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Changing Platforms: Who Needs Journalists? On Alan Rusbridger's Breaking News

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Photo by International Journalism Festival (Wikimedia Commons)

There are no surprises in Alan Rusbridger's recently re-published editorial memoirs. There are, however, bombshells. Over the summer I had the chance to speak to him briefly in his office at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, where, although music and education are now his keen focus, the press is never far from the surface.

Regardless of your interest in the topic, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now is a journey through those pivotal years when the press was dragged kicking and screaming into the digital era. Peppered throughout is detail about how Guardian Media Group and The Scott Trust, its parent organisation, navigated turbulent financial waters. "They said we were mad," the former editor-in-chief at The Guardian tells me, referring to each and every time new funding approaches or income ventures were proposed. "Money has to come from somewhere. There is no such thing as a perfect paywall."

They said we were mad

The notion of transparent and accountable proprietorship is key and his financial approach was, and still is, pluralistic. If the net of funders is wide - NGOs, crowdfunding, even progressive governments - with robust governance and scrutiny, it should provide a much healthier press ownership culture.

Breaking News also lays bare the point at which, it can be argued, investigative public interest journalism fought for its own survival. What started as a hack's hunch - Nick Davies wanting to hold a mirror up to his own profession - ended with criminal trials, prison sentences and the Leveson Inquiry following the phone hacking scandal. If those details aren't enough for the squeamish, then the attempted suppression of such revelations by the usual estate of the realm - police and government - will be.

Rusbridger is positive with regard to public interest journalism. The "democratisation of information" inevitably comes with challenges, but he is an advocate of new and emerging partnerships. In the book, "riot journalism" provides a clear example of why. The London Riots and the Arab Spring, both in 2011, are case studies into how contemporary reporting is enhanced. In times past, the speed and location of such sudden events would prevent any reporter from being on the spot, other than by pure chance or by tip off. In our hyper-connected world, acquisition of source material is no longer the issue - but perception, interpretation and trusting the source are.

sunlight is the best disinfectant

Rusbridger's position as Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism continues his helicopter view of the contemporary press, "spotting the best and worst of trends". Data-based investigations, coupled with specialised and global teams of journalists, are developing with equal pace. As supranational organisations and mega corporations evolve, why not journalism to match that reach and scope?

But what of quality control and the issue of "mass amateurisation"? Rusbridger cites the podcast format as a case in point. Sometimes viewed as superficial, he sees it as an in-depth, analytical medium, the digital equivalent of the Long Read, one of many emerging Guardian developments over the past two decades.

Despite Leveson, the press sector remains one of fragmented regulation, without agreed standards of practice, but a new social partnership is possible between people and a trusted press. Rusbridger's response to this is as ever underpinned by an awareness of who pays the piper. Given that "sunlight is the best disinfectant", a forward-thinking government of any hue could support and encourage a fit-for-purpose, public interest press agency, encouraged by tax breaks and other financial incentives.

This seemingly convoluted idea, a radical suggestion, is nevertheless consistent with Rusbridger's principles and the origins of The Guardian. Rising from the wreckage of the Peterloo Massacre, John Edward Taylor's agenda - to provide an alternative, moderate, fact-based account, offsetting the establishment version of events - stands the test of time. As ever, what readers do when confronted with those facts is itself an ongoing story.

Julia Moore

Next article in issue 140

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