Asharq Al-Awsat interviews Alan Rusbridger, the Editor of British newspaper, The Guardian. Alan Rusbridger has been Editor of the Guardian since 1995. The following is a transcript of Asharq Al-Awsat’s interview with Rusbridger.
Q) From what I read there is going to be a presentation at the World Newspaper Congress that is going to be held in Moscow entitled ‘Innovation: How the Guardian Newspaper changed everything except its values in just twelve months.’ There was a lot of hype around the Guardian’s transformation and how smooth and successful the transformation was. Could you tell us about how long it took to prepare, plan and execute the transformation?
A) From memory, the Independent went to tabloid size around September 2003, and everybody was thinking about how to respond. The Times did the same in the autumn of 2003 and we dummied up some tabloids around January 2004 and then decided that was not what we wanted to do. We placed the order for Berliner presses in about April 2004 and printed the first copies in September 2005 so it took about fifteen months, which, if you talk to anybody who knows about presses, to build a new press plant, it was more or less a world record. In that period, we redesigned the paper and everything else. I am sure if you are not involved in the press, if you are a reader or reporter it probably felt like a long time but it was a very speedy process.
Q) The reported cost of the transformation was about 80 million pounds, how long do you think it will take before the paper covers this cost?
A) I would like to point out that in three years time our pressers would have had to be replaced anyway, so in a sense, we were pulling forward the cost of re-pressing for three years. What we did was to have accountants do some sums [for the next] 15 years and ask is this going to add significantly to our cost. They said it would be more or less the same. Although 80 million pounds is the kind of headline figure of the transformation, effectively, we were not incurring a cost that we would not have had to anyway.
Q) In December 2005, you reported that daily sales reached 380,000, which is 6% higher than the figure in 2004. Do you think that it has proven that Britain likes its newspapers smaller?
A) Yes, in general and around the world now, however I do not think that on its own it would guarantee an uplift. I think my advice to anybody who has the opportunity is to go smaller. If then you choose to go tabloid or some intermediary size is up for debate, but I think smaller is better.
Q) What about the amount of news carried? In the Guardian’s previous format, would a certain story would have got more attention?
A) Overall, we are getting about the same number of words. It would be impossible to completely redesign a paper around different ad shapes and have every story the same length. One of the reasons I did not want to go tabloid is that there is much more pressure. The pace of a tabloid means to have one big hit per page or per spread. The Berliner, I believe, gives you the chance to have several stories per spread. You would read a spread the same way you would a broadsheet spread that is probably around 1600 words. You can do that and still have a decent mix. In tabloids, you are building pages and spreads around pictures and catchy headlines, which tends to downplay the more serious kind of story. [In tabloids] you tend to get an awful lot of crime, celebrity and lighter material, which we would illustrate with pictures. For me, [the Berliner] is the best of both worlds but that is only one of the reasons we went Berliner.
Q) The award winning online model, Guardian Unlimited has brought the Guardian group much praise, as it was able to spot the strategic window earlier than others were. To whom does the credit go to in spotting the window?
A) Back in 1993, Carolyn McCall who is the managing director and I got involved with a magazine called Wire, which is a kind of bible for the internet and was published over here for a while. I made a couple of trips to America in the early nineties and came back with a kind of Messianic gleam in my eye and told others about this extraordinary thing that was going on there, so both of us came at it independently. We did not make the mistake of going in at a ridiculous level. We did not do what others did, shoot it and then have to cut back. We went in at a reasonable level. Also, we did not simply replicate the paper online, I think that’s what a lot of people do, they just put the paper up and treated it as though it’s the same medium. We did not do that.
Q) As somebody who was and still is excited about the online revolution, where do you stand in this debate about the future of newspapers. Do you believe that online is going to takeover, and that newspapers are going to die by 2014?
A) The honest answer is I do not know. The next most honest answer is that it is not up to me to decide. It will be a combination of users, readers and technology [that decides] and I cannot control any of that.
If that is the medium that the 14-24 year olds prefer then the chances are more of them than in the past will be happy to use it in a digital form. If somebody invents plastic paper, which I think has happened already, and you find something that is readable in sunlight, has long battery power and is refreshable then that spells the end of [newspapers] sooner. If not then [newspapers] I think will be round for many years yet but the economic model that supports this will change. That will be the challenge, to interpret what works in print versus what works digitally.
Q) Do you think the digital world would one day become as profitable in terms of advertising or other sources?
A) To me it seems obvious if you have got a huge audience of up market, intelligent, professional young people all consuming this type of media, it defies belief that the advertising markets would not follow. Why would you stick to a medium that seems old-fashioned and has a much older audience, which you may want to target for certain products, but you would not be able to ignore the audience that is elsewhere? If that is true, then the smartest strategy it seems would be to build up the largest audience of those kind of people you can and that is what we have done. Anything that chokes off that growth whether it is subscription, registration, micro payments, charging or anything that would push people away from your website seems short sighted. You have to hold your nerve and you have to acknowledge that it will not be instant return.
Q) What is your opinion on citizen journalism, such as the Iraqi blogger as Salam Pax? Some people say citizen journalism will pull the carpet from under that of the typical journalist.
A) Some of it is very interesting, useful, revelatory and important. It ought to be encouraged and if you have the time, then it is interesting to read. The problem with it, which is obvious, in a lot of cases, you do not know who it is. I gave a speech the other day in which I said there are no bloggers volunteering to go to Baghdad, and all the bloggers jumped on me saying this man is stupid or dishonest because look at all these bloggers who are in Baghdad. It is true there are maybe a dozen or more who are regularly keeping blogs in English. The problem is you have no idea who they are, what they’re motivations are, how reliable they are and it is often that they are writing tiny little snapshots. If you have the time to go through twelve different blogs a day, then that is an interesting way to keep up with life in Baghdad, but most people complain about newspapers and say they do not have time to read a newspaper! Therefore, you would have to be very interested in Baghdad and Iraq to want to follow blogs. As an alternative to newspapers, the concept is interesting but I do not think it can supplant what newspapers do because there is the question of trust and time.
Q) A very special trait of the UK media is that it seems newspapers have no problem announcing they have a political position, could you explain why this is so? Wouldn’t having a position affect editorial integrity?
A) I think you could begin the answer for this by going back 250 years ago to the origins of the British press, when newspapers were paid for by political parties, until advertising came along and liberated the press from dependence on political parties. A combination of that and the libel laws in this country which protected opinion but not reporting, so you had an opinionated press of left or right and it was a national press. Therefore, its not like America or Germany where you have one paper per city, which has to cater for an entire population and that has led to papers with quite strong political characters.
I think you then move on to the interesting question about how you express that and whether that comes through in the paper, or whether you can separate the politics from the reporting. The longer I edit the more I think it is desirable to separate the two. With the Independent, it seems to have gone the other way; it has very punchy opinion pieces on the front page.
Q) There seems to have been a collision between the Observer’s and the Guardian’s positions on the war on Iraq. I know they are two separate papers with two separate editorial teams but they are under the same umbrella organization, has that always been the case?
A) We have owned the Observer for about twelve or thirteen years. The point of the Scott Trust is that nobody can tell me what to think or write and I think that makes me unique in the national press in Britain. The Scott Trust is constitutionally barred from having an opinion about what the Guardian or the Observer should write. Therefore, my only discussions are with my editorial colleagues and obviously, there are is the relationship with the readers. We came to one conclusion, and they came to another and that is the very interesting thing about this group, that there isn’t one person above steering the group in one direction or the other.
Q) What are your thoughts on American versus English journalism?
A) American magazine writing is wonderful. They still have the art of writing long, well-researched pieces. I like the seriousness of the New York Times and the Washington Post. I think are many American cities where the main paper has become a shadow of its formal self and it can be very insular. The kind of fetish for balance and objectivity again in some ways, is admirable but there is something about the pressure cooker of the British press, which can be brutal and ugly sometimes. There is that battle between left and right and the fact that none of the newspapers get on with each other. In a way, it means there is no danger of the press becoming an establishment or being brought into the establishment. We are always attacking each other and the press does help keep the politics honest.
Q) Has British Prime Minister Tony Blair ever praised or criticized you for anything?
A) Occasionally, we have had cross moments with [British Prime Minister] Blair. Again, I think it comes back to the matter that the Guardian is a devolved structure. If the Prime Minister tried to suck up to me and get me on his side, all the balances within the paper would kick in. You would immediately have columnists saying well the Prime Minister was a crook or a villain and I cannot stop them. I think he realizes that, so he leaves me alone! It would be more interesting for him to meet someone like Rupert Murdoch and ask him to do something about this paper or that paper.
Q) …and does that actually happen?
A) (Laughing) It’s not for me to say!
Q) You have been editor since 1995. Do you have any plans of retiring?
A) No. Guardian Editors have histories of a long ten years. CP Scott did 57 years but I do not think I will be beating him. The last two [editors] did 20 years each. That is also the thing about the ownership of the papers you have a trust, by and large, as long as you are doing tolerably well. They believe in continuity and they believe in a very strong culture within the paper. I think you can argue it both ways, but if you look at other newspapers that get rid of editors every few months when they do not immediately deliver results; I don’t think that’s the way newspapers [should] work.
Q) Is there anyone being groomed at the moment to become the next editor?
A) There are four or five people who are all very bright who could do the job as and when the time comes. It would be irresponsible not to make sure there are enough people there. However, it would not be my choice; it will be up to the Scott Trust to decide.
Q) What about the incident with your intern, Dilpazier Aslam, who was part of Hizb-u-Tahrir? There were rumors that Jonathan Freedland threatened to resign if the intern was not shown the door.
A) The difficulty [with this issue] is that this will be the subject of the employment tribunal. I can say that that is not true but I cannot comment on the details of the case, as it will be going to court.
Q) At the time he was hired, did the paper know he was part of Hizb-u-Tahrir?
A) In the public statement that we made at the time he left, we said that he did not tell us that he was a member of the organization, though the application form he filled in was completed fully about his social and political activities and did not mention it. At the time he was hired we did not know though he made no secret of it later.
Q) Was it his opinion piece that caused a stir?
A) It did cause a stir but that was not the reason behind his departure. It is on the public record that we said it would be very difficult for him to be a reporter and belong to this organization. A strong belief of mine and I am not talking about him now, is that it is important for the credibility of the newspaper or organization that reporting may be affected by your membership to an organization. If that comes into question, then a choice has to be made. Either, I’m first and foremost a journalist or I’m interested in politics and if your editor says to you these two roles are in danger or jeopardizing each other, then you have to make the choice and everybody is free to choose, but if you are going to be a reporter, you have to take account of the paper’s reputation. That is the general rule we operate and we stay true to that in this case. In terms of opinion, I think the Guardian has a broader range of Arab and Muslim opinions certainly more so than any other paper in Britain and possibly, in Europe. Therefore, the notion that we were suddenly surprised by the reaction to his piece is not true.
Q) What are the future projects for the Guardian Group? We understand there is a project of Guardian films, which I think are documentary, where do you see that going and are there any other projects in the pipeline?
A) Guardian Films is an interesting experiment, which is neither making nor losing money. It is cost neutral and quite small but it is an attempt to work out what you can do with video and there may be interesting possibilities in terms of shorter lighter films made for the web. I think that you should have some kind of video potential or expertise within a media company and that it is not possible just to exist on printed work. The same is true with audio and we are doing a lot more of that such as pod casting and audio streaming. We are not experts in this field, but we feel we should have some sort of potential.