November 24, 2020

Who needs a book called News and How to Use It: What to Believe in a Fake News World written by Alan Rusbridger? Probably not anyone who’s likely to buy it. The audience for books by journalists tends to be made up of people who already read a lot of journalism, and think about it a great deal; there’s a very good chance that a lot of them are themselves journalists. The people who need guides on how to use journalism are unlikely to be buying books at all. They’re on Facebook, snorting up little packets of conspiracy and untruth until they’re thoroughly high on paranoia.

Rusbridger should be uniquely qualified to map the modern news world, because he played a unique part in building it as Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian from 1995 to 2015. Like every editor in that period, he had to survive the internet, and the transformation it wrought in the economics and values of news. But unlike any of his peers, Rusbridger turned his editorship into a philosophy. His reign was defined not just by the big stories (phone hacking, Wikileaks, Snowden — all great examples of the sheer thrill of disclosure that drives a good editor), but by a credo: he believed in “open journalism”.

“Open journalism”, as he defined it in 2012, means “journalism which is fully knitted into the web of information that exists in the world today. It links to it; sifts and filters it; collaborates with it and generally uses the ability of anyone to publish and share material to give a better account of the world.” As The Guardian expanded its website, “open journalism” found expression in the voracious Comment is Free opinion section (once a raging stream of opinion that tried to capture the energy of oughts-era blogging, now just a URL pointing to a fairly traditional op-ed page); in liveblogging, which remains a strength of the paper; and in below-the-line comments that were not just tolerated but encouraged and celebrated.

Some of it was silly (a page allowing readers to generate messages of praise for then-security columnist Glenn Greenwald was so embarrassingly sycophantic that it seems to have been quietly shuffled off the Guardian website). Some of it was admirable — Comment is Free gave professional inroads to a lot of writers who might otherwise have been left on the outside of political journalism, and as I was one of them, I can’t be too churlish about its faults.

Some of it was probably damaging. A below-the-line breakdown from 2012 revealed that at least a fifth of the Guardian’s comments were made by 0.0037% of the actual audience. By any reckoning, that’s not a representative segment of the readership — yet comments took on outsize importance for editors, with writers expected to “jump on the thread” and defend their work. But it all helped to form what journalism would be in the era of the internet: though there’s been some movement away from comments, with readers and writers slugging it out on Twitter instead, it’s still the default for news sites (including this one) to offer instant right-of-reply. Rusbridger’s Guardian helped shape that default.

More significantly, it helped shape the expectation that news would be free. Paywalls are the opposite of open journalism, and the Guardian’s business model remains one of voluntary contributions. For Rusbridger, there’s a political imperative to this: democracies depend on having “informed citizens”, he writes. But there’s a counterargument that’s worth considering, even if it might seem a bit hypocritical to put it forward on a free-to-read site as UnHerd is for the time being (though there are plans to charge in the future). A public that is used to getting all its news for nothing has no reason to value journalism, no price to put on the truth. How does the naïve reader clock that a crank website like Exaro (now-defunct promotor of false sexual abuse claims) is worth less than heavyweight investigative journalism that is equally free to read?

In theory, News and How to Use It should be the perfect primer for such audiences. But as Rusbridger notes in the introduction, “journalism has, it seems to me, always struggled to describe itself honestly, if at all” — and this book is not entirely an exception. Reading its A-to-Z entries, there’s little clue that the author is an architect of the media as much as an observer. In an entry on “Gatekeeping”, he discusses the “Steele dossier” — the lurid oppo research on Trump that was leaked in 2017. “The New York Times (and several others) didn’t publish. Buzzfeed did. Who was right?” I don’t know, but I feel like Rusbridger should share his opinion on the matter. Or, at least, tell us what he would have done if it had happened on his watch.

Too often, he trails off into indecisive platitudes or empty exclamations: “time will tell”, “change will come… slowly”; something on one page “couldn’t matter more”, while something on the next page “couldn’t be more urgent”. Perhaps, ungenerously, this vagueness is because Rusbridger no longer has the answers. His references on theory of journalism are noughties-heavy. He debunks the “filter bubble” criticism of social media (what could be more of a filter bubble, he asks, than an old-style printed paper), but doesn’t mention the growing understanding that seeking out material you disagree with can actually heighten polarisation. (There’s a reason one of my most reliable Comment is Free pitch genres was “Daily Mail does awful thing”.)

Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis — two early cheerleaders for the internet who influenced the development of “open journalism” — both feature, but there’s no reckoning with how the last decade has tested their optimism. Shirky’s thesis in his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody was that the internet would democratise expertise with the demise of gatekeeping; Jarvis argued for “digital first” journalism supplemented by a high-quality print product. But gatekeeping feels less disposable once you’ve felt the effects of Covid conspiracies and QAnon; and Rusbridger’s beautiful Berliner-format Guardian was one of the first targets of his replacement, Kath Viner. Faced with the urgent challenge of making The Guardian not just innovative but sustainable, she binned the expensive presses in favour of standard tabloid size.

It’s inevitable that a book about journalism is vulnerable to be overtaken by events. Still, a reference to “Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore” is a particularly glaring casualty of deadlines. Last week, Moore quit the paper, where she has clearly been unhappy since at least March, when 338 of her colleagues across The Guardian and The Observer signed a letter denouncing “transphobic content” which clearly targeted her. Rusbridger mentions online abuse of Moore by the Right-winger James Delingpole; I’d be much more interested in reading what he has to say about her treatment by her peers, and the newsroom culture he left behind.

Rusbridger seems strangely insulated from the partisan strains on journalists: he still sees social media as a kind of ad-hoc ombudsman, resented only by those hacks who shrink from scrutiny (“No longer can the biters have immunity from being bitten back”). This will be bitterly hilarious to anyone who’s enjoyed the kind of “scrutiny” that comes in the form of death and rape threats. News and How to Use It is less a guidebook than a monument to a lost ideal. In the first decade of this century, Rusbridger was something like a prophet of news; his legacy, for good and bad, deserves a sharper eye than this book can bring to bear.