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‘It was exhilarating’: how the Guardian went digital – and global

·11-min read

A crystal ball was – at least at the outset – not required.

A trip to the US in 1993 to “see the internet” left me in no doubt: the days of the daily printed newspaper were numbered. Once people learned about this thing they were calling the “world wide web”, there would be no going back. It might take 10 years, it might take 50, but it was clear that the future was digital.

If that much seemed obvious, everything else was a mist of incomprehension and wild futurology. My trip included a visit to the New York Times, which was betting heavily on cultural coverage, but didn’t, on the whole, think news would work very well on computers.

In Boulder, Colorado, we found another team of digital pioneers working for Knight Ridder, who had imagined the iPad and couldn’t be more excited about its possibilities. It was true their “iPad” was an A4 block of wood with a “front page” glued on its front. But just imagine when someone built one for real!

Eighteen months later, I was the editor of the Guardian and contemplating the enormous implications of being buffeted by the biggest revolution in communications since Gutenberg. It was my good fortune to work with Carolyn McCall as managing director, who had been to the US on a similar mission and was, if anything, more convinced of the need for drastic change.

Carolyn McCall and Alan Rusbridger in 2005
Carolyn McCall and Alan Rusbridger in 2005. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

We were not exactly horse-drawn carriages waiting for the Ford Model T to wipe us out. But nearly all our colleagues in London were working on a creaking mainframe computerised production system, which didn’t connect to the outside world. Email? Never tried it.

In internal presentations, to create a sense of modest urgency – one later model suggested we would run out of cash around 2012-13 – I took to drawing two lines. One (print circulation) was nose-diving into oblivion. The other (digital) was soaring into the sky. That, or some form of it, seemed inevitable.

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Some years later I was unnerved to see these hand-drawn scribbles referred to – usually by media academics – as “the Rusbridger Cross”. How naive I’d been, they mocked, to imagine that there would be a magical moment when digital revenues would supplant lost print income!

But, as veterans of these presentations will confirm, the point of the so-called Rusbridger Cross was that there would be no neat transition from the old world to the new. My clumsy way of graphically signalling the messiness of what was coming was to plonk a very large green bubble in the middle of the slide. That was meant to represent a period of indeterminate length during which the sums could not possibly add up – even if digital traffic soon dwarfed print buyers.

And then the questions began in earnest, dozens of them, some concurrent, other consecutive:

Was this a new medium, or simply a novel way of distribution?

Some publishers thought it was the latter, and essentially sent their existing products down copper and fibre networks as well as via vans and newsagents. We did that, too, but were soon convinced “digital” was about far more than how we got the news from A to B.

If it was a new medium, did that require a different team with different skills to produce it?

We thought: yes. We went to the designer Neville Brody to create a new look for the digital version of the Guardian (“Guardian Unlimited.”) We realised you could create deep “verticals” of content rather than be governed by the space constraints of print. We could create and host communities around passions and issues. But, of course, we still had to produce terrific newspapers seven days a week.

How much should we invest in this new medium?

In the first five years, we spent about £18m on investment in digital – with predictions we’d have to sink £30m before we could anticipate any serious returns. The Guardian had a relatively small circulation in print, but was now attracting considerable audiences abroad. It became known as “reach before revenue”. AKA the green bubble.

How could you protect your commercial revenues?

Anyone could see that print classified advertising was soon doomed. Could a “legacy” company create a digital competitor to cannibalise its old business in pursuit of the new? We failed with something called Workthing.com, after sinking maybe £50m into a new recruitment startup. But the Guardian Media Group succeeded in transitioning AutoTrader from a magazine to a hugely successful digital business – enabling the Scott Trust to establish a £1bn endowment to help sustain Guardian and Observer journalism.

How could you run print and digital editorial operations in tandem?

At one extreme we had a Sunday newsroom, with its weekly routines and time to think. At the other we increasingly had teams dedicated to rushing out breaking news within minutes, if not seconds. Did it make sense to have three distinct teams (weekday, Sunday, digital) or should some of their functions be merged? We tried both – or, rather, a mix of the three.

What new skills did we need to enlist?

The “legacy” editorial teams were rich in fine writers, photographers and nuanced thinkers. Suddenly we needed people who could code, shoot video, crunch data, create interactive graphics, develop and understand metrics and much, much more. It was not easy to recruit new teams at a time of declining revenues, while still trying to produce a first-class newspaper.

How could the Guardian adapt to being global?

Suddenly, two-thirds of our readers were not UK-based. If we were to succeed commercially, we had to continue to attract and retain like-minded readers from around the world. That meant producing a more “international” newspaper: less Nick Clegg, more Angela Merkel. But how to do that without losing the loyalty of the UK readers? Was there a danger of producing “news from nowhere”? New operations also meant new people. It would be difficult to build up a committed US audience without a dedicated US editorial operation. The same, a few years later, would be true of Australia. Was the best thing to recruit locally and hope they would understand (by osmosis?) what the Guardian was meant to be, albeit in a different context? Or was it better to send people out into the world to bring a “Guardian eye” to local news?

Which came first: the paper or digital?

Were we mainly concentrating on producing an excellent paper, with a digital operation attached? That made a lot of sense to many, mindful that the paper still brought in the lion’s share of the revenue. But it became increasingly logistically fraught to keep both plates spinning in the air. Quite early on we called ourselves “digital first”. That made a lot of colleagues unhappy.

Just as we felt we were beginning to get to grips with the internet, along came what was initially termed web 2.0. Was this the same business – the news business – as we were in? Looking at people discussing what they ate for breakfast on Twitter or Facebook, it was easy to believe this had nothing to do with news. Easy, but wrong.

It soon became clear that social media was here to stay. It was not immediately clear whether a news organisation should ape its ethos of openness and interactivity, or whether that might dilute its authority and “brand”. We tried to be as “open” as possible: inviting in new voices; encouraging response; linking out; shouting out to sources; collaborating with other news organisations. A bumpy ride at times, but worth it.

Then there was the economics of digital. It’s become fashionable to refer to the “original sin” of giving away content for free. Believe me, it was not for want of trying. In 1999, according to one study, only two newspapers were still charging after initial attempts to put up paywalls. The years 2001-07 were described as “the frenzy of failed trials”. More recently, some newspapers in some countries have begun to have some success with some subscription models (emphasis on “some”). They will be part of the future. But that’s not how the world looked in 2005.

digital graphic

In 2012 we began to investigate a Guardian membership scheme, which would keep the Guardian as a public good (“I pay so everyone can read it”) rather than the traditional private good (“I pay so I can read it”). In a world of information chaos, false news and information inequality, it seems ever more necessary that there are good, reliable, widely available sources of news. It’s heartening to see today’s Guardian has more than 1 million paying subscribers and supporters in digital and in print.

Even as we wrestled with social media and the new economics of publishing, another revolution was brewing. I remember seeing the first iPhone shortly after it was launched in June 2007. It was a thing of beauty and eye-popping functionality. But it took me far too long to realise that, in no time at all, the smartphone would become the main “platform” (as we were learning to say) on which the Guardian would be read. Yes, really, on a screen not much bigger than a matchbox. Then came the iPad – and with it, possibly, the creation of a different edition you could charge for. Back to the drawing board. Rupert Murdoch even tried to create an entirely new iPad newspaper. It didn’t work.

Of course, it wasn’t just about the platform: it was about the journalism, too. Words alone would not longer cut it, given the opportunities that multimedia storytelling offered. We went from a rudimentary room with egg boxes nailed to the walls for acoustic dampening in our old Farringdon Road office to building half a dozen state-of-the-art studios in our new home in King’s Cross. Something called “podcasting” was said to be just around the corner. We struggled to make sense of video for a long time, and podcasting didn’t take off. The studios stood empty – a monument, it seemed, to management stupidity. And then podcasting miraculously revived and the commercial teams were desperate for every minute of video we could produce. Trying to chart a course in this revolution was wildly unpredictable. Economic crashes and predatory big tech companies didn’t help. By now, crystal balls were essential.

And all the time, there was that nagging but profound question: how do you keep the caravan together? Roughly one-third of the staff were beyond sceptical about many aspects of the digital new world. Where was the money? Why undermine the “authority” we had in print? Another third were frustrated we were moving so sluggishly. And the final third didn’t much care, as long as they kept their jobs, the Guardian thrived and it all ended well.

It took the Guardian nearly 140 years to be confident enough as a national paper to drop the word “Manchester” from its title. It didn’t find a permanent home in London until 1976.

Within 25 years of that move, it began to attract an enormous international readership – and it is now viewed on more than a billion browsers a year. The paper’s journey from local to national to global was bewilderingly sudden.

Revolutions are fascinating things for historians to study. Living through one is unnervingly interesting. Decisions fly at you furiously fast. There is never enough time to think, and never enough data to help you make the right choice. If you get even half of the decisions right, you’re probably doing quite well. And you may not even know what “right” was until many years later.

My predecessor Peter Preston, who had brilliantly steered the Guardian through other periods of turbulence, wrote in August 2009: “I lived on the Guardian, through the peril of 1966, when merger threatened obliteration [there had been a plan to merge the Guardian with the Times] … I’ve been there and run things, and it wasn’t all simple. And that was a doddle compared to now. Believe me.”

He, like all six Guardian editors since the creation of the Scott Trust in 1936, was simply told to edit the paper “as heretofore”. Each editor tries to reimagine the paper for their times – but in keeping with the same ideals and principles on which it was established in 1821.

What “heretofore” meant in a world in which 4 billion people could instantly publish and receive information was the exam question set for our generation of Guardian journalists.

It was scary, nail-biting, unpredictable. And it was stimulating, limitless and exhilarating. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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