First Read: The Mutualized Future is Bright

But we will need some help—from government and others—to get there

Recently, I was confronted with a legal obstacle that—possibly for the first time since we were founded in 1821—prevented The Guardian from reporting something that had happened in Parliament. We wrote a bafflingly cryptic front-page piece and I left the office feeling pretty fed up. But before sitting down to eat, I borrowed the restaurant’s computer to Tweet the fact of our gagging order.

By the time I got home that evening Twitter had gone into meltdown. Several diligent tweeters had discovered the banned information and had published it. By morning, the news of the injunction and the corporation behind it—a hitherto obscure London-based trading company called Trafigura—was familiar to millions of Twitterers throughout Europe. “Trafigura,” which had gone to law in search of anonymity—had become the most searched for term in the Twittersphere. By lunchtime their lawyers had thrown in the towel.

It was the latest example of what I think of as the mutualization of a newspaper. Our readers have become part of what we do. They write commentaries for our Comment is Free site—they have helped with investigations into tax avoidance and police brutality. They form communities around individual reporters and issues, lending a hand with research and ideas, bringing us up short when we get things wrong. They have collaborated on big projects needing resources beyond our scope. We have done things that would have been impossible without them. In return we give them a more diverse form of journalism and the visibility that comes from a platform that reaches some 30 million unique users a month—two thirds of them outside the U.K.

The term “mutualization” is not wholly fanciful. The Guardian is currently loss-making, but is supported by the Scott Trust, which owns a number of highly profitable businesses. The profits from the non-core businesses are there, according to the trust deed, to support The Guardian’s journalism in perpetuity. The idea of readers feeling a kind of ownership of our values and of our editorial content has a more cogent feel to it than if we were in more conventional ownership.

We are, I confess, an unusual organization. But I suspect more and more newspapers are looking at ways of moving beyond the “us” and “them” arguments of the last ten years and are exploring ways of collaborating with readers, bloggers, and other generators of ideas, words, news, analysis, pictures, and data. And it is perfectly evident from the work of Len Downie and Michael Schudson that a great many brains are engaged in trying to find alternative models of ownership and finance. The Scott Trust is one such.

In the U.K. we are less hopeful of rich philanthropists stepping forward—but that is true of our culture in general (and at least one such woman has endowed a center for investigative journalism nested in a university faculty). I like the idea of tax breaks and pioneering J-schools. The former gets round the pitfalls of direct subsidy; the latter really ought to be startling us with innovation and invention (including new ways of using official data) rather than preparing students for jobs that won’t exist.

In the end we have to confront the question of how we subsidize something society needs and where there is evident market failure. For the first time since the Enlightenment, communities are faced with the prospect of living without verifiable sources of news. Downie and Schudson’s report is the best attempt I’ve yet seen at capturing the numerous initiatives that are springing up to replace what used to be. And the authors are bold in suggesting that revenue streams or organizational focus will have to be diverted if we are to simply report the basics of what public authorities and the justice system are up to, let alone challenge them and hold them accountable.

This feels like some kind of emergency, and it is not clear to me that our legislators recognize that. The first instinct of journalists is to reject any kind of subsidy. I can well believe that instinct is more pronounced in the U.S. than in Europe. But print is declining faster than digital—particularly in a recession—can compensate for. There are things that societies need—including systematic coverage of public authorities—that new digital initiatives cannot yet adequately provide.

I’m an optimist, and I very much like the overall positive tone of this report. In the case of Trafigura, Twitter achieved something important for English law. There is much to be excited about. But we may all need a little help along the way.

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Alan Rusbridger was formerly the editor in chief of The Guardian and The Observer in London.