Can Alan Rusbridger do what he must to make a true mark on media’s future history?

- postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Behind scaffolding – postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

No media editor is being watched more closely by peers around the world than Alan Rusbridger, leading The Guardian into the future – and sounding as if a cooperative seems to him, too, the logical structure for media drifting towards ‘participatory journalism’. Never mind if he calls going co-op ‘mutualisation’ – as in this exchange in India with two editors at The Hindu, G. Ananthakrishnan and Mukund Padmanabhan:

You have been speaking about mutualisation of the newspaper, and you explained how it makes sense to involve readers, … But traditionally, were we not listening to readers … ? What has changed now?

I think it is going further. It is technology. Because the readers now have the ability to publish and link up. And I think in all this we have to make a judgment about whether essentially our role stays the stays the same. You are right to say that the best newspapers have listened to their readers and drawn upon their expertise. But the realm of newspapers is shrinking and all this energy is being created elsewhere and I think it is a real life or death position for newspapers as to whether they essentially ignore all that or whether you have to redefine the role of the newspapers to encourage it to come inside with what they are doing.

Very well said, but that conversation is now four years old. We cannot unfortunately peep behind the scaffolding and dust sheets to observe the latest stage in planning for The Guardian’s digital future. Does it make sense to hope that Rusbridger will walk his talk — unveil a plan for, at the very least, an experiment in mutualisation that involves giving reader-commenters the financial stakes that are of the essence of the cooperative idea?

We ourselves were pessimistic about this, a few weeks ago – in a post arguing that it is far more likely that younger media innovators will take that particular leap. But Rusbridger’s temperament and managerial style, more than his age, could rule him out as the most important pioneer in the next phase in media’s Darwinian shift.

That is certainly the likely conclusion of anyone reading the most thoughtful, complex and revelatory profile of any newspaper editor still in harness – Michael Wolff’s portrait of Rusbridger, published in the British edition of GQ last month. It is surprisingly even-handed – unstinting with praise for Rusbridger’s strengths – given that the Guardian eliminated Wolff’s perch on its web site earlier this year.

These sections of his essay, if true, are discouraging for anyone hoping to see real action, soon, in mutualisation that actually means something:

While the Guardian has a business staff with a CEO, and is overseen by trustees with ultimate responsibility, it has one real power centre, strategic thinker and moral compass: its editor, Alan Rusbridger. (A kind of preternatural consensus surrounds Rusbridger, but underneath him the Guardian is a fraught political cauldron, with underlings struggling to align with him, stay in his favour and undercut everyone else who is trying: “a nest of vipers”, in the description of an outside consultant brought in to work on one of the paper’s big redesign projects.)

[…]

His is an absolute, pre-modern sort of power, faith-based and exclusionary. You believe or you don’t. You are in or you are out.

Why bother to wonder about Rusbridger proving himself capable of, say, redesigning his role so that his position as editor-in-chief would have to be ratified by members of a mutualised Guardian voting in a referendum? Because, being optimistic, we hope that we and Wolff are mistaken – and that neither age nor personality will scupper his ambition to make a true mark on history.

… In our next entry, we will consider how much richer the cultural contribution of a mutualised Guardian would be.

Advertisements