October 2010
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Partnerships are good but they don't always work

Editor of TheGuardian in the UK for the last 15 years and a member of the Scott Trust that runs The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, Alan Rusbridger was in India last week for WAN-IFRA India 2010, a conference of the World Association of Newspapers held in Jaipur.

He spoke in an interview on the challenges facing newspapers. Edited excerpts:

Do you plan to launch ‘The Guardian’ in India?

I would love The Guardian to be more prominent in India. The two countries that most interest me are India and America. I think a printed product will be difficult in India. The complicated rules (for newspapers) that say you can only get 26% (foreign investment).

At 26%, anecdotally, the people who have come have sometimes had their fingers burnt. They don’t know the market, they come with a partner… partnerships are good but they don’t always work.

Will you come if the FDI (foreign direct investment) limit is raised?

Well, I think so. We are very open to anybody who has bright ideas. The Guardian will be a very unusual organization in about 10 years. It is already. Effectively, the number of organizations that will be able to do international high quality news like us, there are not many of them around.

But isn’t ‘The Guardian’ losing £100,000 a day?

The worst moment was 2009. We were. Our losses were heavy, but relatively low. The sale of newspapers in the UK has dropped by 25% in the last five years.

Your newspaper is run by the Scott Trust. Are you under pressure to make profits?

They are not too concerned about making profits but I think they would like to make smaller losses. Most of the 15 years I have been in charge, the paper has been profitable. It started losing money four years ago. This year they (losses) will be about £20 million including digital The Guardian and The Observer.

You have been editing ‘The Guardian’ since 1995. How have you managed to re-invent yourself?

It’s so different from what the job was when I started. The issues facing us are so complex that you wake up every week being completely challenged by what is happening.

We started our website in 1998. And then there was the period between 1998 and 2004 where everyone thought they have got the Web. In 2004-05, we had a big thing in the UK where everyone was experimenting with different shapes of the newspaper. That was a tremendous distraction really, because in the end it did not make any difference to anybody’s newspaper sales. And the point where (Web) 2.0 was just taking off… And now it is mobile… Every time you think ‘I am on top of it now’, it changes.

Your views on universal pay walls are known—‘The Guardian’ site is free. But how can digital media make money?

The honest answer is nobody knows at the moment. Some people build pay walls, I am not sure if they are right. We made £40 million from digital. We get two million clicks a day. The current form of advertising model will get us some of the way there, but not all the way. We are going to get used to getting by with less money.

Do you believe in integrated newsrooms?

I think journalists work much harder than they used to. Some of that is good…they have the capacity to do more. You have to be careful not to work everybody full pelt all the time. There are things to be gained from reflection, having time to think.

The menace of paid news in India is growing. Do regulatory codes help?

I am trying to think if it happens at all in the UK. Some newspapers publish sponsored supplements. That’s the nearest we get to it. Advertising supplements are clearly labelled. We have the Press Complaints Commission even though many people think it is in the pocket of the newspapers. A code is drawn up by the industry. We say we promise to do X, Y, Z. If you break that code, people can complain to the commission that will mediate.

Do newspapers follow the code?

Most newspapers will. Although there is no penalty, it’s not a great thing to have (a complaint) on your record.

Do newspapers have private treaties in the UK?

You mean investment in companies? We have an investment arm, but I don’t know what they invest on. We have £200 million under management by our investment company. I know the rough balance of risk but I don’t know the individual companies.

Are you an editor who is chained to the chair?

I am here in India. As editors, you become close to politicians. I don’t like that idea because I think it is fraught with difficulties. On the other hand, if you never leave the office you lose touch… There has to be a balance between the two. I hope I have got the balance right. It’s not a traditional newspaper frankly because we do not have a proprietor. So I don’t like throwing my influence around trying to imagine that I could make or break people. I would rather lead a team of people who are completely free to say what they want.

How do you relax?

I play the piano every day in the morning to settle my mind. I play the clarinet and I chair the National Youth Orchestra. It is very important as a journalist to try something outside journalism. Journalism I think can be a very obsessive job. Every year for a week I go to a piano course in France. I try and spend the whole year learning one big thing.


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