Journalism's existential threat: Don't read if you have a heart condition

Some thoughts of Alan Rusbridger on journalism's future, carried on
Rusbridger: Does Journalism Exist?
Ask any British journalist who were their editor-heroes over the last 30 or 40 years and two names keep recurring. One is Harry Evans. The other is Hugh Cudlipp.

Why were they so admired? Because they seemed to represent the best of journalistic virtues – courage, campaigning, toughness, compassion, humour, irreverence; a serious engagement with serious things; a sense of fairness; an eye for injustice; a passion for explaining; knowing how to achieve impact; a connection with readers. Both men wrote inspiring books about journalism: about how to do it, but, more importantly, about why it mattered.

The one thing Cudlipp and Evans hardly ever wrote about was business models. For one thing, they didn't have to. They lived at an age where, if you got the editorial product right, money was usually not the burning issue. There was cover price and there was advertising and – though, of course, there were many newspaper failures along the road – there was no great mystery about where revenues came from. Secondly, they didn't see that as their job. Their job was to edit great papers: other people worked out how to pay for it.

Yet the most common question most editors are now asked is: "What's the business model?"

Of course, you know why people ask. Journalism may be facing a kind of existential threat. Whether you are a 22-year-old thinking about a career in journalism, or a 45-year-old wondering if your chosen calling will see you through to retirement, it's the question that nags away all the time. Insecurity is the condition of our journalistic age.

So it's a vital question. At the same time it's a kind of deadening question for journalists to be asking of other journalists. One – honest – answer is that no one can currently be sure about the business model for what we do. We are living at a time when – as the American academic Clay Shirky puts it – "the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place".

And it's a bit deadening because journalists are, as a rule, better at thinking about journalism – including the most fundamental question of all, hinted at in my title tonight – of whether there is such a thing as journalism.

If you think about journalism, not business models, you can become rather excited about the future. If you only think about business models you can scare yourself into total paralysis.

The business model is that one that says we must charge for all content online. It's the argument that says the age of free is over: we must now extract direct monetary return from the content we create in all digital forms.

Why I find it such an interesting proposition is that it leads onto two further questions.

- The first is about 'open versus closed'. This is partly, but only partly, the same issue. If you universally make people pay for your content it follows that you are no longer open to the rest of the world, except at a cost. That might be the right direction in business terms, while simultaneously reducing access and influence in editorial terms. It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.

- The second issue it raises is the one of 'authority' versus 'involvement'. Or, more crudely, 'Us versus Them'. Again, this is similar to the other two forks in the road, but not quite the same. Here the tension is between a world in which journalists considered themselves – and were perhaps considered by others – special figures of authority. We had the information and the access; you didn't. You trusted us filter news and information and to prioritise it – and to pass it on accurately, fairly, readably and quickly. That state of affairs is now in tension with a world in which many (but not all) readers want to have the ability to make their own judgments; express their own priorities; create their own content; articulate their own views; learn from peers as much as from traditional sources of authority. Journalists may remain one source of authority, but people may also be less interested to receive journalism in an inert context – ie which can't be responded to, challenged, or knitted in with other sources. It intersects with the pay question in an obvious way: does our journalism carry sufficient authority for people to pay – both online (where it competes in an open market of information) and print?

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