From Transmission to Communication
Excerpt from a lecture on the state of the media in the era of the digital revolution, by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
"I want to discuss the possibility that we are living at the end of a great arc of history, which began with the invention of moveable type. There have, of course, been other transformative steps in communication during that half millennium – the invention of the telegraph, or radio and television, for instance – but essentially they were continuations of an idea of communication that involved one person speaking to many.
That's not dead as an idea. But what's happening today – the mass ability to communicate with each other, without having to go through a traditional intermediary – is truly transformative.
It is a change that was only imaginable by previous generations. I recently reread the formative book Culture and Society by the great literary critic and cultural historian Raymond Williams, written a little over 50 years ago.
This is what he wrote in 1958: "Much of what we call communication is, necessarily, no more in itself, than transmission; that is to say, a one-way sending. Reception and response, which complete communication, depend on other factors …"
That is the revolutionary change we are living through today – this transformation from transmission to communication. Williams would have added another significant difference: a move from impersonal media – which was what print was – to personal.
Many of us who grew up in the world of transmission face the existential question of whether we can stay in business doing transmission alone. That is the profound question that lies behind attempts to wall off, or sell, our content – or the contrary instinct to seek to embed it as centrally as possible in the new ways in which information, response and counter-response are developing.
We all know that digital forces are threatening to weaken, or even destroy, the traditional basis, role and funding of the press. And we know that digital enables everyone to disrupt everyone else's business.
Text publishers can get into moving pictures and the broadcasters can get into text. It was only a matter of time before it would seem overwhelmingly obvious – and economically irresistible – for people to converge, consolidate and integrate. But before we rush to sweep away the differentiation that exists at the moment, just pause to consider the virtues of the present balance.
Because the press is what it is – magnificently opinionated and partisan – it has pretty unfettered licence to attempt to set the narrative about its bedfellows in the media. And the dominant narrative about publicly funded broadcasting, in the UK, at least, is not a flattering one.
Other than BP, Royal Bank of Scotland or the Church of Scientology, it's hard to think of a large organisation that has routinely had such a hostile press as the BBC has recently had.
It's not simply its size, or the way it's run, that is criticised (sometimes with good reason), it is the very idea of public service broadcasting that is being questioned. Some have even gone as far as claiming that public funding turns public broadcasters into Orwellian merchants of propaganda; that the BBC resembles the dying embers of 1970s-style centralised, industrialised planning. That it spouts a paternalistic "we-know-best" view of knowledge.
Whenever I feel doubts creeping in, I put aside the newspapers and look at the iPlayer – that extraordinary device for playing and replaying BBC content. There you find a richness of programming that could never be provided by any form of market funding. It is exactly what an open space of publicly available information should look like – a richness of learning about science, history, technology, parenting, business, economics, food, music, the environment, physics, religion, ethics and politics – all within one week.
That's before we even get on to drama, comedy or sport. Or radio. Or the BBC's web pages, its orchestras or the World Service. Or the programmes it makes for the regions, for the hard of hearing, the partially sighted or for children. And then there's its news, with the kind of global coverage that comes from its unique network of 200 foreign correspondents.
It's news of a rare quality – serious news that's inquiring and challenging; news that's balanced and fair; news that reveals things and places them in context; news that's international in scope; news that's useful, news that opens your mind and helps your understanding; news that is transparent in its ethical standards and processes of self-criticism. The BBC is still the finest news operation in the world. How does it do it? Through subsidy.
Now subsidy also gets a bad press. But, in reality, few of us are in a good position to ridicule subsidy.
The American essayist Walter Lippmann, in his famous 1922 book, Public Opinion, made it plain that the press could not live without the subsidy of advertising.
He wrote of the reader: "Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper … The citizen will pay for his telephone, his railroad rides, his motor car, his entertainment. But he does not pay openly for his news … He will, however, pay handsomely for the privilege of having someone read about him. He will pay directly to advertise … The public pays for the press, but only when the payment is concealed."
In the middle of all the turmoil we're living through, it's clear that the subsidy model of serious general journalism is – with one or two exceptions – the only one that actually works at the moment. That subsidy may be a trust, an oligarch, a patriarch, a billionaire, a sister company, a licence fee, an income direct from public revenue … or an advertiser.
The digital space is – without going into complex arguments about net neutrality – owned and regulated by no one. So it is a very different type of medium from the two I've discussed so far.
It's developing so fast, we forget how new it all is. It's totally understandable that those of us with at least one leg in traditional media should be impatient to understand the business model that will enable us magically to transform ourselves into digital businesses and continue to earn the revenues we enjoyed before the invention of the web, never mind the bewildering disruption of web 2.0.
But first we have to understand what we're up against. It is constantly surprising to me how people in positions of influence in the media find it difficult to look outside the frame of their own medium and look at what this animal called social, or open, media does. How it currently behaves, what it is capable of doing in the future.
On one level there is no great mystery about web 2.0. It's about the fact that other people like doing what we journalists do. We like creating things – words, pictures, films, graphics – and publishing them. So, it turns out, does everyone else.
For 500 years since Gutenberg they couldn't; now they can. In fact, they can do much more than we ever could.
All this has happened in the blink of an eye.
That's one problem – the rapidity of the revolution, the bends – and the other is that we journalists find it difficult to look at what's happening around us and relate it to what we have historically done. Most of these digital upstarts don't look like media companies. EBay? It buys and sells stuff. Amazon? The same. TripAdvisor? It's flogging holidays. Facebook? It's where teenagers post all the stuff that will make them unemployable later in life.
If that's all we see when we look at those websites then we're missing the picture. Very early on I forced all senior Guardian editors on to Facebook to understand for themselves how these new ways of creativity and connection worked. EBay can teach us how to handle the kind of reputational and identity issues we're all coming to terms with our readers. Amazon or TripAdvisor can reveal the power of peer review.
I do believe we should be relentless in learning all we can about how people are using this post-Gutenberg ability to create and share – and import those lessons back into our own journalism and businesses. It's not about all rushing to be on Twitter. We can make our own media collaborative and open, too.
Distribution, breaking news and aggregation? At the Guardian and Observer we have more than 450 people on Twitter, together with 70 different single-subject sites or section feeds. Our journalists are out there, reaching a different audience from the core Guardian readership, seeking help, ideas, feedback, joining in the common conversations.
Reporters use open media as a way of finding sources, communities and audiences. The notion of a story – with a finite starting and finishing point – is changing. Liveblogging can bring audiences of millions around specific events. Linking allows you to place your journalism at the heart of issues, news and information.
Instead of trying to write everything ourselves we're increasingly a platform as well as a publisher. It started with Comment is free in 2006. Soon our cultural coverage will be just as open and collaborative. We've done it with our network of environmental and science blogs: traffic on the former has risen by 800% since the start of the year. We benefit from expert content and increased audiences. They share the revenue. We can trace the beginnings of a virtuous circle.
We harness readers in our shoe-leather investigations, whether it's hunting down tax avoidance; or tracing people who may have digital records of police assaults; or enlisting 27,000 readers to sift through 400,000 records of MPs' expenses; or alerting readers to super-injunctions that stop us telling them things.
Guess what? The readers love to be involved. They, too, like being critics, commentators and photographers. They love helping to defeat injunctions and being asked to share their particular knowledge or pool their expertise. You harbour a feeling that some of the stuff they create is poor? I agree. Let's learn from eBay about reputations, ranking and identity.
We're experimenting with open data and open APIs. We want to experiment distributing our content to where the audiences are – preferably with advertising attached. Some of the more radical ideas will work, some won't. But a failure to experiment is more dangerous than trying new things.
This open and collaborative future for journalism – I have tried the word "mutualised" to describe something of the flavour of the relationship this new journalism has with our readers and sources and advertisers – is already looking different from the journalism that went before. The more we can involve others the more they will be engaged participants in the future, rather than observers or, worse, former readers. That's not theory. It's working now.
And, yes, we'll charge for some of this – as we have in the past – while keeping the majority of it open. My commercial colleagues at the Guardian firmly believe that our mutualised approach is opening up options for making money, not closing them down.
I won't criticise people who want to try a different path. You can't preach plurality and argue for a single model of journalism or against attempts to find alternative ways of financing what we do.
I've always argued it's a good thing that different organisations are trying different routes to the future. And the models that are currently emerging are very different.
Our web traffic last month averaged just over 2 million unique browsers a day. One independent company which measured the Times's UK web audience during September found that their web traffic – not including iPad apps – had fallen by 98% as people progressed past the paywall.
More sophisticated analysts than me calculate that the content behind the paywall is therefore generating a total global audience of about 54,000 a month, of whom about 28,000 are paying for the digital content (the remainder being print subscribers).
That's not a criticism of the Times: that path may well make sense for how they see the future. The jury on the relative financial models for different approaches will remain out for a while yet. But these comparative figures point to completely different ideas of scale, reach, audience, engagement, ambition… and of journalism itself." (http://www.brandrepublic.com/go/news/article/1042108/guardian-editor-rusbridger-talks-splintering-fourth-estate/)