When I meet Alan Rusbridger, he is poised to go on holiday. Much needed, no doubt, with the Olympics just finished and a whirlwind couple of years behind him. A mild, quietly spoken man, he is unassuming in appearance, but erudite in conversation. His take on the hacking scandal, which – let’s be honest has brought the Guardian to the kitchen table – is honest and real. But what impact has it had on The Guardian’s brand?
“I think if you do stories because you think you’re going to increase circulation; you have to go back day after day and come up with more and more,” he says. “Tabloids do that. That’s their model. That’s why the Independent, in the end, didn’t work out. If you’re busting a gut to come up with some fantastic, dramatic presentation on the front page because that’s your sales pitch, that’s very difficult to sustain. There are some papers that are very good at doing that, the Daily Mail’s one of them. I think you gain more long-term solidity if you say ‘we speak in a different voice’. The phone hacking story gave us a spike [in circulation], just like The Telegraph got a spike out of the MPs’ expenses story. People, I think, will always think that The Guardian was a paper that had the guts to do something that the police wouldn’t do, the regulator wouldn’t do and the other papers wouldn’t write about. The Guardian was brave. It was the outside voice, it spread truth to power so in terms of long-term reputation building it was great.”
Rusbridger mixes his passion for print with a zeal for digital, which was the pedigree that brought him to the forefront for The Drum’s Digital Hall of Fame. Where other newspaper editors shied away from the looming threat of digital takeover, he embraced it. Not only did he pioneer its adoption within the Guardian Media Group, he shook every senior member of staff by the scruff of the neck and told them to pay attention to what was going on.
“I heard about this thing called the web in 1993,” he says. “I went to America with Tony Ageh [now at the BBC] and went to New York, Chicago and Colorado. We flew to Boulder, Colorado, to where Knight Ridder [a big player in west coast publishing] had a lab.”
Rusbridger was reminded of the trip when the iPad came out. “They had a tablet and they said ‘this is what the newspaper of the future is going to be like’,” he says. “I was convinced that they’d actually built one, but when I Googled it, it turned out theirs was actually a piece of wood. They’d showed me a piece of wood, and said ‘this is what newspapers are going to look like!”
When he came back to London, he told the then editor, Peter Preston, about his experience. “I told him there’s this thing called the Internet and it’s going to change newspapers forever,” Rusbridger says. “I then flew over all the people we met on that trip, probably to try to scare Peter. I don’t think he really believed me. So from about 1994 to 1995, I had this missionary zeal that there was this thing that was either going to destroy us or transform us.”
It was during this time that Rusbridger worked closely with Emily Bell, now director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Bell was in charge of launching MediaGuardian.co.uk, which was one of the first media hubs in the industry. She is respected in the industry as one of the opinion formers and led The Guardian’s march into what was then called ‘new media’.
“I went through a period, seven or eight years ago, when everyone was banning Facebook,” he says, “I actually made it more or less compulsory for people to use it at work. I gave the heads of departments little tasks every week. I’d say, this week you have to sign up [to Facebook], then next week I want to see photographs appearing on your Facebook page, then videos. And the same with Twitter. I remember Emily [Bell], six months into using Twitter, she said Twitter is going to be better than Media Guardian. That was such a shocking thing to say. I still don’t think she’s right but within six months, it became completely obvious what she meant, which was the combined power of hundreds of thousands of people was going to be quicker and more comprehensive. The journalists who kept making the same mistake by saying, that’s got nothing to do with what we do, that’s the worst mistake to make. You still come across people who say ‘journalism is this, and that is not’. Twitter, three years ago, it wasn’t obvious that it was going to be one of the most powerful journalistic tools imaginable. And now it is.”
Rusbridger is pragmatic about the move towards free news, and hasn’t ruled out the paper going free or introducing paywalls, but is adamant that one thing remains at the core of what the paper concentrates on and that’s editorial.
“Well, there are clever people in the building who have amazing computer models that model all the things you would expect us to model; the things that everybody is thinking about,” he says. “‘Will print end one day? Will print end Monday to Friday? What does mobile look like?’ We have continuous models, but at the moment, print makes a lot of money. Digital also makes a lot of money. We’ve also known that line will never meet. There’s this thing, that’s become known as the ‘Rusbridger Cross’. There was always going to be a gigantic gap in the middle, we’ve always known that. The bad luck is that it’s happened in the middle of a recession, which means print has dipped down a bit, but digital is actually on course. It was always going to be messy. Everybody who looks like us has made a loss.”