It is a long interview. Pay wall is good or not is pending. But I have a doubt. If people tend to read newspaper online, advertisers could focus on online content?
Mark Colvin reported this story on Friday, November 5, 2010 18:18:00
MARK COLVIN: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation this week released some figures on the success or otherwise of its experiment in paid online journalism, the project which has put the London Times and Sunday Times behind a paywall.
News announced with some fanfare that 100,000 people had paid for its Times and Sunday Times offering. But closer analysis showed that this was the figure for four months, and that in any case only about half those people had actually subscribed.
In the opposite camp in London is The Guardian which has promised to stay free online. Its editor, Alan Rusbridger, is giving this year’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture for the ABC on November 19th. I asked him first about the Times paywall experiment.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It looks as though in return for forgoing well over 90 per cent of your circulation, endangering your advertising flow, you end up with 20,000 to 50,000 paying subscribers which leads to a revenue, on their own figures, of about two to five million. I mean all money is useful at this point but I don’t see that as the transformative step that everyone is going to follow.
MARK COLVIN: But I did read one article which said that that was all happening at a time when they’d just shed about 30,000 print copies.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well that’s the strange thing that no-one really foresaw coming. I mean I thought that if you switched off other, all other forms of getting The Times and Sunday Times digitally that the print sales would go up but it turns out that in fact The Times figures are sliding faster than anybody else in the quality market, which suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers. And that if you put a gigantic wall around your content and disappear from the general chatter and conversation about your content then people forget to buy the paper as well. So it’s a kind of double whammy.
MARK COLVIN: I get the impression, looking at some of their journalists’ twitter feeds, for example, that they’re quite frustrated at not being part of the conversation, as you call it.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well I think you would be frustrated. I mean most of us go to journalism to try and reach an audience and to have influence and to be read and if you’re aware that people are reading all your rivals but not you in the digital space and I think probably it makes it slightly harder to get stories because people think well why would we give The Times stories when they’re so invisible in a digital space? So I think in all kinds of terms it’s a rather problematic model.
MARK COLVIN: Now I’ve read you fairly recently saying that your online, your digital income, is actually increasing at quite an impressive rate. What’s happening?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well I think digital income is going to increase generally as advertisers realise the power of digital and realise that’s where the readers are going. And I think that’s not a controversial view. If you listen to Martin Sorrell who heads one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies, he predicts a massive shift to digital advertising and so I think that’s what’s happening. So we’re up well over 50 per cent year on year and last year we earned about £40 million from digital revenues.
MARK COLVIN: I was just talking to an editor here in Sydney quite recently and I was talking about exactly this and he said yes but where are you going to get a replacement for the big amounts of money that you get for those full page ads, for cars or for department stores or whatever?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Take a step back. The question is whether you believe that print is going to be that resilient. If you do then, you know, then I’m the last person to be saying that you should be bailing out of print but when you look at the, in Britain and American and most of Europe, you look at the slide in circulation, you just have to question the long-term survivability of print.
MARK COLVIN: Do you think that you will be producing a Guardian in print in the year 2020 say?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I’ve got no idea. I think the forces that are bearing down on the industry at the moment are so unpredictable and extraordinary it’s sort of fruitless to speculate and in a sense I don’t mind. It’s beyond my control. It’ll be in the hands of people who are going to invent the digital devices, it’ll be in the decisions of readers and my overwhelming aim is just to keep on producing The Guardian in a form which will suit whatever technology people invent.
MARK COLVIN: Okay but you say that we’re in a sort of five or 10 year transition period. What is your model for getting through that transition?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: The model is to continue producing great journalism, to make it adaptable and sympathetic to whatever technology is there and whatever platform and to have a fantastic, commercial department who will then work out how to monetise it.
We have reached a real fork in the road now where, on The Times’ figures let’s say their subscriber base is now somewhere in the region of 30,000 to 50,000, we can’t really be sure, and this month The Guardian will declare a monthly readership of about 37 million. So they’re two completely different ideas of size, scale and ambition.
MARK COLVIN: And interactivity. Your paper just came top of a list of media organisations around the world in terms of interactivity. How important is that?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well I think it’s crucial. If you look at the organisations that are valued the most highly, in financial terms, and which are growing fastest they are the so-called Web 2.0 organisations, either the social media organisations like Facebook, like Twitter.
I think it’s impossible not to look at those organisations and that technology and say what is it about it that people find so compelling? And I don’t think the answer’s terribly hard. It’s about the fact that people like creating. For 500 years since Gutenberg they couldn’t create and now suddenly they have publishing tools on their own, and surprise, surprise they like creating and they like connecting with each other.
So it seems to me pretty crucial that newspapers should wake up to that fact and invite people into the process of helping to create this news, this information system, instead of regarding them as passive, as a passive audience.
MARK COLVIN: But your newspaper has been for a long time known, among other things, for wonderful writing. I can imagine that you had some people there who didn’t really want their writing sullied or didn’t really want to enter into a conversation.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Yes, I mean, you know all cultural change is hard and of course we’ve had, you know, like any organisation, we’ve had resisters and we’ve had early adopters and everything in between.
I think journalists have to ask themselves whether they really are the only figures of authority and whether they know more in all circumstances than their readers or whether we can adopt a more, slightly more humble approach and say well, we do know things and we do have certain skills but out there our readers probably know more than we do about certain things or are equally qualified to express views.
And so we should create the platforms and the technology and the forums by which they can take part too and my experience is if you do that, you end up with something that is better than if we journalists just try to do it alone.
MARK COLVIN: Well that brings onto Wikileaks which is an organisation which in many ways challenges the whole model of traditional journalism. You entered into a kind of alliance with them. What was the thinking process?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well it was just a great story and it was a load of great information and one of our journalists read about the availability of this store of material, the fact that it was out there, and he went and talked to Wikileaks and said, instead of just dumping it on the web and it’s such a vast database of information no-one will be able to make sense of it, why don’t you work with some news organisations so that we can try and contextualise it, make it sense of it before doing so.
And I think actually that worked really well both for Wikileaks, for us and for the general level of understanding of people trying to read it.
MARK COLVIN: It did mean that you ended up being associated with an organisation that had named a lot of people who were then subsequently put in danger in Afghanistan. Was that a danger for you?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well we did different things. Wikileaks had a different policy of what they were going to name and what they weren’t. We were fairly tight in what we released and we redacted a lot of material, more than Wikileaks.
But I think, I mean in the real world what was going to happen was that all that material was going to be released by Wikileaks anyway and I think the reason that the White House reacted in a fairly sober way, ie. didn’t throw the toys out of the pram, was because they appreciated the fact that you’d got three very reputable news organisations who placed all this in context and they were able to say, look are these are field logs.
What you’re reading here is not history. It’s not the truth. It’s the raw data that’s been released from the field. Some of this may be true; some of it may not be true. So this is how to read the data. And I think that helped contextualise what otherwise could have seemed overwhelming or alarming.
MARK COLVIN: So for you Wikileaks, while it challenges traditional journalism, actually ended up validating it?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Yes, I think it did validate us and I think that’s really the point I’m trying to make in all of this, that there are skills that journalists have that we shouldn’t sell short which are about verifying and about contextualising and analysis.
We’ve had people in Iraq and Iran who know that area very well, who were there during those wars so we can bring out skills to bear on raw data. That’s a different job from what some social media do and from what bloggers do and from what sources do.
I’m not selling journalism short. I’m just saying journalism can be better if we do it in alliance with others.
MARK COLVIN: And you think over this 10 or 15 year transition period, you think that journalism can survive?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Oh yes. Society needs journalists, society needs verifiable information and it needs ways of communicating with each other and talking about that information and understanding it.
So I’ve got no doubt about journalism surviving but I think the journalist organisations that are best placed to survive it are the ones that are going to go with the technology rather than decrying it and fighting it.
MARK COLVIN: Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who’s giving this year’s Andrew Olle media lecture on November 19th. You can hear a long version of that interview on our website from this evening.