Guardian’s Nick Davies: the internet is killing journalism

alan rusbridger talks open journalism, social media and paywallsInteresting long piece on Intelligent Life talking to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, who pushes his case for keeping paywalls out.

His comments appear in the same piece as another Guardian journalist, this time phoning hacking reporter Nick Davies, gives a much gloomier take on the digital future.

I wrote earlier this week on speculation that the Guardian was planning to ditch print for digital future sooner rather than later and, quoted back in March at the Guardian Open Weekend,  Davies is extremely blunt about the future of newspapers on the web:

“In 20 years’ time there won’t be any newspapers left to do this. All these millions of hits won’t pay our salaries. The internet is killing journalism,” Davies said.

There speaks an old school print journalist. We’ve read that comment in various guises many times before and seen it often refuted it. It is also something that Rusbridger clearly does not (and can not) believe as otherwise the Guardian will be sunk.

Last year we ran several pieces on The Wall asking if social media was killing journalism? While others argued that no it wasn’t, but rather it was fundamentally changing the system.

While Davies gives a dark appraisal as he looks towards the disappearance of print, which will almost certainly happen in some form before the next 20 years are up, maybe with the Guardian edging towards being a weekend only paper within a few years, Rusbridger is anything but and everything about his view on the future of newspapers is informed by the Guardian’s open journalism.

Open journalism is the Guardian’s and Rusbridger response to the changing world of news. He says that it is no longer possible, as it was in the 19th or 20th-century, to cover the world around us in competition with what’s available on the open web unless you happen to be the FT or the Wall Street Journal and are selling time-critical financial information.

“For a general newspaper, forgive me if you’ve heard it before but the simplest way of explaining it is this. You’ve got Michael Billington, distinguished theatre critic, in the front row at the National Theatre. Are you saying you don’t need Michael Billington any more? No, he’s the Guardian voice, he is the expert. But what about the other 900 people in the theatre, don’t they have interesting things to say? Well obviously they do, and if we don’t do something with that social experience, somebody else will. And out of those 900 people, 30 will be very knowledgeable. So let’s say Michael Billington is as good as it gets, he’s 9 out of 10, but the experience of these other knowledgeable people is 6 out of 10, so the margin is 3 out of 10, that’s what you’re charging for.

You either say ‘we’ll take that then, we’ll build a big wall round Michael Billington.’ Or you say, ‘actually, let’s get them on to our platform as well,’ and you’ve got 9 + 6. So what do you do? If you don’t do this, that’s bad for professional journalism, because you’re hedging against what other people can do. If you do do it, you have a much better account of what happens in a theatre, and you begin to think that it was quite odd to send one person on one night and think that was enough. It’s just obviously better. Then the question is how do you edit them, and find the people who know their Brecht from their musicals, and that’s probably partly software and partly old-fashioned editing.

 “And the next question is, if it works for theatre does it work for other areas of journalism? I think it works for everything—investigative, foreign, science, environment. By building networks, you’re going with the flow of history, and your journalism is going to be more comprehensive and better. If you reduce it instantly to paywalls, you’re not tackling the bigger issue of what’s happening to journalism.”

Rusbridger on social media

Rusbridger is very enthusiastic about social media seeing it as an intrinsic part of the Guardian’s open journalism and back in March was still very upbeat about the Guardian’s frictionless sharing Facebook app. It got off to a fantastic start, underscoring Facebook’s ability to drive traffic, but it later took a drastic drive as users abaonded it as they tired of the always on “frictionless” element of it. It remains to be seen how frictionless sharing will develop.

Earlier this month we heard that  “second screen Frictionless sharing is being rejected by majority”.

Rusbridge called the Guardian ‘s Facebook app the biggest thing that had “changed fastest for us in the past three months…Facebook. It has made a vast difference”.

Rusbridger’s enthusiasm for Facebook, not to mention Google, Apple, Amazon and Twitter (the big five of the digital now and the digital future), and how it has helped put the Guardian on the map, flagging up its importance to Facebook, translated into confirmation for him that the Guardian is on the right path, a digital “sweet spot” is the way he puts it:

“It may be that the Guardian is entering a sweet spot where the two biggest players in new media are intensely interested in our content, because their users are doing so much with it. The giants of the new world are Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Twitter. If you can get into a position where they are sufficiently interested in a little newspaper fromLondon, there are glimmerings of light that tell you that this is beginning to be quite an exciting strategy.”

Rusbridger with his clear enthusiasm for all things digital that has helped transform the Guardian, launch it into America, is infectious. He makes it sound very exciting, but what of Davies and his view?

Will the “hits” pay for all of this? In the last three years Guardian News & Media has lost almost £100m (including expected losses this year). It has £200m in the Scott Trust, and it has cash cow Auto Trader, and it might have sold its radio business to Global Radio for £50m, but that will not take it far if its losses continue.

We also have no idea how the Guardian’s free web in harmony with paid apps strategy will work. I can not help but think there is an imbalance there. The website is the Guardian’s digital crown jewels and the apps some pretty baubles. Why give away the crown jewels them away when there is a chance to follow rivals and fellow travellers down a metered paywall path? The success of The New York Times, among others, here is vindication of this route if ever you wanted one.

The last update the NY Times gave told us that paid subscriptions are continuing to rise and have hit approximately 454,000 as of March 18.

I’m still relatively convinced that the  logic for implementing some kind of porous paywall will increase as the Guardian cuts back its print operation and the case for that grows ever stronger.

Open journalism certainly has its critics. Last month award winning writer and journalist Heather Brooke called the Guardians open journalism a failed business model.

The logic for reducing its print operation, and going either several days a week and finally weekend only, will no doubt become increasingly compelling. Even now with daily sales of around 170-180,000 the Saturday Guardian sells around 200,000 more copies giving a clear indication of how our newspaper habits are changing. Newspapers a relaxing luxury rather than a daily essential.

As the Guardian’s digital strategy, digital first, implies we are no longer a culture that turns first to print to get our news in the morning. We turn to the screen.