Since 1995, newspapers have seen massive disruption. Circulation plummeted. Ad revenue fell off a cliff. Journalists were laid off. Papers closed. Reading habits were radically changed by revolutions in digital and mobile technology.
The key question after this chaotic era has to be: Has the “product” gotten better or worse? Better, I say, but then I worked as a newspaper editor during those years.
A reader seeking news of the 1994 midterm elections would have bought the next day’s paper for roundups and partial returns about that year’s Republican Revolution.
That seems so much less robust than how newshounds could access election coverage this November — via live blogs, continual story and photo updates on mobile devices and laptops, videos, Twitter headlines, scrolling comments, links to raw voting data. While some readers would pay for this, many would access it gratis. Only then, and only maybe, would they buy a print paper the next day.
In “Breaking News,” Alan Rusbridger, who became editor of the respected liberal British daily the Guardian in 1995, surveys the tumultuous two decades that led to the present moment. He is a well-informed, earnest and entertaining (if long-winded) guide, armed with both statistics and anecdotes.
His narrative is in some ways veddy British — Rusbridger worked in a unique Fleet Street ecosystem that included as many as a dozen giant daily national papers, from highbrow, “eat-your-peas” broadsheets to giant-headline, Rupert Murdoch-controlled tabloids known as “red-tops.” The biggest papers, the Sun and the Mirror, edged toward an astonishing daily circulation of 4 million copies in the 1980s. These papers were cash cows for owners and employed thousands of journalists.
Rusbridger’s paper is subsidized by a trust that shielded it from quarterly economic pressures of a strictly market-driven product. To this day, it is one of the rare papers with no mandatory paywall for its online version. Still, each challenge that the Guardian stared down also was encountered in equal measure by every U.S. newspaper, including the one you are reading.
Tech innovation hit journalism in ceaseless waves, from the earliest days of the World Wide Web through rollouts of such digital behemoths as MySpace (remember?), Craigslist (which helped kill lucrative classifieds that plumped newspaper bottom lines for decades), Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia.
The speed of change was head-spinning. At the start of 1995, only 491 newspapers were publishing online worldwide: two years later that number had grown to some 3,600. Twenty years later, mobile exploded as a platform for exponentially larger numbers of news consumers.
Rusbridger and his peers often had to play catch-up, learning from their children about social media, racing to comprehend each new threat and making huge print-versus-digital business decisions while standing in quicksand and facing vicious competition.
They did so in newsrooms full of reporters and editors divided between old guard, stick-to-the-knitting types and (usually) younger ones eager to champion the new.
Rusbridger embraced the rapid techno-change that roughly coincided with his tenure as editor. He correctly realized that there was no alternative. The shock of the new also brought exhilaration, experimentation and new, more interactive ways of communicating with readers.
Still, Rusbridger advocates for his business as an old-fashioned public service based on high ethical standards and deep investigative reporting. “Journalism was widely considered one of the most effective ways of distinguishing the true from the untrue in a timely way. The irreducible purpose of a newspaper is to do just that.”
“Breaking News” defends the Guardian’s boundary-stretching collaborations with mega-leakers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Rusbridger may lack the writerly grace and skill of, say, Katharine Graham, whose memoir of her years running the Washington Post is a dramatic, readable marvel. Still, his book is a compelling behind-the-scenes guide to a revolutionary era in newspaper making.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor.
By: Alan Rusbridger.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 440 pages, $30.