In the concluding part of our interview with Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor-in-chief considers the possibility that the paper will eventually start charging for its online content.
The amount of information available online is something The Guardian can employ to its strength, Rusbridger believes. The transparency it harnesses was the subject of The Guardian’s television advert earlier this year, showing that by incorporating blogs, forums, Twitter and social networks, the paper can show the different facets of stories. This forms Rusbridger’s opinion that the next stage of digital will be ‘open’. “Lots of learned people have written books saying ‘whether the internet can stay open in every sense’,” he says. “I think that’s going to be the big battle. The extent to which, and the mechanisms through which, you can harness the power of what’s being created and the mechanisms by which you make it manageable. Twitter within two years has gone from being something that’s manageable to something completely unmanageable. The more and more vast it [the Internet] becomes, paradoxically that’s a great opportunity for organisations like us. That’s what we do; we make sense of very complicated situations. We’ve got great powers of editing, selection, working out what’s true and what’s not and making it accessible.”Would that mean paying for it? “I think the only way to do digital is to remember that it’s a completely new world, and you have to play by that new world’s rules,” he says. “There would have been no point in 1997 or 2000 saying that we don’t like the idea of this all being free, so we’ll charge for it, that just wouldn’t work. All the people who tried that, it didn’t work. So the simple answer is I don’t know. At the moment, I don’t think it’s right. But I’ve never said we would never do it. I think you have to think editorially first. If you just say, ‘let’s build a gigantic wall in front of our content because that seems a more sensible business model’, without thinking how newspapers fit into this new information system. I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. I think it’s better if you embed yourself in this new world of information and work out what it is what we can do that they can’t do and vice versa. If at some point in the future it looks as though some form of payment is going to work, we’re not going to set ourselves against it.”The idea of transparency in its news writing is what led to the paper launch Guardian America in 2007. “We discovered we had 20 million people reading us online,” Rusbridger says. “A third of our readership was in America and we hadn’t spent a penny marketing to them. You’d have to be a very uncurious person to not say ‘that’s interesting what can we do with that’. The reason seems to be, outside the New York Times, there isn’t much that’s really internationally engaged. Weirdly, in a huge country like that, even the Washington Post has closed down all its bureaus outside Washington and New York. It’s a vast country, that’s not being very well served with international coverage and there’s something about the European or British tone of voice that they like. A lot of American journalism is brilliant but some of it is quite straitlaced. There’s a lightness of tone and a more attached form of writing as opposed to politically detached. The BBC, The Economist, The FT have already realised that there’s a huge appetite for British journalism. The Mail’s done it extremely well. So we’ve moved from being the ninth biggest newspaper in the UK, to being the third biggest in the world. In the space of ten years.” As the owner of 5 Macs and a PC, Rusbridger says he is ‘extremely honoured’ to be inducted into The Drum’s Digital Hall of Fame
. He says of digital: “For the first time in history, anyone can be a publisher. Or anyone can create. “I think we haven’t even begun to realise what that means. We haven’t begun to work what that means in terms of democracy or business. Media is a small part of it in a way. For me, I think about it a lot. I play with it quite a lot. That sense of constant surprise and discovery. That moment when you think of the most obscure thing possible, and you type it into Google and 150 people have got there before you. It’s just mind-blowing. “I have been passionate about this journey for nearly twenty years,” he says. “When I was writing the Guardian Diary, it was 1984, and I was using the Tandy 100. I had to write it on that, print it off and give it to the subs. The internet was 1993, but my passion for computers and gadgets goes back even earlier. So it’s very nice to come from that legacy but win my spurs in the digital world.”Catch up on the first part of our interview with Rusbridger: "Everybody who looks like us has made a loss”