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‘Is that live?’ The pioneers who put the ‘new’ into news

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

It is eight minutes into my interview with Tony Ageh and I’ve managed to ask just one question: how did he start working at the Guardian?

The response is breathless. Stories overlap and interrupt each other as he sketches the media landscape in the early 90s, digresses into the creation of the BBC, Sky, the listings duopoly of the Radio and TV Times, and dials up an anecdote about how his Italian grandmother almost cost him his career by mangling a crucial telephone message.

It’s quite a show, but a compelling one, particularly for me. As the Guardian’s head of editorial innovation, my role has a very similar brief to the one taken on by Ageh 31 years ago, even if the digital revolution has forged a very different landscape.

Much of my focus is on how we can use technology to understand and serve our readers, deliver new ways of telling stories and combat the overwhelming noise from powerful digital platforms that prize user engagement over accurate information.

I work with our engineers to help build tools that can make a journalist’s job simpler, or pinpoint how readers have found our work, or ensure we’re not publishing too much. I also have to think about how we interact with the digital giants that dominate our lives. But even if the opportunities are unrecognisable from Ageh’s early days, the fundamental qualities required for innovation seem eternal.

Ageh powered into the digital era without breaking his stride. He started as a copy chaser for Richard Desmond, broke new ground in print at the Guardian, laid the foundations for our digital expansion and co-created the BBC iPlayer on a drunken evening in the World Service bar. He remains a most thoughtful voice on technology, its potential and its dangers in his role as the chief digital officer of the New York Public Library.

What’s fascinating about Ageh is that so many of his innovations are rooted in pragmatism, efficiency and attention to how systems work. He was recruited in 1990 to solve a specific problem with the printing of TV listings (his solution, the Guide, ran for almost 30 years before being folded into the Guardian’s new Saturday magazine last week).

Thereafter his brief, a little like mine, was to think “of something that might help, that we’re not doing already”. He began experimenting, building a team to explore efficiency, automation and the ways emerging technology was modernising, democratising and simplifying publishing.

He turned to the Guardian’s rich archive of journalism to create special supplements known as Guardian Collections. It’s another example of the way in which he was engaging with problems that are just as relevant in the internet age: finding quality journalism an audience beyond a single newspaper edition. And it has a direct recent successor in the tools we’ve built to create digital specials from the archives in our Editions App.

The leap beyond print began after he set up an Atex terminal – an electronic composition system for magazines and newspapers – in his home. Suddenly he could see the Guardian remotely before it was published and he began to wonder if “computers and newspapers could have a relationship together”. He pushed the idea with then Guardian editor, Peter Preston, and found himself in conflict with a features editor who saw potential in the emerging internet but, according to Ageh, wasn’t necessarily as convinced that it was a revolution in the making.

“And his name was … Alan Rusbridger. And we are arguing all the time. So Preston said, ‘I’ve had enough of you two. I want you to go to America, go and find out what this internet thing is, and don’t come back until you agree.’”

After a lengthy fact-finding mission, the pair returned with “samples” – some of them human beings – for a presentation to “a room full of managing directors, managing editors, very senior people from across the entire Guardian Media Group.”

One of their human specimens, an editor from a major US newspaper, was demonstrating their website when it became clear that he had lost the room.

“And one person finally says, ‘is that screen indicative or is that the news now?’ And he said ‘Yeah, that’s live.’ And we all look up at the screen and it says, ‘IRA announce ceasefire’. And in that one moment everybody in the room went ‘OK, we get this now.’”

Before he left the Guardian in 1995 to move to Virgin and then found the groundbreaking Upmystreet.com, the New Media Lab was established with a brief to cover the digital waterfront at a time when the exact future was obscure.

They laid the groundwork for the Guardian’s digital presence with a series of developments, ranging from Go2, the original digital incarnation of the Guardian’s technology supplement, to the UK edition of Wired magazine. Wired wasn’t a success in Ageh’s eyes, but a story from that time related by his colleague Danny O’Brien captures a commitment to openness that remains embedded in the Guardian and underpins the digital products we build today.

“The US editor-in-chief had talked about Wired being for ‘guys who’d been teased at school for being geeks, and who are now earning millions while their schoolmates flip burgers’. Wired UK, Tony insisted, was going to be for everyone – even the burgerflippers … Why, said Tony, can’t everyone define the future?”

It’s a philosophy that has travelled with him. He believes that the iPlayer’s flaw is that “it’s only got BBC programmes on it”. His vision for the BBC archives was to create a new digital public space built on publicly owned content and his work at the New York Public Library is rooted in the same ideals. For him, a library is “the one memory institution that lets you take the artists’ work home. That means you can come back with your own ideas.”

If that suggests a romantic, his response to a question on whether the internet has been the force for good he once imagined is telling.

“It’s a weapons-grade technology. I use the word digital in my title in a way that firemen use fire in theirs. I’m not trying to spread it. What I’m actually trying to do is contain it, understand it, control it and point it where it can be useful. And I worry that the internet let loose in certain places has done more harm than good.”

It’s an answer that captures so much of Ageh’s spirit, pragmatism, humour and clear-eyed vision, and it’s notable for being utterly distinct from the fatuous evangelising typical of Mark Zuckerberg and some other big tech founders. It chimes explicitly with the way I have to think about technology and its application at the Guardian more than two decades after he left us.

Ageh’s desire to change things, and his success, springs from an urgent and thoughtful place, one focused on “technologies that are universally applicable, that benefit everybody”.

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