‘Today it doesn’t look like such a rubbish strategy’: Alan Rusbridger feels ‘vindicated’ after the ‘frightening’ moment that cost him the Chair of the Scott Trust.

On 10th September 2018 the Media Society held an event in London titled ‘Alan Rusbridger in conversation with Stewart Purvis’. This is my blog about that conversation, the audio is available in a Media Society podcast at https://www.mixcloud.com/themediasociety/alan-rusbridger-discusses-his-new-book-with-stuart-purvis/

Alan Rusbridger has written a hell of a good book about journalism; ‘Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now’ based on the first two decades of digital disruption which coincided with his time as Editor of the Guardian. 

Don’t got to it looking for simple solutions for the problems he outlines. One reviewer, Peter Wilby in the New Statesman, counted no fewer than 554 question marks among the 442 pages of Rusbridger’s book.

And don’t expect any mention of the period after his departure from the Guardian when, in the words of the New York Times at the time; ‘ he was cast as a negligent manager who had saddled the paper with a slew of problems’. The invitation for him to return to the Guardian family as the Chairman of its owner, the Scott Trust, was withdrawn. Another reviewer of the book, Robert Kaiser in the Financial Times, says that Rusbridger’s ‘awkward farewell to the institution he joined in 1979 isn’t mentioned in Breaking News — an odd but certainly diplomatic omission’.

After ten or so interviews into his book promotion itinerary nobody, it seemed, had asked Alan about this period in his life. So when I found myself ‘In Conversation with Alan Rusbridger’ before a full house in the Soho Bar of the Groucho Club in London, I thought I would.

First we talked about his big moments in journalism – defeating Jonathan Aitken in a libel case by a piece of evidence discovered at the very last minute without which his career may have came to a sudden halt, supporting Nick Davies through his revelations about phone-hacking and how Rebekah Brooks had once predicted the saga would end with Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy’, how ‘everything about dealing with Julian Assange was difficult’ when working together on the Wikileaks release of American diplomatic cables and, perhaps the Pulitzer Prize winning climax, Edward Snowden’s story told to two Guardian journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room ‘cluttered with unwashed clothes and half-eaten hotel food’ and how two GCHQ technicians came to the Guardian to ensure the destruction of the London copy of Snowden’s electronic documents knowing full well that there was another copy in the States.

We talked too about what we wrote after his first encounter with the internet in 1994: ‘fascinating, intoxicating…it is also crowded out with bores, nutters, fanatics and middle managers from Minnesota who want the world to see their home page and CV’.

Which brought us, inevitably, to the chapter titled ‘The Money Question’, and the strategy of ‘reach before revenue’, building an audience not just in the UK but worldwide that would eventually produce advertising which would pay for the content. This meant being free,‘open’ is the word he prefers, and relying in the meantime  on ‘second-hand car sales’, the profits from Autotrader which funded the Scott Trust, the owners of the Guardian.

In 2014 the Guardian Media Group (GMG) sold its last remaining stake in Autotrader and the Guardian reported the sale proceeds, coupled with GMG’s existing cash and investment fund…are expected to provide financial support for the Guardian, Observer and theguardian.com website for at least 30 years’. Alan Rusbridger himself wrote ‘Let’s call the eventual endowment approaching £1 billion in rough terms—give or take’. 

I took this up in our conversation;

SP At the time did you think a billion pounds would be enough?

AR ‘No idea…none of us had any idea, must be lots of people in this room who work in the media who still have no idea, it was impossible to say’.

In May 2015 he signed off as Editor of-in-Chief of the Guardian. He writes in his book ‘Vine (Kath Viner the new Editor) and Pemsel (David Pemsel the new Chief Executive of GMG) had the safety net of more money in the bank than any Guardian editor of business manager in history could have dreamed of’. 

It had been suggested that he should become the Chairman of the Scott Trust but it was agreed that  he would not take over as immediately. He would take up his post in Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall, which would allow Kath Viner a year to establish herself. He would then return as Chair of the Scott Trust in September 2016, supervising his successor.

By March 2016 Facebook and Google had completed eating the first course of everybody else’s lunch, Guardian Media Group (GMG) was burning cash at the rate of £72 million a year, and at that burn rate it was estimated that the endowment that was meant to last at least 30 years might last for five or six. 100 jobs were earmarked to be cut from the GMG editorial workforce and 150 from commercial.

The New York Times wrote of this period; ‘Support for Mr Rusbridger suddenly shifted as he was cast as a negligent manager who had saddled the paper with a slew of problems’.

I asked him ‘Was that fair?

‘Well I am sure it looked like that at the time. Where we are today, we had a strategy agreed by all the boards about five years ago, it is basically the same strategy today. It was to invest in journalism, to be international, to remain open, not to have a pay wall, and I had set up this membership  scheme which was the idea of trying to go to readers and ask them -on a kind of NPR model -in order to pay for this and keep it open…That strategy hasn’t changed. I read now that the Guardian is going to break even this year and there is still a billion pounds in the bank. So I think today that it doesn’t quite look like such a rubbish strategy but there was a frightening point I concede. The year I left I think they were anticipating a hundred million in digital revenues which we wouldn’t have got had we not had the foresight to invest in digital and that money fell short by 20 million, money just didn’t come in. So I can see that that was a frightening time’.

The great irony about this period is that during the phone-hacking saga there had been threats to Rusbridger from the tabloid media but the real damage to his reputation now came from leaks from inside his own old newspaper plus articles in places like the FT and from people like former Guardian contributor Michael Wollf, later of ‘Fire and Fury’ fame, who wrote- amongst other things- that his former Editor  had ‘no enthusiasm for Americans, all of whom you seemed to regard as either hopeless children or hapless vulgarians’.

Kath Viner who had not been Rusbridger’s preference for his successor as Editor-in-Chief, went to see him and asked him not to take up the the chair of the Scott Trust that autumn. Rusbridger would later announce he would not take up the post because Kath and David (Pemsel) clearly believe they would like to plot a route into the future with a new chair and I understand their reasoning.’ But I put it to him that after Kath Viner asked him to stand down it took a long time for him to agree.

AR Well it was a curious period and I’ve spoken to people about it since, we’re all friends, as I say I can see that it seemed frightening. Kath and David were both new in their jobs and the thing that you mention about not being in charge of your successor, I completely get that, so I understand it. I  mean I haven’t even written about this in the book because life has moved on and it’s all fine .

SP I think one reviewer called it ‘a diplomatic omission’.

AR I didn’t set out to write that kind of memoir. Thinking about it today, as I said, the strategy has not changed, it’s the same strategy, everything is about to break even and there’s still a billion pounds in the bank so I hope people are generous enough to think that actually maybe in a world in which everything does go up and down and anybody who works in any kind of media company except for the BBC-that was a cheap dig but the BBC does have a reasonably stable funding model. But if you are reliant on the kind of funding models that anybody out there has to rely on, then you will have good years and bad years….In these reviews they all say he was a hopeless business manager but the important bit is that they all say that the Guardian was brilliant under his editorship and that to me is the most important thing.

During the Q and A with the audience Rusbridger was asked if there had ever been deep divisions inside the Guardian about whether or not to put up a pay wall. He said there hadn’t, there had never been any pressure from the board to do that. ‘It wasn’t that here was this pampered editor trying to do this hopelessly uncommercial thing’. He pointed out ‘now, don’t take my word for it, it is on the public record, the Guardian is saying ‘we can make the sums work’ so I think in this world you need a bit more patience’.

I then summed up:

SP It sounds as if these decisions may have been made in confusion and with an inability to predict the future but actually it sounds as if you feel vindicated by the way it has turned out?

AR ‘I do,yeah… By the way that’s not to decry the work that Katherine and David have done, they’ve taken some tough decisions and they have done sone restructuring. 

In his book Rusbridger writes that Viner had ‘a tough introduction to the life of editing’ and that ‘it was clear that severe belt-tightening was going to be needed -and was doubtless overdue’.

Two footnotes: 

The first concerns the footnotes to the book. Rusbridger uses these to put on record some points about David Pemsel’s time in the marketing and commercial departments before he became CEO which I can only decode as meaning this was the man who made the digital advertising forecasts, this was the man who said we were ‘financially secure’.

The other concerns the Observer newspaper. On page 32 Rusbridger writes of the paper’s ‘distinguished history’ but that’s the only time in the book where he says anything remotely positive about the Observer. Much more common are references such as ‘a modest investment of £200,000 in digital was dwarfed by an additional £6 million cash injection into the Observer’ and ‘The Observer was losing £7 for every pound lost on the Guardian or its website’.

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