Journalism is undergoing the most profound changes since Gutenberg’s printing press, said Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, a paper which has seen significant digital growth and now has a digital audience close to 15 times larger than its print one.
Now anyone can publish, and we must not fight that trend, rather, we must face up to it and establish what we as journalists can do better, he said. Rusbridger was speaking at the Paris-based Sciences Po university on 7 September.
“What is journalism? What is the difference between what these people can produce and what we can?”
Many journalists are reluctant to consider contributions from readers or bloggers as serious competition, Rusbridger said, but it is dangerous to be in denial about how the publishing world is changing, he stressed. It is not just individuals who are contributing to the media landscape: from NGOs to supermarkets, from opera houses to TV stations – all are becoming online media suppliers.
The power of a media organisation is to be able to harness the intelligence of the web: you can tap into this by being part of the web, rather than just on the web, he said. “You can be more powerful if instead of ignoring other people, you bring them into what you're doing,” he continued.
This is the essential idea behind the Guardian’s open journalism efforts.
“The first thing to do if you are going to be open,” Rusbridger explained, “is to create an open API – this allows people to come in and do interesting things with your journalism.”
One such company that is using the Guardian’s journalism is Flipboard, the social aggregator app for iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle Fire and Nook. “We don't know in the end if they will be an enemy or a friend, but right now they bring in one million a month extra people to the Guardian,” Rusbridger said.
Encouraging reader participation has led to massive amounts of content coming to the paper’s website, he specified. An article on the recent shooting in Colorado received 1,165 comments, compared to 11 on the site of the London Times, which is behind a solid paywall. The Guardian has seen a 66% increase in comments in a year.
One of the distinct advantages of openness - that it allows news organisations to do more with less – is particularly pertinent in a world where newsrooms are struggling with financial challenges. “Newsrooms are going to be smaller and you want to choose carefully what you can do,” said Rusbridger.
The Guardian’s openness has allowed it to improve its coverage and what it can offer readers, even with limited staff. “Half of a day of a cricket match will now be written by the readers,” Rusbridger said. “It’s double what we could do with just a couple of journalists.”
Similarly, the Guardian’s Environment site is now the top site of its kind, despite having only six people working on it, because it takes contributions from a network of 29 blogs. The paper’s Teachers Network invites teachers to contribute to the site and has, for example, gathered 7000 lesson plans for teachers to share. “We are a platform for other people’s content as well as our own,” Rusbridger said.
There is also a definite possibility to make money from these niche parts of the site: with 10,000 photos uploaded in the paper’s photography network, there is a clear opportunity for targeted advertisting from camera manufacturers, for example.
Openness does require investment in staff, and the Guardian now has eight community managers and twelve moderators. It also requires journalists who fully embrace its ideals, such as Paul Lewis and Jon Henley, who are harnessing the power of the crowd to directly improve their coverage of individual stories, Rusbridger said. The paper’s coverage of the UK riots of 2011 led to funding from Open Society Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for a wider project on ‘Reading the riots,’ which involved interviewing 600 people.
There is still a place for print, Rusbridger said, and financially it is still far more lucrative than digital. But “in our mindset, we are completely digital first,” he explained. “We are a giant website with a small team dedicated to the newspaper,” and the paper must reflect that, by offering analysis and explanation rather than news.
The crucial question of how to monetise this massive audience of more than 30 million monthly unique users of the Guardian’s website still remains. But Rusbridger believes that if the journalism is good enough, the business model will come. “Now, people usually want to speak about business models, but it's better for editors to think about what is the most compelling form of journalism, because that leads to a business model,” he said.
For the World Editors Forum's report on Open Journalism, please see here