Wednesday, January 5, 2022

"Breaking News" by Alan Rusbridger

Alan Rusbridger was editor of The Guardian from 1995 until he retired in 2015. His career spanned the years of the advent of the worldwide web as a significant force, the rise of blogging, the explosion of social media, and the smart phone turning everyone into a journalist. Aside from technology (a big aside), the same period saw a fundamental change in how reporters and editors covered the news; objectivity and balance were out, and “contextualizing” and “perspective” were in.  

The author doesn’t describe it this way in his memoir Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, but the press has returned to a kind of 19th century model of partisan reporting and quasi-sensationalism. The book was published in 2018, and it still reads like an up-to-date account of journalism in general and British journalism in particular. (His relatively brief discussion of Donald Trump and the charges of Russian collusion have now seriously outdated by the John Durham investigation.)


But Rusbridger and The Guardian realized something in the middle of all the technological change in communications – if The Guardian would survive, it had to look far beyond the shores of Britain and especially to the United States.


In a highly readable account, we learn how The Guardian grappled with the worldwide web, how Facebook and other social media were major gamechangers, and how audiences were increasingly global. He also notes what was most likely the most significant change of all – Craig’s List, which singlehandedly trashed the newspaper business model that had been in place for more than a century. When Craig’s List began appearing in different cities and offering classified ads for free, the major source of revenue for newspapers disappeared, and disappeared fast. 


Alan Rusbridger

He led the newspaper not only through technology change but also through some of the biggest stories of the last 25 years: 9/11, the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, Edward Snowden’s leaks (for which The Guardian won a Pulitzer Prize), Wikileaks, parliamentary scandals, the journalism phone-hacking scandal in the UK, and more. These are fascinating stories of how a major newspaper worked behind the scenes to cover these major events. 


Rusbridger read English at Cambridge University and then became a journalist. He worked for several local papers, The Guardian, the Observer, and the Washington Bureau of the London Daily News, before returning to The Guardianas editor of the Weekend Magazine, deputy editor, and finally editor. He’s now editor of Prospect Magazine, a UK political monthly. He’s also the author of Play It Again, a memoir of journalism and music, and News and How to Use It. He’s received a considerable number of awards, recognitions, and honorary degrees. He lives with his family in London.


Breaking News is the story of a journalist who sat atop a major newspaper for two decades, how news decisions were made, and how the changes engulfing the industry were met (not everything was successful). It’s an account of how journalism was transitioning at frightening speed from the traditional news model to something else, which has yet to emerge and be defined.

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