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October 15, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:40am

Alan Rusbridger on how to manage perpetual newsroom change: ‘I’m your leader, trust me – is not going to work’

By Alan Rusbridger

As editor of The Guardian from 1995 to 2015 Alan Rusbridger led The Guardian from nowhere (online) to being one of the most popular news websites in the world. Here he shares his insight into managing the transition from legacy to digital media.

There was the reporter who refused to tweet a verdict from court – “thin end of the wedge.” The sports writer in another time zone who insisted on dinner after the match and before filing. The columnist who declined to allow comments under their columns. The wordsmith who wouldn’t take a snapshot with their iPhone.

In each case it was a change too far. They were unwilling participants in a revolution they didn’t want. They had little faith in the direction of travel and, sorry, but they had to take a stand.

As an editor, you could see their point. The world that was melting away at an alarming rate had been a comfortable one. The world replacing it was anything but.

The old economic model was clearly failing – but who could say with any confidence that the new one would work? Journalists who were experts in one medium (words) were being asked to “multitask” (ugh!) in others (video, pictures, blogs, data, audio.) There was an entirely new relationship with the audience. And then there was social media: Use it? Ignore it? Blow it up? As for metrics….

So there were lots of reasons not to change. And yet a high degree of certainty that if you trod water for too long you might soon no longer be in business.

What did I learn from trying to steer The Guardian through 20 years of an unrelenting force ten blizzard of change?

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1) Conventional leadership would not work. There was no point in standing in front of your colleagues and saying “I’m your leader: trust me.” So much was out of our control that we were bound to make mistakes and change our minds – regularly. Within weeks of making a decision that seemed perfectly rational we’d have to reverse it. We tried something: it failed. We tried something else. Sometimes we were right. We had some of the best digital brains in the business – and still it felt we were looking into a misty crystal ball. So saying “trust me” to a group of people who are professionally trained to be sceptical was a hopeless plan.

2) A better idea was to expose your colleagues to the thought journey you and your senior team had been through. We sometimes asked respected reporters to lead sessions in which their peers would be given hypothetical problems to solve. As often as not the group would end up with the solution we, ourselves, thought was right. But the most important point was that, even if others disagreed with a decision, they had been forced to confront the logic that led to it. When this process worked, the doubters (who, themselves, were sometimes proved right) no longer felt buffeted by apparently random and irrational instructions imposed from above.

3) We did our best to be upfront about the certainty of uncertainty.

4) Hire optimists. This was actually advice given to me by Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post – and it’s good advice. “It’s the one quality I value above all others,” he told me. “It’s hard enough getting through this revolution. You have to work with people who get out of bed believing it’s possible… and fun.”

5) Keeping asking yourself “What’s the core business we’re in?” That sounds like a remarkably basic question to be asking – but the more things changed all around it was essential to keep reminding ourselves of what we did best, or why we were here.

6) “What business do our readers think we’re in?” With The Guardian, it turned out that one of the things they valued most highly was the bit that, in conventional P&L terms, should have been the first to go: investigations. We kept going – uncovering toxic dumping, torture and rendition, tax avoidance, phone-hacking, food safety, arms dealing, war crimes, state surveillance. The readers’ response: if you keep doing that we’ll happily support you.

7) Communicate. All the time. At the times of most disruptive upheaval we would talk with the staff in groups of up to 20, even if it took 25 or more breakfasts, lunches and afternoon meetings to go through the same material and listen to the response. At times there would be a degree of anger, denial – or just sadness – in the room. But it seemed better to allow it all out rather than remain unspoken.

8) Always remembering that “communication” is a two-way, not a one-way, process.

9) Criticise the tech giants all you like – they deserve a great deal of scrutiny and a fair amount of blame – but also learn from them. That means using them in your personal, as well as professional, lives. And being curious as to why more than 2bn people are on Facebook; or 330m on Twitter; or 430m on Reddit. They must be doing something right.

10) Trust – or lack of it – is one of the biggest problems facing news organisations, along with a whole raft of other institutions, in the world today. Reflect on how the horizontal world of peer-to-peer communications is building techniques of trust. As often as not it is about two-way communication (see 7&8, above) as well as showing evidence.

It goes without saying that my own record on all the above was, like most people’s, mixed. At any time on The Guardian a third of the staff felt we were moving too slowly to address the evident threat posed by the new digital world. A third thought we were chasing impossible dreams far too quickly. And a third had no strong views one way or the other, but were more likely to go along with the direction of travel if they felt fully informed about what it was.

All change is difficult. Perpetual change is twice as hard – as well as being exhausting and, at times, quite frightening.

I would love to hear from others (see 8) their own techniques of change.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian 1995-2015, chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. His book, Breaking News, appeared in 2018. His latest book, News and How to Use it, is published by Canongate in November.

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