Breaking News: What’s happening to modern journalism?
We are, for the first time in modern history, facing the prospect of how societies would exist without reliable news,” Alan Rusbridger writes in Breaking News. He is, of course, referring to the onslaught of fake news which will be forever connected to Donald Trump. But why don’t we believe the news we read anymore? Are we, as students and consumers of news, becoming less trusting? Are we becoming more demanding, expecting better of our leaders? If so, why did we fall for Brexit and how did Trump become the ‘leader of the free world’? Alan Rusbridger, who was long-time editor of the Guardian, has (some) of the answers.
Breaking News is about a revolution in journalism, direct from the source. Rusbridger edited the Guardian from 1995 to 2015, years of fundamental change for the newspaper; an overwhelming shift to online news, the Edward Snowden revelations, Wikileaks and phone-hacking. Rusbridger paints a romantic picture of his early career; it was apparently a “lovely time” to be a local newspaper journalist, and when applying to join the Guardian, he gave what Peter Cole (then news editor) later described as “the worst interview he could remember.” He joined the Guardian alongside Nick Davies, and they “became lifelong friends… and got up to mischief.” Rusbridger’s descriptions sound pretty jolly - and all this is to say, journalism has changed.
But his account of working his way up to Guardian editor-in-chief, how he faced the rise of the internet and the onslaught of ‘fake news,’ is where Breaking News gets really juicy. One of Rusbridger’s wisest moves as editor-in-chief was long-term investment in online content from the moment that he took charge in 1995. In 2007 the Guardian began ‘the Great Integration,’ the pulling together of web and print divisions of the Guardian into one single news organisation, headed up by the same editorial management. This savvy move saved the Guardian, not only from online-focused readers but also from itself.
In September 2005, in an attempt to combat the rise of online journalism, Rusbridger bought expensive new presses and relaunched the printed Guardian in a new format: the Berliner. In essence, the Berliner is a print newspaper format which is both slightly wider and taller than a tabloid, and narrower and shorter than the broadsheet. At the time, he said it was done in order “to remain true to our journalism, now attracting a record worldwide audience online, while at the same time finding a modern print format for a new generation of readers in this country.” But it wasn’t his best move, which he acknowledges somewhat quietly and sheepishly in Breaking News because, at the time, Rusbridger was fully aware that “printed newspapers were in a remorseless slide to eventual oblivion: that much seemed overwhelmingly probable.” Knowing that, investing a lot of money, time and resources into a new Guardian-only format was not the wisest move. The Guardian in Berliner was “the ultimate development of a dying form” (according to Ian Jack, writing, ironically, in the Guardian.)
Between 1970 and 2016, around five hundred daily newspapers went out of business. Others cut their news coverage, downsized, or stopped producing a print edition. The Student - this very institution, the University of Edinburgh’s paper - was not immune. We followed suit by relaunching in the Berliner format, trusting in Rusbridger that this would herald in a new age of online and print dualism. But nobody else jumped ship with us, and what followed was multiple cuts to our print run and reliance on Cambridge print presses, the only ones which print in the rare Berliner (a long way away for a Scottish paper). This eventually ended in us switching back to Tabloid and a fortnightly print run last year.
Yes, how very shocking that we couldn’t keep up a weekly print run, considering our entirely unpaid staff and the rise of other popular online-only campus publications, magazines, and zines. But online-only publications serve a different purpose and audience, whilst producing brilliant content.
This loss of print journalism has given rise to something much worse than wallowing in nostalgia for the print press - as one New Yorker article put it, dead news has given rise to fake news. Breaking News opens with a simple question: “How do you know if something is true or not?”
Unsatisfactorily, we can’t really know. The news isn’t black and white, good or bad, just as the ‘truth’ often isn’t. Whilst a valuable pursuit, if quality journalism is going to pull through, we need to shift focus away from this obsession with the ‘truth.’ Rusbridger’s book is concerned with such a fight for quality journalism.
And according to him, “journalism was not an infallible method guaranteed to result in something we would proclaim as The Truth - but a more flawed, tentative, iterative and interactive way of getting towards something truthful. Admitting that felt both revolutionary and releasing.”
For young people growing up in an era of uncertainty, the debate about truth and fact checking must continue.
To learn how to do this, Breaking News is an excellent place to start.Image: Canongate.