What does one understand about the future of global print media when the then most widely read English language publication, The Guardian, incurred a £53 million loss in 2015 — only a year after the newspaper won the Pulitzer?
Among the owners, publishers and newsroom hacks around the globe looking to answer that, well, million(s) dollar(s) question, is Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s former editor-in-chief who spearheaded the British publication for two decades starting 1995.
In his latest book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, Rusbridger narrates the behind the scenes of The Guardian’s biggest success stories across these two decades — from stealth attacks on big shots of British politics like Jonathan Aitken, Geoffrey Robinson, Peter Mandelson, to taking it to the global scale with exclusive coverage of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — including his insights on the Pulitzer Prize for National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance activities and indeed the 50 odd million quid annual loss that he left the publication with.
At a time when a new government’s revised policy on press advertisements has jolted the Pakistani media industry to a point where hundreds are being laid off, salary cuts are ubiquitous and media houses are actually shutting up shop, Breaking News paints a picture for the local media — and it’s not particularly rosy.
After all, if The Guardian can’t break even — or at least couldn’t till 2015 — what hope does anybody else have? Or maybe, just maybe, dare one say, there could actually be a glimmer if one avoided the mistakes The Guardian made.
Among those publications looking to avoid The Guardian’s faux pas is The Guardian itself, which under Rusbridger’s successor Katharine Viner and Chief Executive David Pemsel, outlined a three-year plan to cut down the losses to the magic figure of zero.
Even so, the strategy that Viner and Pemsel have put in place is the age-old cost cutting — 20 per cent or £50 million per annum, owing to a decision based evidently on Grade 1 arithmetic.
Incidentally, that’s the choice everyone seems to be making, instead of looking for ways to generate revenues in the digital sphere dominated by Facebook and Google. Paywalls seem to have worked for some, albeit with a fraction of monetary success as marketing practices of the 20th century.
It’s Rusbridger’s stubborn, nay quixotic, resistance towards what he perceived to be a strategy antipodal to the very liberal values that The Guardian espouses that eventually gave him the millions in losses as a fiscal plot in his otherwise exemplary legacy.
In Breaking News, Rusbridger runs two parallel narratives — the evolution of media and its business model — woven together through a memoir that spans over four decades.
So much has changed since Rusbridger’s first gig at Cambridge Evening News in 1976 that he now has to draw stick figures on the board while describing a pre-computer newsroom to his students at Oxford University.
He further reveals that the first time he heard the terms “business model” and “budget” in an editorial meeting was over a decade after he began his career as a trainee reporter — that was when computers had begun popping up in newsrooms, but the question of “going online” was still a decade away for major mainstream publications.
When that question was posed, The Guardian, with Rusbridger at the helm, was among the first to jump. That is why the publication was among the frontrunners to gulp large shares of the pie available at the turn of the century before social media — Facebook in particular — came and transformed the already multi-transformed modes of a journalist in the digital era.
And so where the likes of Facebook and Google owed their exponential growth in users to the likes of The Guardian and other mainstream publications that made social media, and the web in general, a convenient place to serve as a news hub, these business behemoths weren’t going to reciprocate in the share of advertisements and money-making spaces in general, which they have gone on to not just dominate, but hog.
The predicament, therefore, boils down to a creation of an almost parallel ecosystem for news consumption. Whereas three decades ago, the reader paid to purchase a print newspaper, which commanded certain authority as a reliable source of important news, the ubiquity of news sources in the present day online space means that most don’t feel the need to pay up. Hence, the news that splatters across the plethora of social media platforms is short on the reliability coefficient.
Enter fake news. It is no coincidence that a news as mammoth as Aasia Bibi leaving the country was shared across the mainstream media last week — beginning of course with the media giant BBC — without anyone bothering to verify it. When cost-cutting is synonymous with downsizing, you are short staffed to complete the journalistic checklist that goes before the publishing of any news.
Fake news, of course, dominates Breaking News as well. And Rusbridger credits a surprise figure for making the path journalism has taken relevant again: US President Donald Trump. “In a sense, Donald Trump has done journalism a favour. In his cavalier disregard for the truth, he has reminded people why societies need to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. At their best, journalists do that job well. They can now harness almost infinite resources to help them.”
But now that fake news as a problem is becoming a talking point, and the spreading financial crunch squeezing media giants a reality, how will journalism survive in the time to come?
How would, for instance, Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement earlier this year that news would appear further down in newsfeeds impact it?
How would the spheres that underscored their importance through making powerful stories like #MeToo possible be able to rid themselves of the question marks that alternate truths now pose?
The answer would come through a ‘business model’ that not only sells truth but knows how to market its significance as well. That answer is yet to be found, even by Alan Rusbridger who has spent years searching for it, in arguably the hottest seat in digital/print media since the turn of the millennium.
Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
Author: Alan Rusbridger
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
Price: US$18.30 (Hardcover)