If You Care About Journalism, Read This

Transcript of Alan Rusbridger‘s speech at Columbia Journalism School
on May 22 while accepting the Columbia University Journalism Award:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I am immensely honoured to be asked to speak today and I want to begin by thanking the Dean and the Faculty for the recognition and for the graceful words.

These are august surroundings. Columbia Journalism School has a formidable reputation. It is a place where people argue with each other intellectually and earnestly all day long… and then continue to row all night on Twitter.

Or maybe that’s just Emily Bell.

I understand this is a sort-of-Commencement Speech. I had not appreciated what a big deal Commencement speeches were (we don’t have them in Britain). A New York taxi driver last week told me to look up the gold standard speech – JK Rowling at Harvard in 2008. I can recommend it. She makes lots of jokes about Harry Potter.

When people see me they also make lots of jokes about Harry Potter. Google them. Many media writers seem to liken me to Harry Potter – all except the esteemed New York media reporter Dylan Byers. He likened me to Harry Potter’s lonely uncle.

My friend Vivian Schiller – now at Twitter – gave me succinct advice when I had dinner with her in London just two nights ago. A commencement speech, she said, has to be in three sections : a few jokes; one or two deep perceptions; and then something to convince the parents that they haven’t completely wasted their money on the course their offspring have just finished.

I began to compile a Buzzfeed style list of tips for journalistic success:
– be courageous
– be truthful
– never travel via Heathrow airport

I contemplated being disingenuous and outlining a future life in which journalism would be a path to a life of high prestige and social recognition. Whereas we all know that success means you get to live in a remote part of Brazil guarded by 13 rescue dogs.

But the truth dawned that I have several disqualifications for speaking today

Firstly I am British. I am only too aware that Americans do not take kindly to Brits coming over to lecture them. Piers Morgan has the ratings to show it.

Then there is the gulf of misunderstanding about the two journalistic cultures.

Americans fail to understand many of the most cherished habits of British journalists.

We show our respect for our colleagues not by showering them with honours or prizes but with a decent dinner ..followed by a few upper cuts.

If we believe a rival has a really good exclusive story – we believe in sharing it … preferably by hacking their phones well in advance of publication.

In America journalists worry that the Government is intercepting their
communications. In Britain, it’s the other way round

Similarly, Brits don’t understand the passion and commitment that goes into American journalism. There’s something I gather all American editors do which I haven’t. And now I hardly dare tell our owners, the Scott Trust, that I have not yet tattooed the Guardian’s masthead on my back …

We think we are passionate about stories in London. But we don’t have your tradition of celebrating notable scoops by punching our fists through walls ..

In British journalism, the more aggressive you are the better. In American journalism it evidently doesn’t pay to be pushy.

I’m learning.

Another reason I feel a bit of a fraud here today: I did not graduate in journalism. I failed my shorthand. And, back then, without 100 words per minute, you couldn’t even get a certificate in journalism never mind a degree.

I may even have dissembled about my shorthand when applying for one or two jobs.

Not only that… but I have told countless groups of journalism students that good shorthand is an essential prerequisite to a career in newspapers. So I am a total hypocrite.

Why am I telling you all this? Because this is a room full of the brightest and best reporters of the future. I know you’ll find this stuff out .

When I started in journalism I don’t even remember there being post graduate degree courses in journalism in Britain

Everyone knew what journalism was. A few years before I started as a reporter the three essential qualifications for the job had famously been summarised by a distinguished foreign correspondent as “ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.”

Of these three I think I had only one.

But that didn’t matter too much in journalism back then. A little literary ability went a long way – at least on laid-back British newspapers, which have always refused to take themselves very seriously – while comprising the most ruthlessly competitive editorial snakepit in the world.

Fast forward 30 odd years and there are literally hundreds of graduate degree courses in journalism – the irony being that no-one can really agree what journalism is any more. Or who gets to be a journalist. Or whether journalism itself can survive.

That – if you are a journalist of a certain age already working in the industry – can be truly terrifying.

Maybe it is a little bit terrifying to parents in the hall today. How is my beloved son/daughter going to pay the bills?

But to those of you in the hall embarking on a career in the media I think it is totally liberating.

(song?)

You are young, You are fearless. You have been brilliantly taught here at Columbia by some of the smartest thinkers in digital communication today. And – I hope – you are not too hung up on arcane discussions about who qualifies for the term “journalist”.

Journalism is there to be reinvented – by you. You can take whatever you like from the past and mix it with whatever inspires you from the present or the future. You can work in any medium, tell stories however you choose to. No-one is going to tell you off. We will watch you with awe and envy. And some anxiety.

The trends in American journalism are now clear: you will all spend the first year of your career begging us to give you a job. We will then spend the next few years of your career begging you not to set up your own start-up.

The innovation that’s going on in journalism today is quite inspiring. Though there is a deadening way in which it is sometimes discussed by people who – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – know the valuation of everything and the value of nothing.

Let me talk about money in a little bit. But first I’d like to talk about values.

The Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 by a man called John Edward Taylor, who had been present in St Peters Field Manchester two years earlier when mounted cavalry rode into a peaceful protest killing 15 and injuring up to 700.

Taylor got an account of the massacre onto the overnight train to London. The true version of events thus got ahead of the official narrative, which was bound to be untrue. It was, by some accounts, the birth of the reporter in English public life.

Taylor decided to try a start-up – a newspaper. He crowdsourced the money – around £1,000 from 10 individuals. Exciting new technologies were transforming the business of news. Steam-driven presses meant that, within seven years of the Guardian’s launch, we could print 1,500 copies an hour – up from 200 when printed manually.

Some years later Taylor appointed his 25 year old nephew, CP Scott, as editor. Scott was in charge for the next 57 years and, by the time he died in 1932 he both owned and edited the paper.

The Scott family then did something remarkable – they gave it away. Lord Beaverbrook was amongst the willing buyers. The Scott family could have been extremely rich. But they regarded the Guardian’s journalism as a moral force in society rather than something that could be IPO’d to make a quick killing.

The Scott family instead created a Trust to keep the Guardian going in perpetuity. There is still a Scott on the Trust. Each editor – and there have only been 10 since 1821 – is told only one thing: to edit the Guardian “as heretofore.” Values, not valuation.

What does “as heretofore” mean? It obviously doesn’t mean keep publishing a daily printed newspaper out of Manchester. The shape and medium can change, so long as the values remain. Today we are visited by 100m browsers a month from around the world – people all over the planet in search of words, data, pictures, videos… and wanting to contribute and respond; to debate the issues with fellow readers.

So, as editor for the past 19 and a bit years, I have done my best to reinterpret what the Guardian is; what it stands for.

And while, sometimes, it feels as if everything about the job is changing – at other times it feels exactly the same.

In April 2009 there was a protest in London not dissimilar to the protest in St Peters Field 190 years earlier. An innocent man, Ian Tomlinson, died after being struck from behind by a policeman.

But that was not the official story. Just as the magistrates‘ account of the massacre in 1819 was a lie – so the official version of how Ian Tomlinson died was also untrue. It took a solitary reporter, Paul Lewis, to uncover the truth. Partly by old fashioned reporting. Partly by crowdsourcing the story.

The crucial evidence of how Tomlinson in fact died was revealed by an American investment banker who read the Guardian online and found that he had captured the assault on video. The banker was, that day, a kind of reporter.

What Paul Lewis – and our banker/reporter – were doing with that story was standing aside from power and scrutinising it. All forms of power will always need scrutiny. We all know that. The world will always need reporters – in whatever shape or form.

The job of scrutinising power is rarely comfortable – for either side (and, usually, each believes the other to be Goliath). In all the big stories for which the Guardian has recently attracted attention – Tomlinson, Wikileaks, phone hacking, undercover policing, rendition and torture, tax avoidance, Edward Snowden – we have been attacked, our motives questioned, our legal teams besieged, our editorial staff summoned to parliament to explain ourselves, or the police called in.

Our computer equipment smashed up on the orders of the state – because they felt there had been “enough” debate about mass data collection and surveillance. The threat that our reporting would simply be closed down. S demand we prove our patriotism.

Standing up to intense political and legal pressure – defending and enabling reporting – requires resources and resilience. So, in addition to reporters, the world will always need robust institutions as well as brilliant individuals.

[There, I am the second editor in a week to make a commencement speech mentioning resilience.]

Now there have been times in the Guardian’s history when it happened that the business model of the time comfortably supported that idea of serious journalism as something that was necessary. A form of public service – and a profitable one.

But the news business has always been cyclical and the Scott family and their successors were wise enough to build up and run other businesses that would sustain the Guardian in the down cycles. For a long time the Manchester Evening News’s classified advertising income came to the periodic rescue. That, too, changed – technology, again. But another business – second hand car advertising – successfully managed the transition from one technology and economic model to another. The Guardian Media Group currently has around $1bn in the bank and no debt thanks to that, and other, wise investments.

We will rely on that money to help us think and invest our way through the present cycle; in which, once again, the business model of the Guardian and all other newspapers is changing. The Guardian is not a charity: it has to be a business. But it can be a patient business with a long view. The Manchester paper that became a national paper is now the second largest serious newspaper website in the world. Nobody is sitting on our shoulder wanting quarterly results or demanding double digit returns.

The Guardian has no valuation – because it has no value. It could never be bought or sold. But it does, I think, have values. And those values are strangely clarifying when it comes to thinking about what journalism is becoming, or what kind of journalism is necessary.

The wonderful thing about working with someone like Emily Bell at a place like the Guardian was that we could have conversations that started, right from the outset, from the premise of what was right journalistically.

The crucial decision four or five years ago was not paywall or free. Rather, should we be closed to the world or open? The most interesting question was not – which will make most money? – but how would information work in future? Who would be the interesting voices, the witnesses, the challengers, the scrutineers, the outsiders, the competitors? How would they publish, share and distribute what they created? How could we best be heard? How could we harness all that, be part of it, amplify it, swim with it – use it all to create a better account of the world?

These debate grew out of a shared culture – there was no algorithm that could have helped us. And those conversations helped place journalism in a proper context. My colleagues would, they soon appreciated, never again have a monopoly on information or the way it was distributed. Equally, there were things we did – and were – that were irreplaceable.

At the same time there were numerous others in society who got the “values” bit of the way information could flow and could bring influence to bear. Some of them were engineers. Cue endless debates about whether the editorial people or the engineers hold they key to the future. The winners will surely be the places where both groups work seamlessly together, finding a common language and in mutual respect.

Now, I know most news organisation are not like the Guardian – though, in fairness, our $1bn endowment is less than some of our competitors speculate on a single deal. Nevertheless, some of you will be thinking “It’s all very well for him.”

I understand what you mean. I feel quite extraordinarily lucky that I have spent most of my professional life at the Guardian, owned and backed by a Trust. I hope I have done my bit for the ‘heretofore’, but I am always, always aware that I owe my great slice of fortune to people who could have cashed out, but decided instead to think of what mattered. They thought of other people’s future, not their own present.

And that seems to me the most important thing I could say today – because today is – for you – about the future. It is about a roomful of people who have studied and worked amazingly hard in order to be at this point of departure in their lives. Your futures begin tomorrow.

Of course, some of you will want to go out and make lots of money – this is the point where some parents can relax about the cost of their education to date.

Some of you will find ways of combining money with values.

But how marvellous it would be if a lot of you were primarily seized by the possibility of this moment in journalism to do something of real importance. To be guided by values not valuation.

And, since we’re talking about the future today, I’ll end by mentioning perhaps the ultimate challenge to your generation of about-to-be journalists.

Whether this species has much of a future is – according to the overwhelming majority of scientific opinion – in some doubt. Is there a bigger news story than that? Has any news organisation really lived up to the challenge of making that real for people. Real, in a way that would create the political possibility of working to save the species?

I hope some of you in the room today might be motivated to consider that question. How is it that news – conventionally defined by the people who up to now have had a semi-monopoly on it – has so far failed miserably to articulate, dramatically and repeatedly, the peril we’re in.

In 1921 – to mark the Guardian’s first hundred years – CP Scott, by then in his mid seventies and having edited for more than 40 years – became entranced by the possibilities of the electronic telegraph. In a letter to the American people he was breathlessly excited: “What a change for the world, what a chance for a newspaper.”

I feel the same, confronted by a room of super smart, well trained, about-to-be journalists. What an opportunity you have. What a great thing you’ve decided to do – despite all the gloom mongers moaning about the death of journalism. Journalism isn’t going to die – not a chance, as Jill Abrahamson said of the prospect of removing her Times tattoo this week.

So, ignore the gloomsters and just concentrate on the possibilities that lie in front of you.

Parents in the room. I hope you’re proud of your offspring today for their chosen path. Journalism, however defined, is necessary in any society at any time. The people who go into driven by values and a sense of its importance, what it can achieve, how it can change society, deserve our thanks and our respect.

It is a high form of public service. I wish you all the greatest possible fortune.

I have come in 20 words under JK Rowling.

I do not have her talent, her looks, her money, her brilliance or her magic. But I hope some of what I have said today resonates with some of you. Thank you for listening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s