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Living our values 2005

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Guardian reborn



The Guardian

While the Guardian had been looking for some time at changing format, the switch of the Independent and the Times to tabloid size forced us to make some fairly swift decisions.

The Guardian's circulation had remained rock steady during the 1990s newspaper price war despite our refusal to slash our cover price to match our competitors. But the desertion of a chunk of our readership to the new tabloids showed that size did matter.



Following our competitors into the tabloid arena did seem at first like an attractive option. It would be cheaper, quicker and would choke off the loss of sales. It was not even a new idea, having been considered by us at various times over the last 20 years. But in the pit of his stomach the Guardian editor felt it was not right; that such a move would make it difficult to maintain the paper's commitment to quality journalism.

Months of watching the Independent served only to confirm this view, with its editor freely admitting he had changed it from a newspaper into a "viewspaper".

Rusbridger believes both the Independent and the Times have to varying degrees been seduced by the extraordinary success of the Daily Mail. "I have nothing against the tabloid form itself," he says. "But it wasn't clear to me that you could compete in this - the most competititve sector of the most competitive market in the world - without adopting pretty much the same techniques as all the others. How dull and dowdy plain old straight news would look."

So we needed to find another way. Rusbridger was convinced, in the same way his predecessors were, that news should remain at the core of the newspaper. The great Guardian editor CP Scott, on the paper's centenary in 1921 wrote: "A newspaper's primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted."

The mid-size Berliner format provided an answer. Staying true to our journalism, but placing it in a more convenient package.

This strategy is not without risk. For many, especially those who are time-pressed or feel politically excluded, the offering of some of our competitors can at first appear attractive: headlines that shout, skimming over detail, celebrity gossip and plenty of entertainment.

But we believe there is a price to pay for this dumbing down. Rusbridger explained the reasons in his Hugo Young lecture: "If readers don't have the time or appetite for much complexity, does that mean we shouldn't give it to them? Running a health service in 2005 (or an army, or a policy service or a major public company) is intricate, complicated and - except for those involved - perhaps not very interesting. Not many people on their ride to work are going to want to bury themselves in the difficult detail.

"So shall we pension off the correspondents who know these subjects inside out? And if we did, what would that do to the political process? Would we end up reinforcing a pattern of ignorance, or carelessness about things that actually matter to us all, when we choose to think about it? How would that affect the political process? At its mildest it might simply frustrate politicians, unable to get their message across. Or it might create a breed of politicians who felt they could get away with more or less anything because the main medium of political communication had abandoned the territory.

"These are big challenging questions. And, as we've sat down and grappled with them over the past 18 months, we've been struck by how muted the debate was out there, in society at large."

This was not, however, the case inside the Guardian where a vigorous debate took place within the editorial departments about the content. We were aware that the increasingly competitive nature of the media sector had, over time, led to a drift away from traditional standards of reporting across the industry as papers sought to grab the attention of potential readers.

We were not exempt from the charge of sometimes stepping across the line in terms of exaggerating stories to make them appear as strong and interesting as possible.

To counter this, we looked at the US model of journalism, which has an institutional separation between news and comment and seeks to be completely "objective" in its news coverage.

But a number of journalists felt the Guardian would suffer if it followed the American way. One said: "I find the big American metropolitan papers excruciatingly boring ... We have to tread carefully not to lose the exuberance that makes our papers fun." A former US correspondent added: "I would hate it if the Guardian became so passive and ponderous."

The result of this debate was to find a Third Way. In a presentation to his senior editors, Rusbridger introduced his vision for the paper's journalism saying that it was not realistic to be completely objective, but that we should strive to be fair: "There are such things as verifiable objective facts; they are the building blocks of any story. Beyond that, there are numerous complications of the sort they teach in the better sort of journalism school. We accept that, from the moment reporters write an intro, they are introducing an element of subjectivity into an article ... We want good writing - including writing brimming with passion and humour and immediacy. We don't want over-statement, hyperbole and lazy acceptance of prevailing ideas and journalistic lines.

"Our specialists are paid to be intensely knowledgeable about their particular fields. We want them to give depth, context and cogent analysis. We don't pretend that they have an opinion-bypass on the way to work each morning. That knowledge and those opinions are among the reasons they're good reporters.

"The important thing is that the reader knows what they're getting. If something looks like a straight news story and reads like a straight news story, that's what it should be. It shouldn't be laced with opinion. There's plenty of room for opinion in the paper - including, on occasions, in the news pages. It just needs labelling or signalling.

"On the Guardian, as on other British papers, there's less of an internal division between news and comment. Both are edited by the same person, for one thing. On big American papers it's rare for the person who controls the news pages to have any say over the comment columns. There's a reason for that: it's their way of sending a message to readers that the paper's beliefs won't influence the reporting.

"In Britain, many readers are sceptical about the extent to which newspapers can separate the two parts of their function. In some cases, they're right to be sceptical. Many papers have proprietors with strong views which find direct or indirect expression in their pages. Others have a different tradition of editing. One or two strongly ideological people at the top can have a disproportionate effect on coverage of specific subjects.

"One of our great strengths is that we have no proprietor. There's no one telling us what to think. We would be crazy to throw away that advantage by over-indulging individual obsessions or submitting to forms of group-think.

"Again, one of our important advantages is the loyalty of our core readers. But we should never make assumptions that all/most/many Guardian readers share "our" assumptions about most subjects.

"A sense of perspective is valuable. We carry more weight and authority the more we stand back and coolly use journalistic techniques rather than adopt positions."

"In many cases, the conventional wisdom of one age can seem foolish, partial or blinkered in time. And, even where most of the arguments seem to us clearly stacked on one side, we should still reflect the other side of the debate.

"Exceptions might include great social evils such as apartheid or issues such as HIV and climate change. But even with HIV or climate change, the issues, or solutions, are so complex that they are not reducible to sloganising.

"In all this we need regularly to step back from the all-absorbing business of producing the paper each day. Are we sometimes guilty of the very things we dislike in papers whose politics and style are the opposite of ours? Are we aware enough of how things which seem normal and justifiable to us may seem odd or suspicious to others? We all know why anonymous sources are sometimes necessary. Do we think often enough about how they seem to readers? And if we did, would we work harder either to be more precise in our sourcing, or to explain why a particular source wishes to shelter behind anonymity?"

Trust

All media organisations are having to think about trust. Surveys make dismal reading, with journalists stuck at the bottom of the league table along with politicians and estate agents.

A poll carried out by the Committee of Standards in Public Life showed that only slightly more than a third of people trust what they read in quality papers. This compares with a figure of 7% trust in red top papers such as the Sun.

While surveys of our own readers and website users every year show they have a high degree of trust in what we write, research ahead of the Guardian relaunch has also shown that the readers of other papers are much more wary about the impartiality of our content.

The research showed that readers with a particular loyalty to one paper tend to have strong preconceptions of others which can often distort their impressions of the actual product. In the case of non-Guardian readers there is still a minority that cling to the old stereotype of the Guardian as being the paper for the mueslieating, sandal-wearing, public-sector employed set.

They generally perceived the paper as having a marked character, even an agenda:

· A paper that existed to present a particular view of the world.
· Not a paper that sought to be objective, or to present a spectrum of different points of view.
· A paper for people who shared its view of the world, and therefore not a mainstream paper

Perhaps the strongest views came from Daily Mail readers who saw the Guardian as a pretentious paper for pretentious people.

Yet asked to read the Guardian for a week, their views changed markedly. The Mail readers, in particular, found the Guardian much more accessible, enjoyable and rewarding than they had anticipated.

Rusbridger says: "Almost every bit of research we have ever done comes up with the idea of club or fortress. Inside is a terribly nice place to be and outside is terribly forbidding."

He is determined to banish the old stereotypes but acknowledges that potential readers will continue to distrust us if we peddle political line in our reporting. He told his editors: "Political lines come in many shapes and forms. There's a mindset in presentation and editing which may repel people as much as overt bias in writing. The politics of nuclear power matter as much as the politics of Westminster.

"We are not going to change our overall political viewpoint. We remain a liberal, progressive internationalist newspaper. But we should reflect a wide variety of views, both in the news pages and in comment. This is out of several motives. First, out of fairness; second because complexity demands it; third, because the sort of people who read us or who may be attracted to us are the sort of people who want to be exposed to all sides of a debate. They will usually want to make up their own mind. Finally, because it sets us apart from papers with strong ideologies, which exclude all but the dominant favoured political arguments from their pages."

As part of our drive for greater trust in our news coverage, we invited Bill Kovach, chair of the US-based Committee of Concerned Journalists, to hold a series of workshops for editorial staff. The committee is a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics worried about the future of the profession.

The chairman Bill Kovach has written a book called the Elements of Journalism, which examines the character of the profession at the beginning of the 21st century.

The Guardian's editor was so impressed by the book, which is a must-read for all journalism students in the US, that the Guardian has now published it in this country so that the information gets wide distribution here too.

Parallel

As well as carrying out our own internal research, the Guardian was also keen to test out John Lloyd's hypothesis in his book What the Media are Doing to Our Politics that the loss of trust was partly the result of the press operating in a parallel universe.

In January 2005 we asked a cross-section of leaders - from judges to bishops and arts administrators, from trade unionists and security chiefs to health service managers - to respond to Lloyd's assertion. We dedicated 20 pages of our MediaGuardian section to their unedited views. They were prefaced by the late Anthony Sampson in his last essay. As Sampson observed, the respondents overwhelmingly agreed with Lloyd. "There can be no doubt," he wrote, "about the genuine anguish of many distinguished people who feel aggrieved or simply resigned to the misrepresentations of the press."

What was notable was the almost complete absence of any response. One or two media commentators dismissed the 50 writers, more or less asking, "What do they know?" Not one of the 50 was asked on to any radio or TV programme to discuss the subject.

Following its publication, a senior executive at one of the tabloids said: "Why is Rusbridger taking all this so seriously. Doesn't he know that this is just a game we are all playing."

The response on the Guardian editorial floor was not that much more encouraging, according to the paper's readers' editor. In his weekly column, he wrote: "Slightly alarmingly, when I walked round the Guardian asking journalists what they had read of the debate, some had read none of it ... Some of the responses to an electronic poll I conducted later among Guardian journalists were no more encouraging."

While a few journalists saw some value in the exercise, one who had read it all said: "I thought was useless both as a journalistic exercise and also as a response to Lloyd ... What we got was a lot of whingeing, grumpy intellectuals who are usually - rightly - ignored."

Rusbridger said there could only be three explanations for this overall negative or muted response within the industry.

· One is that journalists, as gatekeepers of all debates, do not want this particular debate to get off the ground.
· The second is that journalists genuinely can't see a problem. They may be in denial, or, like many groups and professions, they're poorly placed to judge on the issues that most closely affect themselves.
· The third is that journalists do see the problem, but they believe that it's a problem endemic in the very nature of journalism.

"All three explanations are potentially alarming," he said. "Where other organisations and institutions and professions or trades benefit from precisely the sort of debate that the media, at its best, is good at stirring up, the media itself may be operating in a cocoon of absent - or denied - debate."

To start redressing this balance, Rusbridger and other figures both within and outside the industry have been actively supporting plans to set up a media academy at a UK university.

He said: "There will always be people within the media who will - at least at first - find this sort of scrutiny deeply threatening. But, if the centre worked as it should, it might help us to think through some of the most challenging questions journalists in this country have ever been required to address."

Transparency

The Guardian and the Observer already do more than most to foster a more open and interactive relationship with our readers.

We were the first UK papers to create independent ombudsmen. The Guardian has published its own editorial code of conduct (guardian.co.uk/information) that goes beyond the requirements of the Press Complaints Commission and both papers have published their own style guides (guardian.co.uk/styleguide). The guides, which are constantly updated, are not just about a list of rules to follow and mistakes to avoid. You only have to consider the way some newspapers report on, say, mental health or asylum to realise that the language used ("psychos", "bogus"), as much as the views expressed, hinders rather than furthers public understanding of such issues.

We also have a policy of striving to be transparent when writing about companies, people or activities with which we have a financial relationship. With the Berliner we have now gone another step in opening up our processes to scrutiny by readers.

At the time of launch, the Guardian set up an editors' blog. This gave the editor, section editors and others the opportunity to keep readers in touch with the reasoning behind some of the decisions and allowing readers to respond, which they did in large numbers.

One complaint voiced in more than a thousand emails and phone calls in the first couple of days was the loss of the Doonesbury cartoon in G2. Section editor Ian Katz illustrated the Guardian's ability to listen and respond quickly by promising to reinstate it. He wrote on the editors' blog: "OK, OK. I'm coming out with my hands in the air. I'm walking ... very ... slowly. Please don't shoot! I was the man who bumped Doonesbury from the new G2 and who, as several of you have pointed out, failed even to extend the courtesy of warning you in advance. Apologies for the last bit for starters.

"Happily this particular error of judgment unlike many of the countless others I have made) is easily put right: Doonesbury will be back in G2 from Monday. And I'm sorry, once again, that I made you - and the hundreds of fellow fans who have called our helpline or mailed our comments' address - so cross. The good news is that we now know just how strongly you feel about it and no damn fool features editor is going to mess with it for at least 25 years."

Another item posted on the editors' blog gave an insight into the discussions that regularly take place about the Guardian's news values. The morning editorial conference - the only one in Fleet Street that is open to all editorial staff - on the day after the paper's relaunch was dominated by a debate about the front page. Some thought that we should have taken the same decision as some other papers by leading the paper on the England cricket team winning the Ashes rather than the chosen piece on doubts over the value of the government's flagship Sure Start scheme to help deprived preschool children. While the Ashes may have been the populist choice, the editor made it clear we wouldn't be the paper we are if we didn't lead on such an important social story.

Fairness

Another key value we believe sets our papers apart is our desire to express the enormous diversity of views in our society, regardless of whether we actually agree with them or not.

This has a long tradition inside the Guardian, and was enshrined in CP Scott's centenary editorial in 1921: "The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard."

Even before the relaunch, the Guardian was offering a broader range of voices than any other English language paper: rightwing US Repubicans and communists, Islamists and Israeli settlers, social conservatives and libertarians.

But we have now gone several steps further. The Comment & Analysis section has been renamed Comment & Debate to reflect our desire to open up discussion further. Regular commentators now include the former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings as well as the ex-editor of the Times Simon Jenkins.

Beyond that, we are seeking to move away from the old belief that newspapers are one-dimensional and can only talk at their audience. Instead we are moving towards creating a meaningful two-way dialogue with our readers. We are publishing a new Response column four days a week that gives those in the news an opportunity to respond. This is more prominent than the traditional letters would be able to afford.

We have added an "other voices" element to the news pages, which allows for alternative angles on events. For instance alongside an article on the New Orleans disaster, was the view of baker from Kabul about Afghanistan's $100,000 donation to the hurricane victims.

The obituaries pages, which traditionally describe the lives of the great and the good, the famous and infamous, has been broadened to include a section on people who had an impact on society but were out of the public eye.

It's not just the dead that we are celebrating, but also the living. In the G2 features section, there is a now a weekly article about unknown people who can be nominated for making a positive difference in their communities.

The Weekend magazine is regularly printing a selection of restaurant reviews from readers and better integration with our website means we can carry a number of voices online across all parts of the paper.





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