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Media Revolution: How have newspapers changed in the internet age?

Updated Wednesday 11th February 2009

Alan Rusbridger, Editor-in-chief of the Guardian Media Group examines the ways newspapers have adapted to suit the ever changing market

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How Newspapers have changed

Since I’ve become editor in the last thirteen years, I’m now in charge of a rolling news channel, effectively, which is published sixteen to twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We produce around forty hours of audio a week, we have a film unit, we produce a lot of video. We have a Sunday paper, we have a much bigger daily paper, a huge Saturday paper, and we have this completely different relationship with the readers and audience.

The digital future

Maybe the print turns out to be more resilient than it looks at the moment, but I think anybody in my position, editing a news organisation like The Guardian, has to be prepared for the way that the advertisers and the readers are going to move, and it looks at the moment as though readers are increasingly wanting content in some sort of digital form. That includes the kind of content that we produce, it can’t, I think, be text alone, they want moving pictures, they want sound, they want different kinds of graphic presentation, and they also want it to be participative, they want to take part in it, they don’t want to be lectured to.

So, if that’s the trend, which it seems to be, then you have to prepare your organisation to produce that kind of digital content. It may all be overtaken, there may be an iPod-like device which will not be invented by the newspaper industry but someone else and, if your organisation isn’t ready to be completely prepared for changes in reader behaviour or the technology on which news is delivered, then you’re going to be in serious trouble. So at the moment we’re on a journey, we can’t see exactly where it’s going but I think the responsibility of the present generation of journalists is to be ready for whatever happens.

Surviving the digital revolution

We’re only beginning to learn the techniques of marketing in digital, so this is an incredibly expensive period for news organisations like ours. We’re in competition with, not just other newspapers, but almost anybody who wants to come in and grab a bit of what we do. So the editorial side of what we’re doing is being fragmented and is being disintegrated by people just saying, “well we don’t have to do all this stuff that the newspaper does, we’ll just do the chess column, we’ll just do the crossword, we’ll just do for the foreign coverage, we’ll just do the comment, we’ll do the cricket.” And the chances are that they will do bits of that better than we can do, so we’re really under threat from all sides and it’s not clear to me that all newspapers are going to make it through to the other side.

Which newspapers will survive

I think there will be a clearing out of newspapers, and the most vulnerable ones are the ones that didn’t see this coming and didn’t prepare or pretended it wasn’t going to happen, or thought that the old economic model would survive. But I think, I mean, I think societies need news. If you try and… I mean, I think local newspapers will go first but if you try and imagine living in a town without a newspaper, you know, for all that you may not have liked your newspaper, when it’s gone you’re going to miss it. But something will spring up to replace it because communities can’t exist without that interchange of news and something that can reliably be named and identified as news.

So something is going to have to replace it, and the question is, what will that look like, what part will journalists play in it, and will a new source of funding come along?

The New Global Market

Well, we are very interested in the international model, not least because we’ve acquired a huge international audience, so of our twenty-odd million unique users a month two-thirds of those are abroad, so it’s roughly a third in Britain, a third in North America and a third in the rest of the world. Now they came to us, I don’t think we spent a cent in marketing in North America so those six million people have found us, so I think it’s extremely interesting to think, could you double that, could you triple it? And if you tripled it, do you then start getting on the radar of American advertising agencies, in which case you’re into a very big market indeed, the biggest, most wealthy market in the world.

But not just America but India, in time China and the emerging countries and economies. And, as I say, at the moment, we’re just sitting back and watching people coming to what we’re producing and so we’re asking ourselves what is it that we’re doing right? And it’s something I think about being in the English language, a great asset, not being American with all that goes with that, so it’s not American-style journalism that we’re producing, and it doesn’t come with all the baggage, the political baggage that America has.

Alan Rusbridger was interviewed during the making of Stop Press, which first aired on Thursday 5th Feb 2009 on BBC Two. It was part of the Media Revolutions series.

 

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