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Alan Rusbridger: There has to be a Plan B to ad-driven news business models

Alan Rusbridger, best known for his 20-year tenure as editor-in-chief at the Guardian, thinks the business model for news is broken. After all, during his tenure, The Guardian was known for impactful journalistic work like breaking the phone-hacking scandal and publishing news of the NSA’s covert data collection programs — and for making giant losses.

In Rusbridger’s memoir, “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” published in September, he aims to describe the changes of the news industry from the inside, pointing towards how journalism can be relevant, trusted and a functioning pillar of democratic society.

Digiday spoke with Rusbridger about the difficulty in building reader-relationships into the newsroom and finding the right economics for journalism to survive. The conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.

How can we make a sustainable model for journalism? What are the models you think are working?
I do think the Guardian has a good model. If we want to make journalism as widely available as possible — that is important when so much false information is widely available — you need a model where people say “this is an act of philanthropy.” That hybrid model of voluntary donations with advertising. If you have high-income readers like The New York Times or The Financial Times, and specific financial information, then paywalls can work.

Measuring that success is also tricky.
Metrics should be your servant not your master. In the old world, we didn’t have much of an idea of what people were reading. I have heard of editors using metrics too literally. I met someone who said they only write pieces that drive subscriptions. You can see the logic for that, but what happens if readers don’t want to read about climate change? You need to set parameters, it is instructive. On the other hand, if no one is reading then why still do it? You need an intelligent interpreter of newsrooms metrics. We’ve moved from a rush for scale at all costs to something more subtle.

[Digital-native media organizations] find it as hard as anyone else; it’s not that they have found a magic formula that alluded everyone else. They can feel more comfortable in a digital-only medium than people straddling two worlds. It seems BuzzFeed is reinventing itself successfully as a media organization, partly for commercial reasons because advertisers are evaluating the quality of the audience rather than the size.

Is the advertising model broken?
Not at the moment, but there has to be a plan B, particularly at a local level. People have to ask whether this is going to be sustainable.

Do you think government intervention is the answer?
If we think the public thinks — and they do, partly thanks to Trump — that it’s frightening to live in a world where we find it harder to know or agree on facts, then the penny drops. All things, like government, become impossible if there’s no broad consensus on the basis of factual argument. If you think we need arbiters to help us decide what is true, and the market won’t provide that, you ask what is the market? It’s a job of the government to hold that debate.

Is that the responsibility of the platforms? Should they be regulated?
An intelligent conversation is vital. The feeling of Facebook is they have created something unimaginable in history at any point. Few of us would know what to do with that in five minutes, but people want it sorted by next Monday. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater but we should be on [Facebook’s] case, and be constructively involved in what they do well and what they don’t do well. But they are capable behaving with breathtaking arrogance and in a high-handed way.

There have been a few high-profile cases of media organizations being criticized for giving a platform to people like Steve Bannon. What’s your view on ‘no platforming’?
In general, as an editor, you want to encourage as many voices in the conversation as possible. We featured Sinn Féin politicians Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and people felt that was beyond the pale, but it was the right thing to do. We want to understand what’s in the mind of people we may think of as evil or that we don’t like. We generally will have to talk with them and understand what makes them tick. We have to try to keep talking to them and say “this is our idea of free speech, I appreciate this or that view may upset.” The more you do, the more readers get what you’re trying to do.

Are you optimistic about the future of journalism?
The world needs it. There’s worry about the prospect of information chaos, and people value journalism more. There is a lot to be cheerful about. But clearly, there are economic issues that need to be sorted. The fundamental debate is if journalism is defined by the commercial model that it had — dependent on advertising — that dictates the form of journalism to some extent. If that changes can journalism change with it? Can journalism rest its case on the public interest it serves? That’s a big and complicated debate.
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