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The Light Years

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Chris Rush | The Light Years | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2019 | 33 minutes (6,653 words)

 

Fate is a crazy bird, swooping down from heaven.

I’m in a helicopter — it’s inconceivably loud. Out the porthole, I see a blue bay and a tiny island. It’s Alcatraz, but I don’t know that. I barely know where I am. Across from me sits an angelic blonde woman, her lavender gown falling to the floor. On her lap rests a black attaché case and a Bible. She keeps smiling at me.

Why am I so afraid?

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Wonder Woman

Getty / Simon & Schuster

Mary Laura Philpott | I Miss You When I Blink | Atria Books | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,808 words)

 
People blame their parents for their flaws and eccentricities all the time. In interviews, in therapy, in memoirs, they enumerate the many ways their mothers fucked them up. It seems we can’t discuss the way we are without assigning some responsibility to the generation before. Anyone can do it.
 
 
Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was in first grade. My mother picked me up from school in our family Buick, as always. My dad, still in the early years of his medical career, was off working at the hospital most of the time, so the role of daily caretaker fell to her, as it did with most mothers then. She had been a schoolteacher before we were born—me, then my brother—and once she had us, she stayed home and we became her tiny class of two. When we were little, she was the one human being we saw most. She was our guide to how the world worked, not to mention our food source, our referee, our correctional officer, our chief entertainer—the de facto center of our universe.

That afternoon, I unloaded my Wonder Woman book bag onto the vinyl bench seat of our car and showed my mother the stack of papers we’d all been sent home with, a list of words printed on each page. Easy ones like love, candy, bike, and harder ones like breath, power, and understand. That week there was to be a spelling contest, winnowing the class down to the best spellers, ultimately crowning a champion.

Later that evening and every night that week, after my brother had been put to bed, she sat at one end of our green chenille sofa and I sat at the other as she called out two pages’ worth of words for me to spell aloud. I flailed around on the cushions, impatient, wanting to get down and read a book. “Why two?” I whined. “The teacher said one page a day.” My mom—in the same matter-of-fact tone she used for important edicts such as Stay out of the street; Eat your fruit; Go back and brush those teeth again, they’re still yellow—said, “Always do more than expected. That’s how you win.”

That’s how you win.

By the time the spelling bee started on Monday, I was ready. I moved on to the next round and did it all again on Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Thursday. When Friday came, sure enough, I clinched that spelling bee. I don’t remember if I got a medal or whether the other kids high-fived me, but I can vividly remember—as if she were standing in front of me right now—my mother’s beaming face. She raised her eyebrows and nodded as she broke into a smile. She was proud of me, and I was the Wonder Woman of spelling.

Had the term existed back then, my mom probably would have been deemed a tiger mother. She taught my brother and me to read when each of us were three, starting us out with Hop on Pop and Go, Dog, Go! In second grade, she offered me a Rubik’s Cube if I could ace my multiplication tables before the class deadline. In middle school, she woke us up every weekday at 5:45 a.m. to practice our piano. She never used cruelty—we weren’t chained in a cellar practicing fractions, although our protests may have sounded like we were. But through repeated practice, she made it clear that we were not fully prepared until we were overprepared, and that the desired goal, the only goal, was an A. Nobody makes a B in this house.

It was a simple rule—“work first, play later”—and it taught me that the natural order of things was to study hard, achieve your goal and receive the approval of your loved ones, and then (but not a minute before) relax.

We weren’t a family who held hands during the blessing or told each other we loved each other out loud, but the look on my mother’s face when I showed her an A+ said, “I love you.”

Good grades gave me evidence that, at least until the next test, I was secure in my place as a preferred person in my house and in my school and—probably, why not?—in the world. Naturally it stood to reason that the opposite was true as well. I remember the times I didn’t make good grades. There was a decimals test in fourth grade. After we got it back, everyone had to get it signed. I held it out to my mom, searching her face for a reaction as she put her signature on the page right next to the dreaded 80, feeling in my gut the absence of her smile. It was the absence of the ground beneath my feet. I may not have grasped decimals perfectly, but I could do this reverse calculation: If an A means You are loved and you belong here, then anything less than an A must mean You are not and you don’t.

When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you.

I came to rely on grades for my regular jolt of self-esteem. It’s a miracle I didn’t end up with a back injury from bringing all my books home every night in case I realized I needed to complete an extra assignment in something. It became my routine, one that lasted well past middle school into high school and even college, long after the days of bringing grades home for a signature: Study my ass off, panic that my run of luck was over and I’d fail, then get my grades back. The validation would rush to my head, a perfect high. Each hit set chaos into order. Every check mark, every gold star, confirmed it: I succeed, therefore I am.
 
 
Perhaps this is why misspelled words cause me a disproportionate amount of rage to this day. When I see mischievous spelled mischeivious I don’t just think, Hey, that’s wrong, I think, WHERE IS THAT WRITER’S SELF-RESPECT? Somewhere inside my brain, first-grade-me is also wondering, aghast, Don’t you want to be loved?

I had a freelance editing client years ago, a CEO who’d been at her job for decades. She refused to accept my edits whenever I removed the double spaces she placed after periods at the ends of sentences. Again and again, I’d strip out the extra spaces and send her documents back with single spaces, and she’d add the spaces back in. That was what she ’d learned in school, she insisted. I’d get purple in the face explaining that, yes, double spaces were required back in the day when everyone used typewriters but that modern word-processing programs had rendered obsolete the manual widening of the space between sentences. One space was the new rule. “Don’t you want to be right?” I’d say, exasperated. “I am right,” she ’d say. Maybe we were too much alike, an impossible match.
 
 
I worry that my kids will inherit my worst traits, that they’ll turn out too much like me, fixated on racing to the finish line with a perfect score. So when they walk through the door in the afternoons these days, I ask them what they had for lunch. I don’t actually care what they ate. I mean, I do—I’m their mother, so of course I’m concerned that they’re working their way around the food pyramid or the food train or whatever it is now. The lunch question is about something else.

We’re all a little weird thanks to our mothers. I’m carrying that tradition on with my own children.

I’d be thrilled if my kids made the dean’s list, and you better believe I make them learn those extra spelling words. But I also want my daughter to try a risky science experiment, and when it goes differently than expected, I want her to shrug it off and try another one. I want my son to bring home paintings and clay sculptures he’s proud of because they’re beautiful in his own eyes, not because they got him a good grade.

So I don’t ask them about their grades the minute they come home. Silently, I give myself an A+ for this move. I award myself an invisible certificate of achievement for parenting excellence, with high honors in nurturing a value system that emphasizes effort and curiosity over quantification. I do that because over in a little corner of my head, six-year-old-me sits on a big green sofa, clutching her spelling pages, wanting desperately to hear, Good job. She never left; she ’ll never leave. It’s too late for her, but not for them. They can be better than I am.

Maybe they’ll grow up to have a strange obsession with lunch, and blame me.
 
 
So there you have it.

When I was growing up, my mother was a hard-ass, and she turned me compulsive.

It’s all my mother’s fault.

* * *

Or:

When I was growing up, my mother was my cheerleader, and she made me successful.

It’s all to my mother’s credit.
 
 
Chapel Hill. First grade. My mom picked me up from school. Left to my own devices, I might have crammed those spelling pages back to the bottom of my book bag with the empty, peanut-butter-smeared sandwich baggies and the balled-up sweatshirt I hadn’t worn in a month.

But my mother intervened and changed everything. She had seen how quickly I took to books, how I’d sit and read, focusing until I got to the end of a story. She had noticed how naturally I recalled a word once I’d seen it a single time. She saw potential I could not have seen in myself at that age. She reached for that stack of spelling words.

And so my brother was sent to bed while I was allowed to stay up. I got to snuggle into the nubby pillows of the green sofa next to my mom as I learned tricks for training my brain to hold as much as it could. I found that if you spell a word out loud five times in a row, the sixth time is a snap.

“Hair. H-a-i-r. Hair,” I spelled.

“Yes!” she cried.

I started spelling words in conversation: “I’m going o-u-t-s-i-d-e now.” “Do I have to wash my f-a-c-e tonight?” My mother showed me how to bump up against what felt like the natural limits of my mind and then keep pushing into the territory that lay beyond.

When I won that spelling bee, I got a smile from my mom that no one else got. This wasn’t just regular love like all kids got from their parents. This was extra love, something more, just for me. It filled me up, and I would never again settle for anything less.

When I held out my math test with a B on it, she didn’t reward me with a smile, because she believed I could have made an A. In time, I believed I could make A’s, too. She held me to the standards she knew I could meet. As if running alongside my bike with a hand on my seat, then letting go, she guided me until I could excel on my own.

My work ethic helped me earn my way into opportunities that changed my life: contests, college, jobs, assignments. I became a person other people can count on, someone they trust to do a good job. I grew to think of myself this way, as a helpful person, a reliable person.

My mother the wonder woman made me a wonder woman, too.

* * *

Even small events can have a formative effect on our lives. Everything sinks into the soil.

That’s how I think of that first-grade spelling bee. Did it really change me from one kind of person into another? I suspect it was less a cause of my perfectionism than simply the first manifestation of it, but I remember it as a before-and-after marker on my timeline. My best guess is that something within me, some strand of DNA, was extra susceptible to the idea of quantifiable self-worth, and school was the perfect environment for it to thrive. (Seriously: a spelling bee for first graders? The 1980s were hard-core.) Plenty of other kids had strict parents, too, but they didn’t all become obsessive about grades. My brother grew up right alongside me, but when he got a B, he just went into his room and played his Bon Jovi tapes. Big deal.

Of all the genes parents pass down and values they instill, how does one take hold so much stronger than the others? How do two kids with the same genetic ingredients and upbringing turn into such different people? My brother became a high-achieving student, too, but also a sneaky, laid-back teenager, the kid who hid beer in our backyard tree house and laughed it off when he got caught. I became uptight and anxious, the one who religiously performed all three steps of the Clinique three-step cleansing system every night because the instructions said, Wash, tone, moisturize. He stood right next to me when my mother said, “Practice your piano for thirty minutes each while I’m at the grocery store.” So why did I slog through thirty minutes of Beethoven every time and then watch in fuming rage as he played video games? Does it even matter why?

It filled me up, and I would never again settle for anything less.

There’s not much I’d blame any parent for, honestly, now that I am one. Cruelty, neglect, abuse—absolutely—but word-drilling on the green sofa? No. We’re all a little weird thanks to our mothers. I’m carrying that tradition on with my own children.

What a job, to raise someone from birth to adulthood, bestowing upon them your knowledge and your values and, despite your best intentions, any number of traits you’ve inherited yourself. What a loaded task, to make every move, every day, in such a way that the impressionable larva-person in your home will see your example, process it into something within themselves, and grow layers of muscle and soul over it until she is a fully developed human being. And all the while, the little person you’re nurturing is fighting you—spitting out the broccoli, not wearing the helmet, rolling her eyes at your carefully chosen words of advice—–and you become constantly worn down even as you pour your energies into loving her.

My mom gave me all the tools she had, some of which I couldn’t use. She grew up to be a plant whisperer after helping her dad tend his garden in the wild green lot behind their little house outside Birmingham, Alabama, and she tried to teach me to be one, too. I used to follow her around our backyard, watching her reach into a mass of stems and leaves with her clippers and snip this bloom or that one to toss into her basket; then I’d sit mesmerized as she stuck them into vases and bowls, creating what looked like tabletop parade floats. She ’d coach me to do the same—“Here, put some greenery in, make it look softer”—and I’d stab a branch into the bunch, ruining the loose beauty of her arrangement. You point to anything with roots, and she can name it, arrange it, and/or cook it, and I can’t keep a pot of basil alive for longer than a week. Why didn’t that stick?

What did stick—whether she intended to pass it along or not—was her sense of humor. When it came to academics, my mom may have been a warlord zipped into the body of Sally Field, but the rest of the time, she cracked us up. Whenever a Little Richard song came on the car radio, she would bust a move at the wheel like a one-woman episode of Dance Fever. She let me play beauty salon and make dozens of tiny pigtails all over her head with my colorful plastic barrettes. When I was bothered by the fact that none of my Barbies had underwear, she sewed a complete trousseau of tiny lingerie. Like her, I love little visual absurdities (ah, the inherent hilarity of a teeny-weeny doll bra), dry one-liners and well-timed cracks, and perfectly executed, utterly insane mishmashes of curse words. (My mom, upon walking into a messy room: “It looks like the ass end of destruction in here.” The ass end of destruction!)

When I was seventeen, I might have told you I was a neurotic student because my mom was so tough about grades. When I was twenty-five, I might have shrugged and said, eh, maybe it was my mom who made me a control freak or maybe I’m just me, who knows. By the time I reached my thirties and had my own children, I knew perfect parenting was a myth, and I understood that while she was responsible for making me, she couldn’t have known how I’d end up made. No one could have. That’s a little mystery we all unfurl on our own.

* * *

 

“Wonder Woman” is an excerpt from the book I Miss You When I Blink © 2019 by Mary Laura Philpott, published by Atria Books on April 2, 2019.

Buy the book

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I’m Writing You from Tehran

House party in an affluent section of northern Tehran. Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Delphine Minoui | I’m Writing You from Tehran | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2019 | 32 minutes (6,421 words)

 

It all started with flowers. Flowers, everywhere flowers. And all those shouts of joy escaping from chadors. I remember that May 23, 1998, as if it were yesterday. The second of Khordad, according to the Iranian calendar. A year had gone by since Khatami was elected. The scent of spring permeated the Iranian capital. On Enghelab (Revolution) Street, Iranians were celebrating the first anniversary of his victory. I had landed in Tehran a few days earlier. I was staying with Grandmother, my last family connection to Iran since your passing. Despite her inordinate protectiveness, I had managed to extricate myself from her house. It was my first outing. To help pay for my journey, I had pitched a documentary project on Iranian youth to Radio France. In the West, Iran had become respectable again, and in Parisian newsrooms, questions were pouring in from all sides. Did Khatami’s victory signal the end of repressive theocracy? Was democracy compatible with Islam? What did “Generation K” — all those young people my age born under Khomeini; raised under his successor, Khamenei; and the main electors of the new president — dream of? The stipend for my freelancing only just about covered my plane ticket. But the idea of working for one of the biggest French media companies and being in the land of my ancestors was more than enough compensation for me.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Molly Redden, Sarah Schweitzer, Andrew Dickson, Namwali Serpell, and Lukas Hermsmeier. 

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The Day New York Rose Up Against the Nazis On the Hudson

A demonstration near the German ocean liner SS Bremen in New York, after Hugh Wilson, the American ambassador to Germany was recalled in the wake of Kristallnacht, 1938. (FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Peter Duffy | An excerpt adapted from The Agitator: William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism | PublicAffairs | March 2019 | 20 minutes (5,458 words)


Hear it, boys, hear it? Hell, listen to me! Coast to coast! HELLO AMERICA!
—Clifford Odets, Waiting For Lefty

Seven million New Yorkers, few of them in possession of the luxury item known as an electric fan, woke up to the best news in three weeks on Friday, July 26, 1935. During the overnight hours, the humidity plunged by 33 points. By sunrise, the temperate air from Canada had completed its work. The heat wave was over.

“Humidity Goes Into Tailspin,” the New York Post exulted. “Rain Ushers in Cool Spell,” declared the Brooklyn Eagle.

The New York Times and Herald Tribune didn’t make much of a fuss that morning over Varian Fry’s revelations about his conversation with Ernst Hanfstaengl. “Reich Divided on Way to Treat Jews, Says Fry,” was the cautious headline on page eleven of the Tribune. One faction of the Nazi Party, the paper went on in summary of Hanfstaengl’s comments to Fry, “were the radicals, who wanted to settle the matter by blood.” The other, “the self-styled moderate group,” wanted to “segregate the Jews and settle the question by legal methods.” The Times ran its version on page eight and devoted most of the article to Fry’s retelling of the Berlin Riots. “There were literally hundreds of policemen standing around but I did not see them do anything but protect certain cafés which I was told were owned by Nazis,” Fry was quoted as saying. The paper saved its preview of the Holocaust for the ninth of eleven paragraphs. The nation’s newspaper of record didn’t see the value in highlighting the disclosure that “the radical section” of Hitler’s regime “desired to solve the Jewish question with bloodshed.”

Reached for comment in Berlin, Hanfstaengl called Fry’s account “fictions and lies from start to finish.” Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Kurt Hutton / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Angella d’Avignon, Katie Englehart, Caitlin Dewey, Eric Benson, Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. 

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Navigation

People take a selfie in the Montrose neighborhood on August 25, 2018, in Houston, Texas. (Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

Bryan Washington | A short story from the collection Lot | Riverhead Books | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,120 words)

 
1.

It started how you’d think, with this whiteboy throwing up in an alley. I’d pulled a job at a taqueria dumping pig guts out back. The cooks gave me grunt work, the way they do when you’re starting out, like when my father had Javi and me pinching the shells off shrimp back in the restaurant as kids. It didn’t matter that I’d been fixing mole in Ma’s kitchen for years; I was short on money.

My managers looked like gauchos. Porno mustaches, bloated frames. They read my name and they saw my face and they pointed to the dishes. One of them told me I looked like a pinche negrito, y probablemente ni siquiera hablaba español, and I wanted to snatch his ears off but then I’d be out of a check.

So I should’ve left the whiteboy outside alone. I had enough on my plate.

But I stayed. Watched him heave. When he finished I came back with a glass of water.

He took me home. Dude had these little hairs climbing his belly. His eyes got wide at how furry my legs are. When we finished he gulped at the air in the room, he asked for my name as we were sliding down the futon, and when he couldn’t pronounce it the whiteboy gave me a new one. Read more…

How the Guardian Went Digital

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Alan Rusbridger | Breaking News | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | November 2018 | 31 minutes (6,239 words)

 

In 1993 some journalists began to be dimly aware of something clunkily referred to as “the information superhighway” but few had ever had reason to see it in action. At the start of 1995 only 491 newspapers were online worldwide: by June 1997 that had grown to some 3,600.

In the basement of the Guardian was a small team created by editor in chief Peter Preston — the Product Development Unit, or PDU. The inhabitants were young and enthusiastic. None of them were conventional journalists: I think the label might be “creatives.” Their job was to think of new things that would never occur to the largely middle-aged reporters and editors three floors up.

The team — eventually rebranding itself as the New Media Lab — started casting around for the next big thing. They decided it was the internet. The creatives had a PC actually capable of accessing the world wide web. They moved in hipper circles. And they started importing copies of a new magazine, Wired — the so-called Rolling Stone of technology — which had started publishing in San Francisco in 1993, along with the HotWired website. “Wired described the revolution,” it boasted. “HotWired was the revolution.” It was launched in the same month the Netscape team was beginning to assemble. Only 18 months later Netscape was worth billions of dollars. Things were moving that fast.

In time, the team in PDU made friends with three of the people associated with Wired. They were the founders, Louis Rossetto, and Jane Metcalfe; and the columnist Nicholas Negroponte, who was based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who wrote mindblowing columns predicting such preposterous things as wristwatches which would “migrate from a mere timepiece today to a mobile command-and-control center tomorrow . . . an all-in-one, wrist-mounted TV, computer, and telephone.”

As if.

Both Rossetto and Negroponte were, in their different ways, prophets. Rossetto was a hot booking for TV talk shows, where he would explain to baffled hosts what the information superhighway meant. He’d tell them how smart the internet was, and how ethical. Sure, it was a “dissonance amplifier.” But it was also a “driver of the discussion” towards the real. You couldn’t mask the truth in this new world, because someone out there would weigh in with equal force. Mass media was one-way communication. The guy with the antenna could broadcast to billions, with no feedback loop. He could dominate. But on the internet every voice was going to be equal to every other voice.

“Everything you know is wrong,” he liked to say. “If you have a preconceived idea of how the world works, you’d better reconsider it.”

Negroponte, 50-something, East Coast gravitas to Rossetto’s Californian drawl, was working on a book, Being Digital, and was equally passionate in his evangelism. His mantra was to explain the difference between atoms — which make up the physical artifacts of the past — and bits, which travel at the speed of light and would be the future. “We are so unprepared for the world of bits . . . We’re going to be forced to think differently about everything.”

I bought the drinks and listened.

Over dinner in a North London restaurant, Negroponte started with convergence — the melting of all boundaries between TV, newspapers, magazines, and the internet into a single media experience — and moved on to the death of copyright, possibly the nation state itself. There would be virtual reality, speech recognition, personal computers with inbuilt cameras, personalized news. The entire economic model of information was about to fall apart. The audience would pull rather than wait for old media to push things as at present. Information and entertainment would be on demand. Overly hierarchical and status-conscious societies would rapidly erode. Time as we knew it would become meaningless — five hours of music would be delivered to you in less than five seconds. Distance would become irrelevant. A UK paper would be as accessible in New York as it was in London.

Writing 15 years later in the Observer, the critic John Naughton compared the begetter of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, with the seismic disruption five centuries earlier caused by the invention of movable type. Just as Gutenberg had no conception of his invention’s eventual influence on religion, science, systems of ideas, and democracy, so — in 2008 — “it will be decades before we have any real understanding of what Berners-Lee hath wrought.”

The entire economic model of information was about to fall apart.

And so I decided to go to America with the leader of the PDU team, Tony Ageh, and see the internet for myself. A 33-year-old “creative,” Ageh had had exactly one year’s experience in media — as an advertising copy chaser for The Home Organist magazine — before joining the Guardian. I took with me a copy of The Internet for Dummies. Thus armed, we set off to America for a four-day, four-city tour.

In Atlanta, we found the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), which was considered a thought leader in internet matters, having joined the Prodigy Internet Service, an online service offering subscribers information over dial-up 1,200 bit/second modems. After four months the internet service had 14,000 members, paying 10 cents a minute to access online banking, messaging, full webpage hosting and live share prices.

The AJC business plan envisaged building to 35,000 or 40,000 by year three. But that time, they calculated, they would be earning $3.3 million in subscription fees and $250,000 a year in advertising. “If it all goes to plan,’ David Scott, the publisher, Electronic Information Service, told us, ‘it’ll be making good money. If it goes any faster, this is a real business.”

We also met Michael Gordon, the managing editor. “The appeal to the management is, crudely, that it is so much cheaper than publishing a newspaper,” he said.

We wrote it down.

“We know there are around 100,000 people in Atlanta with PCs. There are, we think, about one million people wealthy enough to own them. Guys see them as a toy; women see them as a tool. The goldmine is going to be the content, which is why newspapers are so strongly placed to take advantage of this revolution. We’re out to maximize our revenue by selling our content any way we can. If we can sell it on CD-ROM or TV as well, so much the better.”

“Papers? People will go on wanting to read them, though it’s obviously much better for us if we can persuade them to print them in their own homes. They might come in customized editions. Edition 14B might be for females living with a certain income.”

It was heady stuff.

From Atlanta we hopped up to New York to see the Times’s online service, @Times. We found an operation consisting of an editor plus three staffers and four freelancers. The team had two PCs, costing around $4,000 each. The operation was confident, but small.

The @Times content was weighted heavily towards arts and leisure. The opening menus offered a panel with about 15 reviews of the latest films, theatre, music, and books – plus book reviews going back two years. The site offered the top 15 stories of the day, plus some sports news and business.

There was a discussion forum about movies, with 47 different subjects being debated by 235 individual subscribers. There was no archive due to the fact that — in one of the most notorious newspaper licensing cock-ups in history — the NYT in 1983 had given away all rights to its electronic archive (for all material more than 24 hours old) in perpetuity to Mead/Lexis.

That deal alone told you how nobody had any clue what was to come.

We sat down with Henry E. Scott, the group director of @Times. “Sound and moving pictures will be next. You can get them now. I thought about it the other day, when I wondered about seeing 30 seconds of The Age of Innocence. But then I realized it would take 90 minutes to download that and I could have seen more or less the whole movie in that time. That’s going to change.”

But Scott was doubtful about the lasting value of what they were doing — at least, in terms of news. “I can’t see this replacing the news- paper,” he said confidently. “People don’t read computers unless it pays them to, or there is some other pressing reason. I don’t think anyone reads a computer for pleasure. The San Jose Mercury [News] has put the whole newspaper online. We don’t think that’s very sensible. It doesn’t make sense to offer the entire newspaper electronically.”

We wrote it all down.

“I can’t see the point of news on-screen. If I want to know about a breaking story I turn on the TV or the radio. I think we should only do what we can do better than in print. If it’s inferior than the print version there’s no point in doing it.”

Was there a business plan? Not in Scott’s mind. “There’s no way you can make money out of it if you are using someone else’s server. I think the LA Times expects to start making money in about three years’ time. We’re treating it more as an R & D project.”


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From New York we flitted over to Chicago to see what the Tribune was up to. In its 36-storey Art Deco building — a spectacular monument to institutional self-esteem — we found a team of four editorial and four marketing people working on a digital service, with the digital unit situated in the middle of the newsroom. The marketeers were beyond excited about the prospect of being able to show houses or cars for sale and arranged a demonstration. We were excited, too, even if the pictures were slow and cumbersome to download.

We met Joe Leonard, associate editor. “We’re not looking at Chicago Online as a money maker. We’ve no plans even to break even at this stage. My view is simply that I’m not yet sure where I’m going, but I’m on the boat, in the water — and I’m ahead of the guy who is still standing on the pier.”

Reach before revenue.

Finally we headed off to Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rockies, where Knight Ridder had a team working on their vision of the newspaper of tomorrow. The big idea was, essentially, what would become the iPad — only the team in Boulder hadn’t got much further than making an A4 block of wood with a “front page” stuck on it. The 50-something director of the research centre, Roger Fidler, thought the technology capable of realizing his dream of a ‘personal information appliance’ was a couple of years off.

Tony and I had filled several notebooks. We were by now beyond tired and talked little over a final meal in an Italian restaurant beneath the Rocky Mountains.

We had come. We had seen the internet. We were conquered.

* * *

Looking back from the safe distance of nearly 25 years, it’s easy to mock the fumbling, wildly wrong predictions about where this new beast was going to take the news industry. We had met navigators and pioneers. They could dimly glimpse where the future lay. Not one of them had any idea how to make a dime out of it, but at the same time they intuitively sensed that it would be more reckless not to experiment. It seemed reasonable to assume that — if they could be persuaded to take the internet seriously — their companies would dominate in this new world, as they had in the old world.

We were no different. After just four days it seemed blindingly obvious that the future of information would be mainly digital. Plain old words on paper — delivered expensively by essentially Victorian production and distribution methods — couldn’t, in the end, compete. The future would be more interactive, more image-driven, more immediate. That was clear. But how on earth could you graft a digital mindset and processes onto the stately ocean liner of print? How could you convince anyone that this should be a priority when no one had yet worked out how to make any money out of it? The change, and therefore the threat, was likely to happen rapidly and maybe violently. How quickly could we make a start? Or was this something that would be done to us?

In a note for Peter Preston on our return I wrote, “The internet is fascinating, intoxicating . . . it is also crowded out with bores, nutters, fanatics and middle managers from Minnesota who want the world to see their home page and CV. It’s a cacophony, a jungle. There’s too much information out there. We’re all overloaded. You want someone you trust to fillet it, edit it and make sense of it for you. That’s what we do. It’s an opportunity.”

Looking back from the safe distance of nearly 25 years, it’s easy to mock the fumbling, wildly wrong predictions about where this new beast was going to take the news industry.

I spent the next year trying to learn more and then the calendar clicked on to 1995 — The Year the Future Began, at least according to a recent book by the cultural historian W. Joseph Campbell, who used the phrase as his book title twenty years later. It was the year Amazon.com, eBay, Craigslist, and Match.com established their presence online. Microsoft spent $300m launching Windows 95 with weeks of marketing hype, spending millions for the rights to the Rolling Stones hit “Start Me Up,” which became the anthem for the Windows 95 launch.

Cyberspace — as the cyber dystopian Evgeny Morozov recalled, looking back on that period — felt like space itself. “The idea of exploring cyberspace as virgin territory, not yet colonized by governments and corporations, was romantic; that romanticism was even reflected in the names of early browsers (‘Internet Explorer,’ ‘Netscape Navigator’).”

But, as Campbell was to reflect, “no industry in 1995 was as ill-prepared for the digital age, or more inclined to pooh-pooh the disruptive potential of the Internet and World Wide Web, than the news business.” It suffered from what he called “innovation blindness” — “an inability, or a disinclination to anticipate and understand the consequences of new media technology.”

1995 was, then, the year the future began. It happened also to be the year in which I became editor of the Guardian.

* * *

I was 41 and had not, until very recently, really imagined this turn of events. My journalism career took a traditional enough path. A few years reporting; four years writing a daily diary column; a stint as a feature writer — home and abroad. In 1986 I left the Guardian to be the Observer’s television critic. When I rejoined the Guardian I was diverted towards a route of editing — launching the paper’s Saturday magazine followed by a daily tabloid features section and moving to be deputy editor in 1993. Peter Preston — unshowy, grittily obstinate, brilliantly strategic — looked as if he would carry on editing for years to come. It was a complete surprise when he took me to the basement of the resolutely unfashionable Italian restaurant in Clerkenwell he favored, to tell me he had decided to call it a day.

On most papers the proprietor or chief executive would find an editor and take him or her out to lunch to do the deal. On the Guardian — at least according to tradition dating back to the mid-70s — the Scott Trust made the decision after balloting the staff, a process that involved manifestos, pub hustings, and even, by some candidates, a little frowned-on campaigning.

I supposed I should run for the job. My mission statement said I wanted to boost investigative reporting and get serious about digital. It was, I fear, a bit Utopian. I doubt much of it impressed the would-be electorate. British journalists are programmed to skepticism about idealistic statements concerning their trade. Nevertheless, I won the popular vote and was confirmed by the Scott Trust after an interview in which I failed to impress at least one Trustee with my sketchy knowledge of European politics. We all went off for a drink in the pub round the back of the office. A month later I was editing.

“Fleet Street,” as the UK press was collectively called, was having a torrid time, not least because the biggest beast in the jungle, Rupert Murdoch, had launched a prolonged price war that was playing havoc with the economics of publishing. His pockets were so deep he could afford to slash the price of The Times almost indefinitely — especially if it forced others out of business.

Reach before revenue — as it wasn’t known then.

The newest kid on the block, the Independent, was suffering the most. To their eyes, Murdoch was behaving in a predatory way. We calculated the Independent titles were losing around £42 million (nearly £80 million in today’s money). Murdoch’s Times, by contrast, had seen its sales rocket 80 per cent by cutting its cover prices to below what it cost to print and distribute. The circulation gains had come at a cost — about £38 million in lost sales revenue. But Murdoch’s TV business, BSkyB, was making booming profits and the Sun continued to throw off huge amounts of cash. He could be patient.

But how on earth could you graft a digital mindset and processes onto the stately ocean liner of print.

The Telegraph had been hit hard — losing £45 million in circulation revenues through cutting the cover price by 18 pence. The end of the price war left it slowly clawing back lost momentum, but it was still £23 million adrift of where it had been the previous year. Murdoch — as so often — had done something bold and aggressive. Good for him, not so good for the rest of us. Everyone was tightening their belts in different ways. The Independent effectively gave up on Scotland. The Guardian saved a million a year in newsprint costs by shaving half an inch off the width of the paper.

The Guardian, by not getting into the price war, had “saved” around £37 million it would otherwise have lost. But its circulation had been dented by about 10,000 readers a day. Moreover, the average age of the Guardian reader was 43 — something that pre-occupied us rather a lot. We were in danger of having a readership too old for the job advertisements we carried.

Though the Guardian itself was profitable, the newspaper division was losing nearly £12 million (north of £21 million today). The losses were mainly due to the sister Sunday title, the Observer, which the Scott Trust had purchased as a defensive move against the Independent in 1993. The Sunday title had a distinguished history, but was hemorrhaging cash: £11 million losses.

Everything we had seen in America had to be put on hold for a while. The commercial side of the business never stopped reminding us that only three percent of households owned a PC and a modem.

* * *

But the digital germ was there. My love of gadgets had not extended to understanding how computers actually worked, so I commissioned a colleague to write a report telling me, in language I could understand, how our computers measured up against what the future would demand. The Atex system we had installed in 1987 gave everyone a dumb terminal on their desk — little more than a basic word processor. It couldn’t connect to the internet, though there was a rudimentary internal messaging system. There was no word count or spellchecker and storage space was limited. It could not be used with floppy disks or CD-ROMs. Within eight years of purchase it was already a dinosaur.

There was one internet connection in the newsroom, though most reporters were unaware of it. It was rumored that downstairs a bloke called Paul in IT had a Mac connected to the internet through a dial-up modem. Otherwise we were sealed off from the outside world.

Some of these journalist geeks began to invent Heath Robinson solutions to make the inadequate kit in Farringdon Road to do the things we wanted in order to produce a technology website online. Tom Standage — he later became deputy editor of the Economist, but then was a freelance tech writer — wrote some scripts to take articles out of Atex and format them into HTML so they could be moved onto the modest Mac web server — our first content management system, if you like. If too many people wanted to read this tech system at once the system crashed. So Standage and the site’s editor, Azeem Azhar, would take it in turns sitting in the server room in the basement of the building rebooting the machines by hand — unplugging them and physically moving the internet cables from one machine to another.

What would the future look like? We imagined personalized editions, even if we had not the faintest clue how to produce them. We guessed that readers might print off copies of the Guardian in their homes — and even toyed with the idea of buying every reader a printer. There were glimmers of financial hope. Our readers were spending £56 million a year buying the Guardian but we retained none of it: the money went on paper and distribution. In the back of our minds we ran calculations about how the economics of newspapers would change if we could save ourselves the £56 million a year “old world” cost.

By March 1996, ideas we’d hatched in the summer of 1995 to graft the paper onto an entirely different medium were already out of date. That was a harbinger of the future.

On top of editing, the legal entanglements sometimes felt like a full-time job on their own. Trying to engineer a digital future for the Guardian felt like a third job. There were somehow always more urgent issues. By March 1996, ideas we’d hatched in the summer of 1995 to graft the paper onto an entirely different medium were already out of date. That was a harbinger of the future. No plans in the new world lasted very long.

It was now apparent that we couldn’t get away with publishing selective parts of the Guardian online. Other newspapers had shot that fox by pushing out everything. We were learning about the connectedness of the web — and the IT team tentatively suggested that we might use some “offsite links” to other versions of the same story to save ourselves the need to write our own version of everything. This later became the mantra of the City University of New York (CUNY) digital guru Jeff Jarvis — “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.”

We began to grapple with numerous basic questions about the new waters into which we were gingerly dipping our toes.

Important question: Should we charge?

The Times and the Telegraph were both free online. A March 1996 memo from Bill Thompson, a developer who had joined the Guardian from Pipex, ruled it out:

I do not believe the UK internet community would pay to read an online edition of a UK newspaper. They may pay to look at an archive, but I would not support any attempt to make the Guardian a subscription service online . . . It would take us down a dangerous path.

In fact, I believe that the real value from an online edition will come from the increased contact it brings with our readers: online newspapers can track their readership in a way that print products never can, and the online reader can be a valuable commodity in their own right, even if they pay nothing for the privilege.

Thompson was prescient about how the overall digital economy would work — at least for players with infinitely larger scale and vastly more sophisticated technology.

What time of day should we publish?

The electronic Telegraph was published at 8 a.m. each day — mainly because of its print production methods. The Times, more automated, was available as soon as the presses started rolling. The Guardian started making some copy available from first edition through to the early hours. It would, we were advised, be fraught with difficulties to publish stories at the same time they were ready for the press.

Why were we doing it anyway?

Thompson saw the dangers of cannibalization, that readers would stop buying the paper if they could read it for free online. It could be seen as a form of marketing. His memo seemed ambivalent as to whether we should venture into this new world at all:

The Guardian excels in presenting information in an attractive easy to use and easy to navigate form. It is called a “broadsheet newspaper.” If we try to put the newspaper on-line (as the Times has done) then we will just end up using a new medium to do badly what an old medium does well. The key question is whether to make the Guardian a website, with all that entails in terms of production, links, structure, navigational aids etc. In summer 1995 we decided that we would not do this.

But was that still right a year later? By now we had the innovation team — PDU — still in the basement of one building in Farringdon Road, and another team in a Victorian loft building across the way in Ray Street. We were, at the margins, beginning to pick up some interesting fringe figures who knew something about computers, if not journalism. But none of this was yet pulling together into a coherent picture of what a digital Guardian might look like.

An 89-page business plan drawn up in October 1996 made it plain where the priorities lay: print.

We wanted to keep growing the Guardian circulation — aiming a modest increase to 415,000 by March 2000 — which would make us the ninth-biggest paper in the UK — with the Observer aiming for 560,000 with the aid of additional sections. A modest investment of £200,000 a year in digital was dwarfed by an additional £6 million cash injection into the Observer, spread over three years.

As for “on-line services” (we were still hyphenating it) we did want “a leading-edge presence” (whatever that meant), but essentially we thought we had to be there because we had to be there. By being there we would learn and innovate and — surely? — there were bound to be commercial opportunities along the road. It wasn’t clear what.

We decided we might usefully take broadcasting, rather than print, as a model — emulating its “immediacy, movement searchability and layering.”

If this sounded as if we were a bit at sea, we were. We hadn’t published much digitally to this point. We had taken half a dozen meaty issues — including parliamentary sleaze, and a feature on how we had continued to publish on the night our printing presses had been blown up by the IRA — and turned them into special reports.

It is a tribute to our commercial colleagues that they managed to pull in the thick end of half a million pounds to build these websites. Other companies’ marketing directors were presumably like ours — anxious about the youth market and keen for their brands to feel “cool.” In corporate Britain in 1996, there was nothing much cooler than the internet, even if not many people had it, knew where to find it or understood what to do with it.

* * *

The absence of a controlling owner meant we could run the Guardian in a slightly different way from some papers. Each day began with a morning conference open to anyone on the staff. In the old Farringdon Road office, it was held around two long narrow tables in the editor’s office — perhaps 30 or 40 people sitting or standing. When we moved to our new offices at Kings Place, near Kings Cross in North London, we created a room that was, at least theoretically, less hierarchical: a horseshoe of low yellow sofas with a further row of stools at the back. In this room would assemble a group of journalists, tech developers and some visitors from the commercial departments every morning at about 10 a.m. If it was a quiet news day we might expect 30 or so. On big news days, or with an invited guest, we could host anything up to 100.

A former Daily Mail journalist, attending his first morning conference, muttered to a colleague in the newsroom that it was like Start the Week — a Monday morning BBC radio discussion program. All talk and no instructions. In a way, he was right: It was difficult, in conventional financial or efficiency terms, to justify 50 to 60 employees stopping work to gather together each morning for anything between 25 and 50 minutes. No stories were written during this period, no content generated.

But something else happened at these daily gatherings. Ideas emerged and were kicked around. Commissioning editors would pounce on contributors and ask them to write the thing they’d just voiced. The editorial line of the paper was heavily influenced, and sometimes changed, by the arguments we had. The youngest member of staff would be in the same room as the oldest: They would be part of a common discussion around news. By a form of accretion and osmosis an idea of the Guardian was jointly nourished, shared, handed down, and crafted day by day.

You might love the Guardian or despise it, but it had a definite sense of what it believed in and what its journalism was.

It led to a very strong culture. You might love the Guardian or despise it, but it had a definite sense of what it believed in and what its journalism was. It could sometimes feel an intimidating meeting — even for, or especially for, the editor. The culture was intended to be one of challenge: If we’d made a wrong decision, or slipped up factually or tonally, someone would speak up and demand an answer. But challenge was different from blame: It was not a meeting for dressing downs or bollockings. If someone had made an error the previous day we’d have a post-mortem or unpleasant conversation outside the room. We’d encourage people to want to contribute to this forum, not make them fear disapproval or denunciation.

There was a downside to this. It could, and sometimes did, lead to a form of group-think. However herbivorous the culture we tried to nurture, I was conscious of some staff members who felt awkward about expressing views outside what we hoped was a  fairly broad consensus. But, more often, there would be a good discussion on two or three of the main issues of the day. We encouraged specialists or outside visitors to come in and discuss breaking stories. Leader writers could gauge the temperature of the paper before penning an editorial. And, from time to time, there would be the opposite of consensus: Individuals, factions, or groups would come and demand we change our line on Russia, bombing in Bosnia; intervention in Syria; Israel, blood sports, or the Labor leadership.

The point was this: that the Guardian was not one editor’s plaything or megaphone. It emerged from a common conversation — and was open to internal challenge when editorial staff felt uneasy about aspects of our journalism or culture.

* * *

Within two years — slightly uncomfortable at the power I had acquired as editor — I gave some away. I wanted to make correction a natural part of the journalistic process, not a bitterly contested post-publication battleground designed to be as difficult as possible.

We created a new role on the Guardian: a readers’ editor. He or she would be the first port of call for anyone wanting to complain about anything we did or wrote. The readers’ editor would have daily space in the paper — off-limits to the editor — to correct or clarify anything and would also have a weekly column to raise broader issues of concern. It was written into the job description that the editor could not interfere. And the readers’ editor was given the security that he/she could not be removed by the editor, only by the Scott Trust.

On most papers editors had sat in judgment on themselves. They commissioned pieces, edited and published them — and then were supposed neutrally to assess whether their coverage had, in fact, been truthful, fair, and accurate. An editor might ask a colleague — usually a managing editor — to handle a complaint, but he/she was in charge from beginning to end. It was an autocracy. That mattered even more in an age when some journalism was moving away from mere reportage and observation to something closer to advocacy or, in some cases, outright pursuit.

Allowing even a few inches of your own newspaper to be beyond your direct command meant that your own judgments, actions, ethical standards and editorial decisions could be held up to scrutiny beyond your control. That, over time, was bound to change your journalism. Sunlight is the best disinfectant: that was the journalist-as-hero story we told about what we do. So why wouldn’t a bit of sunlight be good for us, too?

The first readers’ editor was Ian Mayes, a former arts and obituaries editor then in his late 50s. We felt the first person in the role needed to have been a journalist — and one who would command instant respect from a newsroom which otherwise might be somewhat resistant to having their work publicly critiqued or rebutted. There were tensions and some resentment, but Ian’s experience, fairness and flashes of humor eventually won most people round.

One or two of his early corrections convinced staff and readers alike that he had a light touch about the fallibility of journalists:

In our interview with Sir Jack Hayward, the chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers, page 20, Sport, yesterday, we mistakenly attributed to him the following comment: “Our team was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.” Sir Jack had just declined the offer of a hot drink. What he actually said was: “Our tea was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.” Profuse apologies.

In an article about the adverse health effects of certain kinds of clothing, pages 8 and 9, G2, August 5, we omitted a decimal point when quoting a doctor on the optimum temperature of testicles. They should be 2.2 degrees Celsius below core body temperature, not 22 degrees lower.

But in his columns he was capable of asking tough questions about our editorial decisions —  often prompted by readers who had been unsettled by something we had done. Why had we used a shocking picture which included a corpse? Were we careful enough in our language around mental health or disability? Why so much bad language in the Guardian? Were we balanced in our views of the Kosovo conflict? Why were Guardian journalists so innumerate? Were we right to link to controversial websites?

In most cases Mayes didn’t come down on one side or another. He would often take readers’ concerns to the journalist involved and question them — sometimes doggedly — about their reasoning. We learned more about our readers through these interactions; and we hoped that Mayes’s writings, candidly explaining the workings of a newsroom, helped readers better understand our thinking and processes.

It was, I felt, good for us to be challenged in this way. Mayes was invaluable in helping devise systems for the “proper” way to correct the record. A world in which — to coin a phrase —  you were “never wrong for long” posed the question of whether you went in for what Mayes termed “invisible mending.” Some news organizations would quietly amend whatever it was that they had published in error, no questions asked. Mayes felt differently: The act of publication was something on the record. If you wished to correct the record, the correction should be visible.

But we had some inkling that the iron grip of centralized control that a newspaper represented was not going to last.

We were some years off the advent of social media, in which any error was likely to be pounced on in a thousand hostile tweets. But we had some inkling that the iron grip of centralized control that a newspaper represented was not going to last.

I found liberation in having created this new role. There were few things editors can enjoy less than the furious early morning phone call or email from the irate subject of their journalism. Either the complainant is wrong — in which case there is time wasted in heated self-justification; or they’re right, wholly or partially. Immediately you’re into remorseful calculations about saving face. If readers knew we honestly and rapidly — even immediately — owned up to our mistakes they should, in theory, trust us more. That was the David Broder theory, and I bought it. Readers certainly made full use of the readers’ editor’s existence. Within five years Mayes was dealing with around 10,000 calls, emails, and letters a year — leading to around 1,200 corrections, big and small. It’s not, I think, that we were any more error-prone than other papers. But if you win a reputation for openness, you’d better be ready to take it as seriously as your readers will.

Our journalism became better. If, as a journalist, you know there are a million sleuth-eyed editors out there waiting to leap on your tiniest mistake, it makes you more careful. It changes the tone of your writing. Our readers often know more than we do. That became a mantra of the new world, coined by the blogger and academic Dan Gillmor, in his 2004 book We the Media8 but it was already becoming evident in the late 1990s.

The act of creating a readers’ editor felt like a profound recognition of the changing nature of what we were engaged in. Journalism was not an infallible method guaranteed to result in something we would proclaim as The Truth — but a more flawed, tentative, iterative and interactive way of getting towards something truthful.

Admitting that felt both revolutionary and releasing.

***

Excerpted from Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger. Published Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 27, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Alan Rusbridger. All rights reserved.

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