OFF THE GRID

The Guardian Smacks (in Its Way) the Times and Murdoch

Jan 26, 10 | 6:55 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Practically from the beginning of Internet time, the Guardian in London has been, among newspapers, the most aggressive and innovative adapter of the new medium. This is partly because it saw the possibility of playing on a much bigger stage than simply the UK—and, indeed, it has transformed itself, via the Internet, from a provincial, left-oriented paper into an international news brand.

Then, too, because of its unique structure—it’s backed by a trust whose other businesses are devoted to supporting the Guardian’s journalism—it seemed much more willing to experiment with the new medium. It saw early on that this was as much about journalism—and how the practice would change—as it was about business or technology.

Yesterday, Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, weighed in with a considered response to the Murdoch-led and New York Times to-follow paywall initiatives. Rusbridger’s point was twofold:

The Guardian stands to benefit, hugely so, from any move on the part of the Times to close itself behind a paywall—becoming the default online left-leaning quality paper.

And, too, the free web, with its ultimate integration of all content, represents a change in the nature of information itself. Newspapers cannot reasonably, or sensibly, cut themselves off from the wealth of other free information sources (schools, museums, scientific organizations, government databases, native websites, and social networks).

The Rusbridger response potentially reframes the debate. Up until yesterday, no reputable newspaper has truly articulated the reasons for staying free, nor dedicated itself to this model. Vowing to stay free, the Guardian becomes something of a spoiler. It is not outlandish to assume that the New York Times will lose as much as 90% of its traffic, with the Guardian scooping up a tidy piece of that. The Times no longer sees itself in a position to proselytize for its brand and its left-liberal authority; the Guardian, an inveterate proselytizer, may suddenly have the field to itself.

As for Murdoch and Rusbridger, this is a curious juxtaposition. Rusbridger has become something of a digital autodidact; temperamentally old-school, he has nonetheless crossed over into the new world. Murdoch, on the other hand, has stubbornly, belligerently, and, in an increasingly agitated state, denied this world.

In my many conversations with Murdoch, he would occasionally and with some anxious attention bring up Rusbridger, who can seem like a Delphic and mysterious character. Murdoch did not know quite what to make of Rusbridger and his Internet ambitions, seeing him as something quite different from a newspaper man, at least one in the Murdoch mold. He did not insult Rusbridger, as he does most of his competitors, but he didn’t quite regard him as someone he might ever want to be alone with either: “Kooky,” was his description. “And what’s with the way his hair falls in his face?” Murdoch asked once, scowling in his dark way, about Rusbridger’s bangs and mop-top. “How old is he? He looks like a kid.”

Anyway, the point is about opportunity, and the Guardian has positioned itself to take advantage of a big one, and temperament: Are you, unlike most newspaper people—and certainly not Rupert Murdoch or the cash-strapped New York Times—predisposed to new forms and to open-ended discussions of a hopelessly slippery nature.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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