Londonist was in Mile End last Thursday, attending Alan Rusbridger's inaugral lecture as the new Hugo Young Visiting Professor at Queen Mary, University of London. The subject of The Guardian editor's lecture, organised by a group of history postgraduate students, was 'Weblogs vs Journalism: The Future of Newspapers' and as you would perhaps expect, the delivery was sharp, erudite and at times, rather funny.
Rusbridger's premise was that in an era where newspapers across the globe are facing declining circulation rates and dwindling profits, there is no choice for the print media but to embrace the internet, whilst at the same time attempting to retain their core function as a trusted hunter-gatherers of news. Of course, no newspaper has embraced the internet quite like the Grauniad, whose latest online triumph is the five million and counting downloads of podcasts by that grinning idiot Gervais, so Rusbridger is pretty well-placed to deliver this kind of argument.
He began by using Craigslist as an example of how the internet has began to break the connection between advertising and editorial, with these kind of small-ad sites offering the kind of business model: free to buyer, free to seller, that the newspapers and their classifieds just cannot compete with. It has always been advertising revenues that have allowed newspapers to employ skilled journalists and send them around the world collecting news, with these revenues under threat from the internet, they are now being forced to re-assess their situation.
Rusbridger went on to elaborate on how the internet has changed the way newspapers relay the news to their readers. Traditionally, the papers adopted a 'tablet of stone' approach, they were the voice of authority handing down accepted facts and opinions to the grateful public. A small minority of readers might actually get in touch by letter and tell the paper what they thought, but this missives were easily dealt with. E-mail changed all that, forcing journalists to actually converse with their readers and forums, blogs and wikis allowed readers to talk to each other, creating a 'media of the self' with information on demand and more detail on every possible subject than you could ever find in a newspaper.
Where then, does the newspaper sit in this new, fragmented media world? Rusbridger maintained that it was pointless to try and compete for the attention of a younger generation with the myriad of views and opinions available in the 'blogosphere' (when the editor of the Guardian starts using that word, you realise that unfortunately it's here to stay) and that the print media must concentrate on providing a reliable stream of facts, they should be 'news' papers, not 'views' papers, relying on the skills of their journalists as valued observers and aggregators of news collected at source.
It was all very convincing, but we did wonder if with the planned expansion of Guardian Unlimited's blogging network, Rusbridger is attempting to cover all bases. If he really does believe that newspapers still have a central role to play, why not have the courage of his convictions and leave the blogosphere to the bloggers, letting his skilled journalists get on with the gathering of FACTS?
As the lines between professional and citizen journalists begin to blur, it is becoming clear that there are many of the old order who view the changing times with fear and suspicion, rather than excitement. There were some interesting words emanating from the audience on Thursday night, words like 'scary' and 'frightening', which make us ponder if there are few hacks out there who are becoming increasingly worried about hanging onto their expense accounts. Rusbridger is not one of those in fear, and it is probable that whilst he stays in charge, the Guardian will remain one step ahead of the rest.