarily. We didn’t have to make compulsory redundancies. It’s very hard, we lost some very valuable people, but they all chose to leave.

The Guardian earned 48.6 million euros last year through its digital arm (about 10% of revenue, it had a turnover of 490 million). It sold 120 000 iPhone applications, programs that allow reading the newspaper on your Apple phone. "We are only six months into the applications revolution," he says, "it’s too soon to know how it will change our world." Rusbridger loves the IPAD: "It offers a great way to consume news. It's a step forward in the digital revolution, the first device in ten years that forces you to re-imagine how to arrange information, how to find your way in it, how you mix it with other media. " The Guardian is not rushing its IPAD application. Rusbridger doesn’t want an outdated application, such as The New York Times or Financial Times ones. He thinks the new device requires a new language.

"I'm addicted to technology, one has to be. I buy everything that comes out. The new readers, the new phones. Until you try them and feel them you don’t know what they’re like." To explain the moment his addiction for gadgets began, he gets up, obligingly, and begins to rummage through cardboard boxes behind his desk. Proudly, he extracts from the old appliances’ cemetery his first computer, a Tandy TRS-80. His fascination with technology was born the day that this relic fell into his hands. It was in 1984. He discovered a tool that allowed him to send his stories with the exact number of words; now the editors didn’t amputate the end of his columns, where he usually placed the punchlines.

Such was his expertise that in 1986, on a trip to cover the visit of the royal family to Australia, he contrived by himself to send his chronicle by phone: to do so he got in touch with the Australian telephone company, got a code and contacted a small company in London which was the only one able to convert that code and redirect it to a computer in the editorial office of The Guardian. He managed to send his story in ten minutes. To dictate it by telephone, as it used to be done then, would have taken ninety. "We must be smart with all the new platforms that are emerging and find a way to adapt our journalism to the platforms, software and habits of the readers."

P. At what point of the digital revolution are we now?

R. We are still in an incredibly early stage. So it is early to say that digital operations will never be able to support journalism, or to say we don’t see a clear business plan. There’s no reason to take drastic decisions so early.

P. The newspaper managers in the new digital age, seem to be less independent than before the business demands and pressures of the news corporations, do you agree?

R. Yes, I think it's true. It is because everything has become more complicated, I’m not saying that it was easy before, but you knew where the money was coming from: advertising and copies sold. Now, decisions are about technology, journalism and advertising; they’re more three-dimensional. We managers have to become more involved in that aspect and that distracts us from the task of editing.

P. And in this sense, combining this lessening independence with the fact that technology opens new doors, would you say we do better journalism than in the past?

R. Yes, the Guardian is reaching an infinitely greater audience than before. Its international impact and influence are far greater. Using the tools we're employing, what we offer to readers is broader, deeper and answers more questions than ever.

Translation: David Sketchley


UPDATE: 11.50am 17 SEPTEMBER 2010:

Here are comments sent to me by Mr Rusbridger:

"I was critiquing the atttitude (sic) of some media  who do not think investigative journalism was very 'sexy'. I said it was time consuming and expensive, with the result that many people dropped it -- and then we wonder why, as a profession, we lose trust. I emphatically wasn't saying "we" (ie the Guardian) took that view and had abandoned investigations. Quite the opposite. If you look at our work over the past two years on tax avoidance, the death of Ian Tomlinson, BAe, torture, trafigura and phone hacking you'll see that the Guardian still believes in long, detailed invesgitations."

It is possible that the El Pais journalist, Joseba Elola, may have mistranslated Rusbridger's original English words when he translated them into Spanish for the article, but until he confirms this or corrects the Spanish version...the translation here stands.

UPDATE 2: 18.00 17 SEPTEMBER 2010

I have just spoken by phone with Joseba Elola, and he confirms that all translations are correct, both his and mine. He stressed in no uncertain terms that Rusbridger was talking about the 'traditional media' , not specifically The Guardian - that was the context of the interview at that point - and that Rusbridger was being ironic. He agreed that taken out of context it could appear that Rusbridger was saying something different. He also confirmed that there were two interviews, the video interview and a 'paper' interview.

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