A Revolution for Journalism — or a Death Knell? | Modern Society of USA

A Revolution for Journalism — or a Death Knell?

A Revolution for Journalism — or a Death Knell?

The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
By Alan Rusbridger
440 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.

A deathwatch beetle is an insidious insect, eating away at furniture or homes, capable of destroying them if left undetected. “The structures look sound,” Alan Rusbridger writes, “but have been hollowed out from within and, if you’re really unlucky, turn to dust.”

The destructive beetle is the dark metaphor conjured by Rusbridger, the former editor of the British daily The Guardian, to describe the impact of Craigslist on the newspaper industry. He recalls the day a colleague returned to Fleet Street from a trip to the United States, carrying news of the free advertising site’s booming success and the resulting decline in paid newspaper classifieds, long a revenue life force. The Craigslist website “looked like nothing” and had “no editorial content at all,” but here was a publishing revolution not playing a journalist’s game. Underscoring the point was a slide accompanying his colleague’s report: an image of The New York Times’s new 52-story Manhattan skyscraper alongside a photo of Craigslist’s San Francisco headquarters — a frame house with room for the staff’s 18 desks.

Rusbridger’s 20 years as editor of The Guardian — 1995-2015 — parallel a period of dramatic transformation in the newspaper industry, arguably the most dramatic since the invention of the printing press. The staggering changes are illustrated by his efforts to explain the predigital publishing cycle to an Oxford class of phone-dependent 18-year-olds. He draws a set of stick figures starting with a reporter working on a manual typewriter and ending, 18 stick figures later, with carriers delivering a newspaper to subscribers’ front doors. “The group look as if I have been relating how cave dwellers created fire by rubbing dry twigs together.”

For a newspaper editor heading into the new news century, deathwatch beetles were everywhere, but so was possibility. Rusbridger wants us to know what it felt like to work inside a news organization during this era, and his painstaking account is fascinating, even for those of us who lived both the peril and the promise. The rapid technology changes, collapsing business model, 9/11, media convergence, paywall wars, dawn of social media, rise of the “citizen journalist” and more are here valuably detailed by a gifted reporter focused on the story of his own profession. All around him was shiny invention but it wielded a double-edged sword. In discovering Google News, one of his colleagues “self-mockingly responded by slumping across his desk in a pose that suggested there was little point in carrying on,” Rusbridger writes. “How could one compete with this all-seeing eye on the world, hoovering up anything that happens, anywhere on the planet and alerting users within minutes in a remorseless perpetuum mobile of breaking information?”

As it turned out, Rusbridger did compete, embracing the internet more quickly and closely than did many of his generation, one of whom told some academics working on a case study of The Guardian: “The internet will strut an hour upon the stage, and then take its place in the ranks of the lesser media.”

Rusbridger pushed to make The Guardian a global digital newspaper, courting English-speaking readers outside of Britain, notably with editions in the United States and Australia, dramatically increasing online audience. He did this while guiding the paper through several historic investigations, including outrageous revelations of phone hacking by British journalists and the disclosure of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency files. The confidence and skill with which Rusbridger asserted his leadership, at times under government and legal pressure, sound an almost nostalgic note for an era when the sole job of a talented editor was to be an editor. But the industrywide demands on editors to be business executives too coincide with Rusbridger’s tenure atop the Guardian masthead. In this role, he makes a costly and dubious decision, deciding on expensive new presses to relaunch the print Guardian, even as the paper’s future was being staked to digital.

The era that Rusbridger recounts was so momentous for journalism and the stakes so high, it was hard to see the new existential challenges looming. Yet in 2016, the year after he stepped away from his editorship, they appeared. It will be his successors who write the story of how journalism met this moment, but Rusbridger’s early assessments are among his most sober.

First came Brexit, the referendum asking voters whether Britain should remain in the European Union. Rather than rigorous journalism on the “mind-numbingly complex” consequences of the vote, Rusbridger saw much of the British press advance an agenda, the “viewspaper” in full flower. His description of how the story was reported is damning: “This is a simple question on which we, as a newspaper, have a very strong opinion. Our opinion will be very evident in most of what we do and we will not trouble you with alternative views. We will do some reporting of the campaign, but most of it will be around the personalities rather than the issues.” Along with demonizing reporting on immigrants, this was for some editors “just the icing on a cake they had been baking for a decade or more of anti-European coverage.”

Across the ocean, another storm gathered force, enabled by Facebook playing host to the hoaxers and fact-free. What the agents of social media disinformation began, Donald Trump, the new president, continued. “Americans had elected a liar,” he writes, “and now the liar turned his guns on the truth.”

Rusbridger’s anguish over the assault on fact is leavened by rueful recognition that Trump’s abuses, in partnership with social media’s penchant for magnifying them, may carry a pale silver lining. “In a sense Donald Trump has done journalism a favor,” he writes. “In his cavalier disregard for 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, at the same time, we have created the most prodigious capability for spreading lies the world has ever seen. And the economic system for supporting journalism looks dangerously unstable. The stakes for truth have never been higher.”

Deathwatch beetles everywhere. It may not be the assignment journalism sought, but it’s the one we’ve got.

Source link