Earlier this year, then-editor in chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, sat down at a board meeting with one clear goal: to convince the others that The Guardian should divest from fossil fuel companies, just as the publication’s new climate change campaign would be urging others to do.
“Alan, will you go ahead with [the campaign] if The Guardian doesn’t divest?” asked multimedia editor Francesca Panetta when Rusbridger left the meeting room.
“I think we have to,” Rusbridger replied. “I think if the board don’t agree, I will ignore the board and run the campaign anyway.”
That bit of revealing dialogue wasn’t shared with CJR by an inside source. It was caught on tape and published on The Guardian’s podcast, which follows the climate change campaign’s development from the inside. (The Guardian did end up divesting, episode four explains.) Starting when Rusbridger first announced his idea for the campaign in an email to staff on Christmas Eve last year, and ending when he packed up his office as editor in chief last month, The biggest story in the world airs arguments and opinions as the team discussed the campaign’s ethics, execution and effectiveness. Every editorial meeting was recorded, and the podcast’s 12 episodes were edited from over 80 hours of tape collected over four months.
As Rusbridger’s final legacy project, the aim of the overall campaign was to find a way to have fresh impact on a subject that journalism has so far failed to influence. Some have criticized The Guardian for practicing advocacy, while others, such as CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, have praised the publication’s focus on real-life impact.
The Guardian has published nearly 200 pieces as part of the campaign since it launched in March, which altogether have reached a total of around six million pageviews, and over 203,000 signatures for a petition urging the world’s biggest charitable funds to divest from fossil fuel.
The podcast itself reached about 400,000 listeners in the first three months, a number which Guardian head of audio, Jason Phipps, says compares quite well to other Guardian podcasts that generally count 140-200,000 monthly listens. But Phipps expects the podcast will have a longer lifespan with the Paris COP21 coming up in November.
The team behind the podcast is meeting with new Guardian editor in chief, Katharine Viner, this week to decide if production will continue. In the meantime, CJR spoke with the podcast’s executive producer, Francesca Panetta, about recording behind the scenes as one of the world’s largest media organizations ponders how to tell one of the biggest stories in the world.
How did you get the idea for the podcast?
Alan [Rusbridger] had the idea to start recording meetings. He thought it would be compelling material to hear what was happening behind the scenes in the process, but didn’t quite know what the format would be.
I like pieces with a very clear narrative structures, so I formed it into what I thought would be a compelling listen, with a sense of jeopardy and tension, both within each episode but also within the series as a whole.
When Serial really took off, many commentators pointed to the audience’s interest in the journalistic process as one of the explanations behind its success. Were you conscious of that potential when you started producing your podcast about the inner workings of The Guardian?
There is a little bit of mystique around large media organizations and journalism, and people are really interested in knowing how it works, and who the journalists are. We’ve done similar things in various different forms, from an open weekend to various events where people can meet the journalists, so I had a pretty good sense that there would be an appetite for that kind of story.
Listeners wrote to me and I got the feeling they liked getting to know the characters behind these stories that had been really heavily pushed out. We also got funny comments like, Oh, I didn’t realize you argue in your editorial meetings. Of course we do, but it was interesting that some thought it didn’t work that way here.
Do you think large media organizations are getting better at meeting that interest?
I haven’t seen other organizations do it, but I think you need to be quite brave. You might recognize the interest, but then actually putting yourself on the line is a different question. Just because people want to know what goes on behind the scenes doesn’t mean the media wants to open their doors.
The podcast takes listeners inside editorial and board meetings, and Guardian staff talk openly about their qualms with the campaign. What kind of access did you have?
I’ve never had this kind of access when making stories before. No one asked to hear edits, and everyone was really good about trusting me with all this material that shows their personalities, and their work processes. Having that kind of immediate access to report absolutely anything, and literally be on the scene all the time, was really fun.
How did journalists and editors react to being recorded?
There was a bit of reluctance at first until the first one or two episodes came out, and everyone could see that I wasn’t trying to stitch them up. Then they really enjoyed it, and just wanted to be part of the podcast.
The investigations episode was quite a tricky one. Investigative journalists work very much on their own, their sources are really important to them, and their investigations might not go as hoped. So asking them to lay out what they hoped to get, and saying, “We’re going to follow you in this process”, that was really tough for them. We had to really ask them to have confidence in the team.
But there has definitely been a change in culture over the nine years I have been at The Guardian in terms of different parts of the organization collaborating in new ways. Journalists come to me earlier and say, this might be a good film as well as a print piece, or, this might be an interactive.
The campaign aspired to find a new way of talking about climate change. Was the podcast part of that attempt to create a new media narrative?
Interestingly, it was. The podcast was trying to be a fly-on-the-wall, objective documentation of The Guardian’s process, and I was very keen not to be part of the campaign. We deliberately picked a non-Guardian narrator [Aleks Krotoski] to present it because we didn’t want to talk about “us”, we wanted to talk about “The Guardian.” But ironically, by doing something that was slightly different and showing climate change in a different way, I think we did end up being part of the new narrative.
Why did you choose to document the campaign through a podcast, and what were your inspirations?
Audio is very personal. I think these recordings give you the sense of actually being there, getting to know the characters, and I think that’s something audio can do.
Serial was an inspiration in terms of narrative form. We were interested in how you continue tension through a 10-12 part series that’s essentially a quite static behind-the-scenes story. So was Serial, which used a lot of audio material from 20 years ago.
There are lots of audio projects, especially in the States, that are doing creative things, and showing that there is an audience for audio production if you put an effort into it.
In Europe, we have a tradition of rich sound design. Our podcast is heavily textured with layers of sound whereas something like Serial would mostly be one layer of speech and a music track underneath. We used that style of American storytelling that’s very popular at the moment, but brought some European aesthetics to it.
Is there future potential for this type of behind the scenes stories at The Guardian?
Climate change, as the whole series says, is a very difficult subject to report on but through the proxy of a story about journalism it gave the nuts and bolts of climate change while making it enjoyable to listen to. I could imagine doing something like this again for a big investigation, or data-heavy story. Showing process makes a story quite digestible and enjoyable, and following the journalists from beginning to end would be a really strong way of telling such a story.Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.