Truth is a small word liable to sanctimonious overuse and philosophical dispute, but in its humblest sense of accurate and verifiable information we like to think we know it when we see it. In Alan Rusbridger’s view, journalism should be among its leading providers: societies depend on good journalism to distinguish fact from fiction, to form a realistic view of their problems and futures. And here, he writes, a little hopefully, Donald Trump may have done journalism a favour. In his cavalier disregard for truth, Trump has reminded the rest of us why we need it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology and the web have created “the most prodigious capability for spreading lies the world has ever seen”, while the economics that support truth-seeking journalism have never looked feebler. To adapt the dictum of one of Rusbridger’s predecessors: bad facts are free and good ones expensive.
As editor of the Guardian from 1995 to 2015, Rusbridger published investigations and campaigns that will rank high in any history of journalism. He reprises some of them in this book: the long and patient inquiry by Nick Davies into the tabloid press’s criminal habit of phone hacking; the revelations of mass government surveillance by Edward Snowden; the “keep it in the ground” campaign to encourage institutions to disinvest in fossil fuels. Their effects could be far reaching, from an unusual declaration of humility by Rupert Murdoch to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s sale of its holding in BP. As a result, the Guardian’s reputation grew abroad, particularly in English-reading countries such as the US and Australia, where it established online editions. In the new age of online publishing, it began to see itself, however much some of its staff might shrink from the words, as a global brand.
But establishing the truth costs money – wages, travel, hotel bills. Journalists who learned their craft in the pre-digital age never knew too much about profit and loss. As Rusbridger writes, the phrase “business model” never came up in the pub (and it was only in the late 1980s that I first heard the word “budget” in an editorial meeting). But then everything was different. It seems almost inconceivable in retrospect but those of us who began our journalistic careers in the 1960s and 70s worked with tools that included carbon paper, scissors and glue, while elsewhere in the same building molten lead glistened in the little vats of linotype machines and klaxons announced the starting of the rotary press.
Sail to steam, cart horse to locomotive, theatre to cinema: these were milder transitions. Rusbridger joined his first paper, the Cambridge Evening News, in 1976. He describes how he recently tried to convey the pre-digital newspaper process to a class of 18-year-olds by drawing stick figures on a whiteboard. Stick figure (SF) 1 is a reporter with a manual typewriter, SF2 is the news desk “copy taster”, SF3 is the news editor, SF4 is the layout subeditor … and so on through the composing room, the press room and the newspaper van until we reach SF19, the newspaper boy or girl who pushes the product through the letterbox. Nearly 20 pairs of hands were needed to bring the news from producer to consumer. These days all that’s required is a smartphone. Rusbridger joined a staff of 70 journalists at the Cambridge paper. Who or what paid them and the rest of the staff? Some of the money came newspaper sales – the paper sold nearly 50,000 copies a day then (today it sells fewer than 15,000 a week). But most of it came from advertising. If anyone in Cambridge and district wanted to sell a car or a house, or announce a birth, a marriage or a death, they paid to advertise. Likewise, firms who needed to fill job vacancies, cinemas who wanted audiences, councils who sought to warn residents of road closures. Local papers such as the Cambridge Evening News were then making profits that reached 40% of turnover. A national such as the Sunday Times, enriched by colour advertising in its magazine as well as many pages of classified, could send a man all the way to Kathmandu (me in this case) and never worry if they spiked his report because they had better things to fill the space.
There was nothing new here. Advertising has always subsidised reporting. Rusbridger quotes the American historian Paul Starr: “For the past 300 years, newspapers have been able to develop and flourish partly because their readers have almost never paid the full cost of production.” George Orwell noted that advertising tended to exercise an indirect censorship over the editorial matter, though its influence was more complicated than he perhaps understood. Richer readers paid the same price for the paper as poorer ones, but the richer reader was more valuable to the paper because his greater income could be sold to advertisers. A paper with a smaller circulation but richer readers could attract more expensive advertising; in the pursuit of richer readers, a paper might moderate its political tone or be tempted to road test Aston Martins as much as Fords.
These tensions and the facts behind them were part of a newspaper’s everyday life. The Guardian might regret that its readers’ incomes – the average in 2016 was £24,000 – were much lower than those of the smaller-circulation Financial Times, but its losses as well as its profits were small. In its circulation heyday as a printed newspaper it could fill many pages with public service advertising and also draw on the substantial profits of Autotrader magazine, which the Guardian Media Group acquired as a kind of substitute for a rich and indulgent proprietor. “It was such a cash-generating beast,” Rusbridger tells us, “that I sometimes felt every morning conference at the Guardian should begin with a quiet prayer to the gods of the used car dealer.”
The digital revolution overwhelmed the traditions of newspaper publishing in all kinds of ways, not least philosophically. If every voice was equal to every other voice, what did that mean for the role of the editor, supposing he went on existing? But the most crucial question was financial. In Rusbridger’s words, “the entire economic model of information was about to fall apart” and nobody knew what was to be done. Belief in the future of printed newspapers persisted despite all the evidence pointing to their short-to-medium term demise. In just one weekend in 2005, a total of 20m DVDs were given free to readers of national newspapers in an attempt to shore up declining sales. In 2006, the Daily Mail group turned down an offer of £1bn for its local newspapers, and only six years later was glad to sell them for £53m and a minority stake in another declining newspaper chain.
Nor was the Guardian immune. No other Fleet Street editor embraced the possibilities of online publishing with greater enthusiasm and imagination than Rusbridger, but in September 2005 he relaunched the printed Guardian in its new Berliner format at the considerable expense of new presses, despite feeling, as he writes here, that “printed newspapers were in a remorseless slide to eventual oblivion: that much seemed overwhelmingly probable”.
It was an expensive mistake – Rusbridger is shy of detail on this point – though a handsome one. The Berliner was to newspapers what the QE2 was to North Atlantic liners: the ultimate development of a dying form. Meanwhile the paper expanded online. “Reach before revenue” was the watchword, meaning that the first concern was to increase the online audience and only then devise a way of making money from it. How to “monetise the content” became a staple of journalistic conversation in a way that, in the days of print, concerns about advertising revenue had rarely been.
The Guardian eschewed paywalls – making the reader pay – not only on high-minded grounds. Too many of its online audience lived outside the UK to make easy payments feasible, and the company feared that an inevitably smaller readership would mean too heavy a cut in advertising. (It was felt that the Times, which did establish a paywall, would suffer less because advertisers would still be drawn to its richer readers.) The Guardian’s strategy in essence was to create such a large audience through free access that online advertising would meet the bills for everything. What nobody foresaw – or nobody, at least, outside California – was that most of the growth in digital advertising would be captured by Facebook and Google, which had developed software that could identify the tastes and purchasing histories of every consumer online.
Newspapers were no match for such technical power or such deep pockets; Twitter lost more than $2bn before it posted its first profits, 12 years after its launch. Rusbridger likens the continual innovations of the software companies to the work of the death watch beetle: invisible until the house collapses. “We were at the mercy of whatever would come next from a handful of tech giants 5,000 miles away. We were living incarnations of those at the receiving end of globalisation … stiffed by faraway forces beyond our comprehension or power. This is what it was like to have been a Manchester cotton mill owner, or a Yorkshire pitman.”
I should say that I know and admire Alan Rusbridger and that I regularly contributed to the Guardian under his editorship. The book he has written is eloquent in its argument for well-resourced journalism, and never better than in its central narrative of how an old profession struggled to cope with a new technology that threatened it with obsolescence – averted, in the Guardian’s case, by the commitment and generosity of its readers.
• Breaking News by Alan Rusbridger (Canongate, £20). To order a copy for £15, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.