Fiddling with the true record of newspapers’ post-print struggles robs our first drafts of history of crucial lessons for media

Three editors: Lionel Barber of The Financial Times interviews http://video.ft.com/5113031401001/Lionel-Barber-discusses-future-of-media/Life-And-Arts Alan Rusbridger, who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes{{{CK SP}}}} of The Economist. The dark shape racing towards them looks like the chiefly Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

Lionel Barber (left) of The Financial Times interviews Alan Rusbridger (right), who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes (centre) of The Economist. The sinister dark mass behind them could be the Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

In the outline of his unfinished manuscript about the difficulties of constructing accurate history — partly scratched out as a prisoner of Germany in 1940-4 — the French historian and Résistance operative Marc Bloch wrote [ the italics are his, in all cases ] :

VI. EXPLANATION IN HISTORY

By way of introduction: the generation of skeptics (and scientists)

1. The idea of cause. The destruction of cause and of motive (the unconscious) [ … ]

2. The idea of chance.

3. The problem of the individual and his differential value. [ … ]

4. The problem of ‘determinant’ acts or facts.

Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, 1949 [ a posthumous work published in English in 1954 as The Historian’s Craft ]

All three versions of his manuscript ended with these words: ‘In history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for …’. If he were extending those notes today, we would propose:

5. The problem of the sound byte and tiny attention spans.

Explanations shrunk to sound bytes can wreak havoc with historical truth. That would account for the hair-raising contrast between our analysis — two posts ago — of why The Guardian’s economic model of giving everyone free access to its website is unsustainable, and the answer to virtually the same question by the architect of its strategy, Alan Rusbridger. That prospective revolution failed because it was halted halfway, as if lacking the courage of the convictions that got it rolling — including the editor’s enthusiasm for the advent of ‘participatory journalism’. But he and his managerial colleagues did not go far enough. For old media in transition, free access can only make economic sense — some day — in combination with building in some version of the audience participation or collaboration that defines social media. Recently, the post-Rusbridger Guardian made a stunning turn in the wrong direction. As we noted on this blog last month, relying on the accuracy of a report by Private Eye, the paper’s present leaders decided — unbelievably — against allowing its new class of readers paying £5 a month for ‘membership’ privileges to elect a representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (‘Readers’ Knives,’ Private Eye No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016)

You would glean none of that from Rusbridger’s reply in an interview with the editor of The Financial Times — at this newspaper’s first ‘live’ festival in London earlier this month — to a question about the explosion in readership after the launch of his content-is-free business model:

Lionel Barber: Under your editorship The Guardian became incredibly successful in terms of developing a global audience. You went from 300,000 in the UK to literally millions. Can you make money out of that audience?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the answer to that changes from year to year. At the time I left, we were just about managing sustainability and then everything changed — not through anybody’s fault. Except that Facebook came along and this behemoth started taking 85 cents out of every dollar in terms of the advertising revenues that came in. And that’s a completely changed environment. There’s no point whingeing about it, it’s a brilliant company. Google’s a brilliant company. But it does mean you have to adapt your business model not only in light of things that may change from year to year but from month to month.

The facts called for giving the FT editor a different sound byte altogether. But that would have put the former Guardian chief, who stepped down last year, in the awkward position of criticising his change-resistant former colleagues for their inability to understand, as he did, digital technology’s inversion of the pyramid they were used to — with journalists at the top and their audience members squeezed together, powerlessly, at its base. He could have given a colourful, entertaining account of, for instance, the shattered egos of senior journalists and columnists subjected for the first time to criticism by readers in comments sections — and to competition from blogs. Instead, he expressed himself eloquently on the perceptions that made him a Moses who lost most of his followers, because they lacked any glimmer about the Promised Land to which he was trying to lead them:

I felt that my job was to try and understand the technology, not because it was technology but because it signified a completely different social shift. It was the biggest thing since Gutenberg — not the technology of printing but the democratisation of reading and of thought. And we’re moving from a vertical world in which the people with the knowledge used to drip it down to something in which it’s much more widely dispersed. And as editors, you can’t afford to ignore that.

In their joint interview, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the practical editor of The Economist, described a survival strategy pegged to pushing for the replacement of advertising revenue by expanded circulation and subscriptions. This could succeed, for the special reason why publications focused on finance and economics are virtually the only big names in journalism that are doing well behind the paywall or subscription barrier. Her plan represents a different recognition that success will entail some kind of financial reward for the reader-participants in publishing’s future. The economic model that we have advocated on this blog would give readers small monetary stakes in media organisations. That would be just right for the communal-minded, left-leaning progressives said to dominate The Guardian’s audience. By contrast, readers are willing to pay for old-fashioned subscriptions to The Economist — or The Wall Street Journal or FT — in the hope of learning what they can to protect their piggy banks from disaster. (See ‘The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co’.)

Surely a sound byte encapsulating some of that would have been a more useful guide for editors coping with the digital transition than implying that the Guardian‘s huge economic losses are simply the fault of Facebook, which came along and devoured old media’s future.

The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co

-- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com, from a detail by MIL22

— postgutenberg[at]gmail.com, from a detail of a photograph by MIL22

Next week, editorial staff at the newspaper with one of the three most-visited English-language sites on the net will be offered the unusual chance to vote for their next editor-in-chief – even though that will be someone chosen from a different (overlapping) list by the paper’s board of overseers.

The voters will select from among just four candidates for the job — of a total of two dozen-odd applicants — who are brave enough not to rely simply on their qualifications, but submit in public to testing and demonstrating what support they can count on from rank-and-file staffers. The staff favourite is not guaranteed the job: the board of directors could pick an applicant from the longer list not running for election. More curiously yet, the voting is being organised from outside the newspaper, by Britain’s sterling, 108 year-old National Union of Journalists.

This hybrid, fuzzy, faintly Mad Hatter-ish path to the job — or not — has a precedent at The Guardian. Alan Rusbridger, the editor being replaced, who has served as the paper’s chief for two decades, was apparently appointed through an arcane weighing of skills vs. popularity with Guardianistas.

So, history is one reason why no one should read into this succession drama any implication that the paper is democratising its modus operandi. Some onlookers have also made the mistake of assuming that The Guardian is bowing to egalitarian net culture by urging readers to pay subscriptions to become ‘members’ of its organisation. Last year, two of these observers interpreted the scheme’s announcement, in exuberant messages to post-Gutenberg, as proof of the paper’s adoption of the proposal with which this blog began — that Guardian readers were going to be invited to become part-owners through subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes.

So far, that conclusion has been wrong – a realisation that, for some of us, borders on tragic. (See ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about “mutualised” journalism,’ post-Gutenberg.com, 18 September 2014.)

Why? Because we see small-scale reader-owners becoming passionately involved in the paper’s future economic survival — and creating a new economic model for running media — if their contributions of ideas, reactions, news and campaigning for favourite causes are given greater prominence in expanded comments sections. This will be especially true if what they supply is freed from censorship by Guardian moderators. Many of us can remember dozens of stimulating, irreverent, frequently dazzling ‘below-the-line’ contributors to readers’ discussions in the first year or two after this newspaper launched its online ‘Comment-is-Free’ section in 2006. We watched, nearly heartbroken, as most of them stopped reacting to above-the-line articles – or, as we often put it in those days, blogging in comments sections – from disgust with repressive moderators and moderation policies, which too often led to the banning of commenters we loved most. (See: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?‘, post-Gutenberg.com, 7 November 2011.)

Most traditional journalists, especially senior and long-fêted members of the profession – all around the world – still despise reader-blogger-commenters. They hate the competition. Having got too comfortable on pedestals on which they were seldom criticised or corrected, they were infuriated by the arrival of citizen-debaters. But a few of these, the most honest critics in so-called legacy journalism, are now reluctantly conceding that they could be mistaken in their classification of reader-commenters as either stupid, uneducated, or vicious trolls. We ourselves could be mistaken in perceiving any such concession – in an oblique form – in a couple of entries in the latest ‘From The Message Boards’ column of Private Eye, the paradoxical magazine written — and run — in the spirit of the net at its most impish and egalitarian, that has no online edition at all. (Issue No. 1385, 6 February – 19 February 2015)  For years, typical FTMB inventions have read like this:

wat about the yesterday’s chanel? theres no way them old nazi’s was filmed the day before :) lol! – Hatfield Gooner

What the Eye presented as representative of comments on newspaper web sites was so predictably buffoonish that it was one of its few sections not worth reading at all (unless you live for Benny Hill toilet jokes). But in the latest issue delivered to our letter box, we were astonished to find this toothsome morsel – which we hope is a sign of FTMB raising its game:

It was on ITV actually, but the BBC is equally culpable when it comes to distortion and inaccuracies. I will never forget the astonishment I felt when watching their film about Stephen Hawking, which (unlike Broadchurch [new crime mini-series being discussed in this FMTB column]) purported to be based on fact. In the opening scene, at Hawking’s 21st birthday party on 8 January 1963, the gramophone in the background is playing ‘Some Other Guy’ by The Big Three, a record not released until March that year. Had Hawking received an advance promotional copy? No, because the track hadn’t yet been recorded. One can only conclude that he had travelled back in time from the future, bringing a copy of the disc to prove his own later theories correct. – PCS 3042

Now, there’s a sendup of genius – a perfect specimen of a post by a high-precision-pedant-on-steroids, one class of reader-commenter post-Gutenberg treasured particularly, in the short-lived good old early days of the Guardian’s Comment-is-Free site. Once you had wept with delight over your introduction to PCS 3042, you found yourself stopping in at CiF all day long, hoping that she or he had returned to post again, in your absence.

So did other readers – and fans and sparring-partners of below-the-line marvels like PCS. That boosted site traffic for the best reasons. Instead, the Guardian’s over-zealous moderators have lashed its BTL contributors into such a pathetic, tame, conformist bunch that it does make perfect sense for the redesigned online version of the paper to look like an extension of bland, boring Facebook. Unbelievably, it has picked a blue-and-white colour scheme just like the social media giant’s for a site frame.

Facebook blueandwhite

With artists in London ready to throw themselves at its feet, why did The Guardian chosen to look like an extension of Facebook.com in its latest redesign?

With artists in London ready to throw themselves at its feet, why has The Guardian chosen to look like an extension of Facebook.com in its latest redesign?

Once, we would have scoured the Guardian’s comments sections to see which other readers had noticed this bizarre act of imitation — unless we mean, slavish homage to the $ power of almighty social media. But in this round of site design, the paper’s managers invited readers to submit their reactions to it not openly, on CiF, but in private messages to them. A shrewd move, indeed.

For three years, post-Gutenberg has been pointing out that Facebook, grown fat and sleek on selling minute details of its users’ lives, should rightly be co-owned by those users – who are entitled to shares in its profits. (See: ‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind,’ post-Gutenberg.com, 14 February 2012.)

If the Guardian wanted to pull off a brilliant coup, it would use its new look as a Facebook acolyte to make its membership scheme more than the meaningless rich reader-patrons’ club that several other newspapers have also introduced.  The similarity in appearance could help to wean diehard Facebook users, subconsciously, from their devotion to being exploited by Mark Zuckerberg’s company.

As we have said wearily before, we fear that the Guardian’s leaders, even those still only in their forties – over-represented, as far as we can tell, in the candidates for the editor’s job – are too old to see what they need to do. Here is proof in a new social media site, Tsū.co – based in New York, despite its Japanese name, especially delicious in combination with its founder’s novelistic Eastern European identity. Conceived of — as we have concluded from sheer guesswork — in much younger minds, Tsū has its heart exactly where the Guardian’s should be. This is the email we received after we signed up:

Welcome to tsu.co [ post-Gutenberg! ] !

It’s an honor to have you as a new member of this unique user-owned community. We have been working hard to build tsu.co (pronounced ‘sue’) with the purpose of breaking the old rules of social publishing by creating a fair economic model where content creators’ ownership is respected, where they are fairly incentivized and where their content is protected.

[…]

Best,

Sebastian Sobczak

Founder, CEO at tsu.co

PS: We’re also on mobile. Download the app now:

Somehow, Tsū’s arrival has been ignored completely in Guardian coverage of online news and media. Googling yielded a single story about it posted on a blog on the New York Times site last autumn — in ‘The Social Network That Pays You to Friend’ — but no NYT mention since. Decidedly odd, for a startup claiming to have 2 million users last month.

While Facebook and Twitter have been criticized for failing to share their profits with those who post on their platforms, Tsu pledges to do just that: It will give 90 percent of its ad revenue back to users.

Tsu’s philosophy is that “all content creators, which is basically every social user, should receive royalties for the commercial use of their image, likeness and work,” Mr. Sobczak told Op-Talk. “They essentially do all the work, they should get rewarded with the lion’s share.”

“What people don’t realize is how much value is created by these platforms on the backs of basically everybody’s networking,” he said.

Anna North on the Op-Talk blog of The New York Times, 27 October 2014 

How precisely will Tsū be sharing its profits? Through a complex but workable scheme, explained in detail here, in an excellent — by no means wholly laudatory — TechCrunch profile on 19 January by Sarah Perez:

Today, 10% of the total ad revenue goes to Tsu itself. Half of the remainder goes to Tsu’s content creators (users), and the other half goes to the network that brought in those content creators to the platform. That is, when User A invites User B, and then User B shares popular content, User A is compensated for that. The better a users’ network, or “family tree” in Tsu lingo, the more money you make.

How did we hear about it? From a chance mention by LCM, an immeasurably dear artist friend living somewhere deeply rural. She has a clone in a brainy relation, a high-ranking Silicon Valley entrepreneur swimming in the social media shark pond …

Readers, we don’t know exactly how we’ll get there. We are still studying the fine print about Tsū. But something Tsū-like is indisputably our future.

With all our e-devices, why don’t we hear from more voices like Yan Lianke’s in China and Russia? + can The Guardian’s ‘membership’ scheme set an example?

- postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

– photograph by postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

-- MIL22

— photograph by MIL22

Commenters on Yan Lianke’s poetic essay from China in Thursday’s New York Times — about the task of writers — spoke for many and maybe most of his readers in expressing fears for his safety. Why, in this age of magically flexible and ubiquitous post-Gutenberg communication tools — of which China is the leading manufacturer — do we hear so seldom from voices like his in China and Russia, supporting writers like him, and giving us essential information?

A small child who has only paddled in a bathtub can have no idea of what swimming in an ocean is like. Still, the experience of being immersed in water does supply an atom or two of useful comprehension. In this way, anyone in the liberal West whose thoughts typed into comment boxes on media sites have been stifled — persistently — by ‘community moderators,’ solely because they do not suit the politics and editorial policies of a powerful newspaper, has had a taste of actual censorship, and of refusing to let the fear of humiliation, punishment and banishment (deleting a commenter’s account) shut down the flow of words.

No one expects to have to be a heroic Yan Lianke in any proud Western democracy. Yet even in these, the suppression of inconvenient views in the most scrupulously polite debate gets hardly any attention. This week, The Guardian has again been promoting the paid, tiered ‘membership’ scheme it is offering readers. No one yet knows exactly what this club is going to do for free expression, and for reining in this paper’s notoriously trigger-happy moderators (of whom we at post-Gutenberg must admit that we have no recent first-hand experience, having decided to stop going there and say what we want to about The Guardian on this site, instead.) In a post here a few weeks ago — ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism’ — we expressed our hope that there is substance behind the alluring advertisement.

No ‘membership’ scheme will be worth the attention of thinking people unless ‘members’ are allowed to help The Guardian’s policy-makers ensure that its ‘Comment is Free’ section lives up to its name. Yan Lianke’s New York Times contribution shows just how much thinkers like him count on the West for inspiration and support. Never mind China’s grand, ancient philosophical tradition. Confucianism was never about individual freedom.

With marvellous economy and a soulfulness rarely found in Western editorialising, he has reminded us of what we forget at our peril – the importance of unencumbered truth-telling. Please pass on the link to his piece after you have read the extracts below, and a sample of readers’ comments on them – including one from someone not fluent in English, who is owed our thanks for pointing out why some of his criticisms of China could be mistaken. We wish it was within our power to invite Yan Lianke to respond in this space.

BEIJING — China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death. One evening when I was a young boy, not long after the catastrophe, I followed my mother as she went to dump garbage outside the wall that surrounded our village, a poor and isolated town in central China.

Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”

Mother went back inside our house to cook and left behind a long shadow. I stood in front of the edible clay gazing out at the sunset, the village and the fields, and an enormous sheet of darkness gradually approached.

[…]

China may boast of having several thousand years of civilization, but when an old man collapses in the street, everyone refrains from helping him out for fear of being implicated, even as the old man bleeds warm, red blood. What kind of society do we live in when a pregnant woman dies on the delivery table and all of the medical technicians flee in order to avoid responsibility, leaving behind a tiny soul uttering a feeble cry?

It is a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.

I am reminded of Job, in the Old Testament, who after experiencing countless misfortunes said to his wife as she was urging him to curse God, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” This simple response demonstrates that Job understood that his suffering was merely God’s way of testing him, and was evidence that darkness and light must exist together.

I don’t pretend that I have been uniquely selected by God, as Job was, to endure suffering, but I do know that I am somehow fated to perceive darkness. From these shadows I lift my pen to write. I search for love, goodness and a perpetually beating heart.

At a symposium last week, President Xi Jinping met with a group of artists, including the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, and talked about the value of art in China. According to the official China Youth Online, he said, “For art workers to be successful, they must breathe together with the people, share their fate and feel their feelings, rejoice at their joy, grieve at their grief, and serve the people like a willing ox.”

But only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.

Some comments by his readers (not in their original order):

William Hathaway

… Despite the unfashionable earnestness in this essay, I applaud its plea for cosmopolitan artistic freedom in the tradition of Romain Rolland. I’m sure that Yan Lianke will pay a real price for it.

ronnyc

I was hoping to read that his name was a pseudonym, but I didn’t. It is a beautiful and incredibly brave piece of writing. I just hope it doesn’t cost him his freedom, or worse.

Andre

Absolutely correct…. Confuciusm can’t mesh with the mordern global system… Neither can traditional Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Te only thing that meshes is money. It’s the new world order…

Tim McCoy

“…now that money and power have replaced socialism and capitalism…

Though Yan Lianke seems like writer of some brilliance, I think the above statement is fundamentally flawed. Capitalism is nothing if it is not about money and power.

Stranger [ someone apparently posting from California ]

The author only pointed out one side of the problem.

Why the old man fell on the street and nobody dared to help him? Because there was a famous lawsuit in Nanjing in which an old lady framed a young guy who actually helped her get up and the judge condemned him to pay about 12,000USD to that old lady.

And why the medical technicians flee when the pregnant woman died? She died from amniotic embolism which is difficult to diagnose and extremely dangerous. A hysterectomy surgery might have saved her life but unfortunately her husband refused this option because he was worrying about if his wife was going to be able to have the second baby. After the pregnant woman died, the family sent dozens of relatives trashed the hospital, that was why the doctors and nurses had to flee. IN china, every year several doctors died of medical disputes, most of them are stabbed by angry/crazy patients or their family members.

well, the other side of story only makes China even a worse country. That’s the reality of China. Democracy is not the medicine for its illness right now, seriously. With such a low level civil consciousness, democracy will just be abused. china has a long way to go. let’s take it slowly.

A Sincere but Puzzled Han Chinese Girl [ Guangzhou, China ]

Stranger, you speak out what i’d like to clarify here. Many thanks

Richard Luettge 

The author may be fated to perceive darkness, but if so, he would perceive darkness wherever men walk in numbers, and not merely in China. The challenges he writes of aren’t uniquely Chinese challenges but human ones and timeless ones. We study these challenges in every society, in part through art, in part through philosophy, and the purpose of such study is to find the “delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness”. More, it’s to find purpose in the darkness.

Others labor elsewhere, but his challenge is to find these qualities in China.