I’m not sure exactly when I began to be a regular reader of the Guardian – certainly soon after starting at university in 1967. But I had always appreciated investigative journalism and good newspaper design: at home in the sixties I would read The Sunday Times, excited by its colour magazine and relishing the work of the Insight investigative team. When Harold Evans took over as editor in 1967 his appointment simply confirmed the newspaper’s status as the leader in investigate reporting, photojournalism and elegant design.
I feel the same way now about the period of Alan Rusbridger’s editorship of the Guardian which began in February 1995 and ended with his retirement on Saturday. Under Rusbridger, the Guardian won newspaper of the year four times at the British Press Awards and last year it became the first UK newspaper to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Edward Snowden revelations about US state surveillance.
Saturday’s paper – his last edition – included a valedictory article by Alan Rusbridger looking back over his years at the aper he first joined in 1979. It is an interesting read, considering not only to the challenges and achievements of his twenty years as editor, but also discussing the dramatic changes that have transformed the landscape of news publishing in that time. He says in his opening sentence, ‘This, if you’re reading the physical paper – which, of course, you are not – is my last edition as editor.’ That telling ‘which, of course, you are not’ is a succinct summation of those changes.
When Alan Rusbridger took over from Peter Preston the paper’s print circulation was more than 400,000 and it did not have a website. Today, daily print sales are less than 200,000 but the paper has more than 7 million visitors daily to its website. Around 63 per cent of the Guardian’s web readership now comes from outside the UK (web-based American and Australian editions have been launched with great success in recent years).
I’m still one of the 200,000, a subscriber who loyally hands over his weekly strip of vouchers to the newsagent. I can’t imagine breakfast without the tactile experience of turning pages to read the news (albeit a now-shocking eight or so hours old), mentally argue with the varied opinion pieces, check the weather and Country Diary, the Steve Bell cartoon, and Doonesbury. Everything is where I expect it to be – the print version of the paper follows a logical sequence, whereas the experience of using the website, though beautifully designed, is a more random one as hyperlinks send you off in all directions. A lot of the time I’m simply browsing, not reading.
In the democratic style of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger was appointed editor in 1995 after winning the staff ballot of NUJ members. Previously he had been features editor and had launched the Weekend supplement and the G2 section. In his article, Rusbridger recalls that his first edition carried the headline: “EU moves to tighten frontiers”. ‘Plus ca change’, he remarks.
Sorting through his papers in the last weeks, he made mental divisions for the past two decades:
First came the Libel Years, during which it felt as if the Guardian was never out of one court or another. Almost as soon as I took over, there was a procession of MPs, cabinet ministers, lobbyists, cult-busters, quack doctors, corporations, police officers, banks and rich playboys queuing up to injunct or sue us.
In 1996 Rusbridger won the first of many high-profile libel battles he would fight as editor when former Tory minister Neil Hamilton and lobbyist Ian Greer walked away from a £10m libel suit against the paper over its “cash for questions” revelations. The Guardian had obtained evidence that ‘would have blown their action out of the water’ as Rusbridger put it.
Then came what Rusbridger calls ‘the first Internet Years’, during which the Guardian created a website – Guardian Unlimited – that ‘didn’t fall into the trap of simply replicating online what we did in print’.
The website quickly grew to claim 1 million monthly users (it currently reaches 124 million monthly browsers worldwide on varied devices.
In 2005, after the Independent and the Times had switched from broadsheet to tabloid, the Guardian and Observer print editions underwent a comprehensive redesign and moved from standard broadsheet to Berliner size. This involved an £80 million investment in new Berliner-size presses, but Rusbridger implies that the redesign (which resulted in the most elegant-looking newspaper I’ve seen) offered no long-term solution to the crisis which faced the newspaper industry due to the rise of the Internet: ‘even as we installed the new Man Roland presses, we knew they were likely to be the last we ever bought’, he writes.
The advance of social media and interactive web features presented the paper with a challenge; as Rusbridger puts it:
There was a fork in the road: we could fence ourselves off from this social, economic, cultural and publishing revolution, or we could embrace it wholeheartedly. Open or closed? We went for open.
Comment Is Free was introduced in 2006 to broaden and diversify commentary and debate, not just by ‘above the line’ writers, but the hundreds of thousands who flooded in to debate and argue in below the line comments in a way that had never previously been possible.
Rusbridger writes that ‘We had created a new democracy of expression, which was sometimes uncomfortable, but mostly rich and absorbing, and sometimes even exhilarating’. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but the on-line comments – though they can have a kind of awful fascination – seem redundant to me. Very rarely do I discover meaningful comments that add anything significant to the discussion. Often they’re just puerile.
But the real reason we read the Guardian is for the stories: ‘about crooked bungs; politicians on the take; corporations dodging tax; toxic spills; unethical policing; lethal policing; torture and rendition; female mutilation; drugs; food production; pill-peddlers and much more’, in Rusbridger’s words. There is much to be proud about.
In 2009 the Guardian began its investigation into phone-hacking with the revelation that the News of the World had paid out £1 million in legal settlements to cover up the extent of phone-hacking. The paper would go on to publish hundreds of stories about the issue, one which was largely ignored by the rest of Fleet Street.
Then, in 2010, working with Julian Assange and Wikileaks, the Guardian published an investigation based on thousands of leaked documents about the conduct of the US war in Afghanistan. Three years later the paper published the huge story about state surveillance by the American National Security Agency and GCHQ in the UK – based on thousands of documents leaked by Edward Snowden. As Rusbridger writes:
And then came Edward Snowden, with his astonishing insights into the way the surveillance business had been industrialised since 9/11, so that – without any kind of meaningful informed consent – countless millions of people the world over have had their data scooped up, stored and analysed.
In 2014 the Guardian received the Pulitzer prize in recognition of its Edward Snowden coverage (unprecedented for a British publication), though the story has been largely ignored by the British media.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Rusbridger’s article is that in which he discusses the continuing challenge facing news organisations from the Internet and the development of mobile technology. He writes:
Two thirds of our readership is now outside of the UK: we publish continuously. Virtually all our readers can themselves now be publishers and can connect with one another, and anyone else, as well as us. They contribute to the Guardian in ways that were unimaginable even 15 years ago.
On top of all that, he continues, ‘we still produce a newspaper.’ But for how long? Under Rusbridger’s leadership, the Guardian has committed to free online access, while raising the daily print cover price to £1.80. Digital rather than print is now the Guardian’s main priority.
The economic model of what we now do is still in its infancy. […] Some publishers have decided to erect walls around their digital content and insist on payment. The polar opposites are represented by the Guardian and the Times of London, the latter of which today claims a daily digital audience of around 281,000. In April the Guardian was read by more than 7 million unique browsers a day. […] You’ll have to come back in 10 or even 20 years time to find out who judged the future best. But the Guardian – still the eighth-biggest newspaper in the UK – is now vying with the New York Times for the mantle of largest serious English-language newspaper website in the world.
So a great editor leaves the stage – replaced from today by Katharine Viner, the first woman to occupy that role. I began by recalling the great days of the Sunday Times when the paper was edited by Harold Evans; the other day he had this to say about Alan Rusbridger’s time as editor of the Guardian:
Alan Rusbridger by great daring, flair, fine judgment and consistent courage has over 20 innovative years of editorship done a remarkable thing: he has enhanced the worldwide reputation of a great newspaper without apparently breaking a sweat. What’s he taking? It has been very good for journalism and all of us.
As for me, I’ll continue to turn the pages of the paper edition for as long as it survives in that form, combining a hit of espresso with another day’s blend of news and stimulating comment.