How The Guardian went digital — and survived

We all want to know what’s going to happen to journalism in the next 10 years, 5 years, three months. The good news? Journalism has a bright future. The bad news? Newsrooms are going to have to “rapidly and erratically downsize the legacy media part of the business” in order to survive, Emily Bell told a roomful of journalists in Toronto on Thursday night. The director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism led a candid (and often hilarious) talk about the future of journalism.

Bell is the former director of digital content at the UK’s The Guardian, where she launched and helped the organization earn its reputation as a leading digital news innovator. Her visit to Toronto was hosted by Samara and Massey College and liveblogged via ScribbleLive.

At The Guardian, digital broke even in 2005. By 2010, 28% of its revenue came from digital. Bell credits The Guardian’s success (with a caveat that there’s no real “success” or “failure” online, considering how fast things move) to the oft-ignored, “unnamed technologists.”  The biggest problem facing journalists, she says, is not revenue, but relevance. “Commercial radio was going for 20 years before it became profitable. The printing press was running for 150 years before anyone saw a penny.” In other words: innovation comes first, and the money will follow (we hope).

Bell regrets that The Guardian ignored the likes of Google and other tech innovators for so long, when they should have been working with them to create better journalism. She remembers a meeting with a Google executive, who told her that “You journalists aren’t doing so well because you aren’t being responsive to your advertisers.” Her print colleagues dismissed the criticism, Bell embraced it. She gave her digital team the freedom to experiment, which they’ve been doing since the late 90s. Now, The Guardian is the third-largest English site in the world, boasting 37 million unique monthly visitors.

9/11 was the turning point for digital journalism, Bell said. “Everybody wanted information that was unmediated, from many sources, and they wanted to talk about it together.” was one of the few news organizations that offered that, which helped them discover a previously unknown American audience that they hadn’t even tried to solicit. It wasn’t an easy adjustment: news producers are reluctant to cede control to people not in their employ. But the result — a growing, loyal audience that felt included in the discussion — is extremely valuable currency in the digital journalism world.
Bell remembers an early visit to Canada to check out CityTV’s newsroom, which at the time was considered cutting edge news: it was sending out two-person reporting crews and built studios with glass walls for passerby to look in, two ideas the UK press didn’t think would catch on. They were wrong. (One audience member, watching from home, tweeted, “Where are Canada’s cutting edge media now?”).

The New York Times missed a huge opportunity by putting their columnists behind a paywall, Bell notes. This gave The Huffington Post a huge boost: not only were their columnists online, but the public was allowed to comment on their columns. “The Guardian took it even further by putting their highest paid, most respected journalists on a platform where anyone could comment on, and everyone can see it,” Bell said. The columnists had to get used to being criticized, but the move brought in a diversity of voices.

At The Guardian, Bell was adamant that the digital team must always be innovating — nary a two-month stretch went by when they weren’t trying something new, sometimes to spectacular failure (a Twitter TV show that Bell thought would be hilarious, for instance, was a flop).

There are plenty examples that worked: a huge story in the UK ignited over MP spending. Guardian competitor The Telegraph had the exclusive, and they had weeks to conquer the story in print. Bell wanted to conquer it online. So when the documents — including thousands of MP expense reports — became publicly available, a savvy technologist developed a widget that allowed readers to search through the documents in pursuit of irregular spending they could report to the paper. The widget asked readers to “investigate your MP’s expenses,” which proved to be irresistable: Readers ate it up, and the stories followed.

Bell recently left The Guardian, where she joked that she was “too old for digital,” for Columbia, where she is “too young for academia.” The Tow Center for Digital Journalism aims to discover a sustainable digital model, and Bell has launched a computer science/journalism degree to encourage a new breed of programmer-journalists.

Bell’s advice to news producers reluctant to fully embrace digital: Understand where the risk lies.  “We spent a lot of time thinking the risk in our business was in digital,” Bell said. Not true. While journalists are still teetering on the uncertain cusp of understanding, unsure where digital will take us, the true risk lies in the legacy business, where “costs are high, advertisers aren’t coming back, and, especially in print, it’s likely that readership won’t go up.” Considering those risks, investment in digital becomes a lot more logical.

What does a digital newsroom look like? It shouldn’t “look like every desk is run by someone who used to be in print and now they’re going to tell people what to do.” When first starting out in digital with The Guardian, she spent the first several weeks dictating to staff before realizing that true innovation lies in letting the digital team lead the charge.

Newsrooms that don’t try to integrate the digital department with their reporter resources are missing huge opportunities, and will likely be left behind. That’s what she means about the radical downsizing of newsrooms. “It’s not about protecting a legacy – it’s about moving forward,” Bell said. “If you don’t cherish your digital staff, they will leave.” A successful digital newsroom is composed of journalists with a digital mindset, and technologists with a journalistic mindset.

If your brightest minds are jumping ship, you aren’t likely to survive the storm.