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How the Guardian Went Digital

Newscast Limited via AP Images

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, eBay, Craigslist, and 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.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

The Guardians of Ghost Town

Longreads Pick

Longtime West Oakland resident Annette Miller has witnessed the dramatic transformation of the city as changes over the past few decades have swept the block she’s lived on for over 50 years.

Published: May 22, 2018
Length: 9 minutes (2,442 words)

The Guardian At the Gate

Longreads Pick

It broke the WikiLeaks story, then the Snowden scandal, now Alan Rusbridger’s crusading newspaper is trying to break America. But with its US campaign on the brink of disaster, has the deadline passed to beat a dignified retreat?

News outlets want to break big stories but at the same time not be overwhelmed by them – a certain detachment is well advised. It is an artful line. But the Guardian essentially went into the Edward Snowden business – and continues in it. It’s a complex business, too: to ally yourself with larger-than-life, novelistic characters, first Assange, and then Snowden, and stranger-than-strange middle men, like the Guardian’s contract columnist Glenn Greenwald, who brought in the story. The effort to pretend that the story is straight up good and evil, that this is journalism pure and simple, unalloyed public interest, without peculiar nuances and rabbit holes and obvious contradictions, is really quite a trick.

Source: British GQ
Published: Jun 2, 2014
Length: 15 minutes (3,909 words)

The Guardians

Longreads Pick

Remembering a New York friendship. Excerpted from Manguso’s new book, The Guardians: An Elegy, out Feb. 28:

“The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press carried a story that began An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the Riverdale station on West 254th Street.

“The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.”

Published: Feb 14, 2012
Length: 9 minutes (2,368 words)

Queens of Infamy: Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia
Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2020 | 33 minutes (8,371 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.

If you love Queens of Infamy, consider becoming a Longreads member.

* * *

Mention the Medieval period and people free-associate themselves right into visions of plague, violence, and shit-covered peasants. The term “Renaissance,” on the other hand, conjures up stuff like humanism, science, and paintings of people that actually look like people. But late 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-century Italy consisted of more than just painters with Ninja Turtle names wanking their way from one Tuscan villa to another; it was also full of intrigue, murder, and complex intergenerational family drama. If there was one family that featured heavily in some of the most violent and licentious stories of the period, it was the Borgias — even today their name is a by-word for depravity. And at the center of many of the wildest Borgia stories was the beautiful, wily, thrice-wed Lucrezia.

Looking for a Queens of Infamy t-shirt or tote bag? Choose yours here.

People have called Lucrezia many things over the years: seductress, murderess, femme fatale of the Borgia cabal. The attributes assigned to her didn’t come out of nowhere; as we shall see — and as Lucrezia noted herself — many of the men around her came to unfortunate ends. In portrayals where she escapes the villainess role, she’s often made out to be another hapless aristocratic daughter traded off into various political marriages, someone with no agency or ambitions of her own. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced. While Lucrezia was indeed married off several times to further her family’s agenda, as an adult she proved herself to be a skilled ruler loved and respected by her subjects.

Read more…

Among the Last in An Iron Lung

An iron lung sponsored by the March of Dimes helps a young boy with polio breath during the 1950s. (Photo by Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

Lawyer Paul Alexander contracted polio at age 6 in the summer of 1952. The disease left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe without assistance, but it didn’t stop him from living his life. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie reports at The Guardian, Paul, with help from a therapist who promised him a puppy, learned to breathe on his own for periods of time, giving him respite from his iron lung. Today, at age 74, after surviving a polio infection in an epidemic from a different time, coronavirus is a looming threat.

What Paul remembers most vividly about the ward is hearing the doctors talk about him when they walked through on their rounds. “He’s going to die today,” they said. “He shouldn’t be alive.” It made him furious. It made him want to live.

Paul told the therapist about the times he had been forced by doctors to try to breathe without the lung, how he had turned blue and passed out. He also told her about the time he had gulped and “swallowed” some air, almost like breathing. The technique had a technical name, “glossopharyngeal breathing”. You trap air in your mouth and throat cavity by flattening the tongue and opening the throat, as if you’re saying “ahh” for the doctor. With your mouth closed, the throat muscle pushes the air down past the vocal cords and into the lungs. Paul called it “frog-breathing”.

Sullivan made a deal with her patient. If he could frog-breathe without the iron lung for three minutes, she’d give him a puppy. It took Paul a year to learn to do it, but he got his puppy; he called her Ginger. And though he had to think about every breath, he got better at it. Once he could breathe reliably for long enough, he could get out of the lung for short periods of time, first out on the porch, and then into the yard.

Although he still needed to sleep in the iron lung every night – he couldn’t breathe when he was unconscious – Paul didn’t stop at the yard. At 21, he became the first person to graduate from a Dallas high school without physically attending a class. He got into Southern Methodist University in Dallas, after repeated rejections by the university administration, then into law school at the University of Texas at Austin. For decades, Paul was a lawyer in Dallas and Fort Worth, representing clients in court in a three-piece suit and a modified wheelchair that held his paralysed body upright.

Before the arrival of a vaccine in 1955, what made polio so terrifying was that there was no way of predicting who would walk away from an infection with a headache, and who would never walk again. In most cases, the disease had no discernible effect. Of the 30% or so who showed symptoms, most experienced only minor illness. But a small proportion, 4-5%, exhibited serious symptoms, including extreme muscular pain, high fever and delirium. As the virus hacked its way through the neural tissue of the spinal cord, a few of those infected were paralysed; this progression of the virus was known as paralytic polio. Roughly 5-10% of patients who caught paralytic polio died, although this number was far higher in the days before widespread use of the iron lung.

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Caring Without Touching


Gavin Francis, a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland, writes candidly for The Guardian about his life as a general practitioner (GP) being turned upside down by COVID-19. While his GP training emphasized the importance of building empathy and rapport, now he stays as far from a patient as possible until the moment of having to examine them — if they meet in person at all — with the number of actual face-to-face encounters with patients dropping by 90%.

“Could you stand up for me?” I asked. We shuffled awkwardly on the small landing in a doleful dance. He turned his back and I lifted his pyjamas to place my stethoscope on his back. The sound of air through his lungs was accompanied by a quiet hissing sound, like sizzling fat. The sound of pneumonia. In his case, pneumonia probably caused by Covid-19.

“I’m going outside, then I’ll phone you about what happens next,” I told him. I picked up the clear bag with my stethoscope, oxygen sensor and thermometer, and stepped out, trying to hold central to my awareness and every action that there was virus on the walls, the door handle, my gloves and all my equipment.

Out on the doorstep I gulped down the fresh air, then it was back to the rigmarole: topmost layer of gloves off and into a waste bag. Still wearing my underlayer of gloves, I took a chloride wipe and began to clean all the equipment – stethoscope, oxygen sensor, thermometer – and placed them into yet another clear plastic bag, ready for the next patient. The wipe went into the waste, then my apron. Next it was the visor’s turn to get cleaned, and afterwards I placed it on the ground to dry. Then undergloves off, mask off, the clinical waste bag tied off and sealed, and back into the car.

The lockdown in Scotland has caused the number of COVID-19 cases to fall. However, Francis points out that doctors are noticing a different type of problem.

It’s clear that though the lockdown has slashed transmission, it is provoking a silent epidemic of despair. Panic attacks, sleeplessness and plunging moods are all difficulties GPs are encountering daily – tough conversations to have at the best of times, but even tougher on the phone. Within our area of the city, we already know of suicides triggered by bankruptcies and business closures; and of marriages breaking down. Alcohol-induced injuries are up, as are injuries from assaults. Between 23 March and 12 April, there were 16 deaths from domestic violence in the UK – more than triple the still-shocking figure from last year. A police officer friend told me that domestic abuse support lines were experiencing a 30-40% increase in traffic. Samaritans and Childline, too, were receiving high volumes of calls. A domestic abuse hotline for NHS workers had been inaugurated – intended to support both health workers at risk, and to offer advice should they suspect patients of being abused. When I check routine blood tests on my patients, I have been seeing new flares of liver irritation, which suggest rising levels of alcoholism.

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On the Hotness of Not Getting Any

DryWrite / HBO, Element Pictures / BBC

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)

Isolation is horny as fuck. Not for everyone, obviously, but if you’re single and you live alone. . . I mean, I have never thought this much about sex in my life. Not even in high school. Although this does kind of feel like high school: snacking, jerking off, sort-of working, snacking, jerking off. Or maybe we’re regressing to a point in history when we were exclusively driven by our basest instincts: horny, hungry, trying not to die. In between we binge-stream. And through this fogged up lockdown-induced lens, the horniness of what we are watching is compounded by our own.

Normal People is the big one. The Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s critically felated millennial romance is softcore for hipsters: an outcast girl and a sensitive jock, both of them equally brilliant (of course), having some messy, bildungsroman-style sex over the years (to Imogen Heap, in Malick-ian light) like that’s all the world is. The sex is hot, but everything that happens right before it is hotter. All that staring, all that sizzle — by the time they actually do it, it’s almost an afterthought. Almost. The same goes for Run, the HBO series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creative partner, Vicky Jones, about two ex-lovers fleeing their lives to the kind of loin-tingling wit that got us through the Hays Code. Here, once again, the foreplay is the sex. Then there’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French period piece in which two women, with their eyes alone, strip, fuck, and share a cigarette before they physically do all three.

This is the kind of hot — leg-crossing, side-eying — where you don’t have to say it out loud, you feel it. The kind of hot spun by women from Europe, where sex doesn’t have the same moral implications it does in America. But more than that, it’s a hotness related to a wider move toward women reclaiming their own stories, their own sex. We all know by now that sex under the male gaze tends to objectify women — hotness, in the hands of men, is predominantly naked women getting fucked. Permission is neither here nor there. Under the female gaze, sure, naked women get fucked too, but there’s also enthusiastic consent. Great sex is not orgasm upon orgasm so much as agreement upon agreement, through looks and gestures and breaths and talk — the personification of ongoing accord, no permission slips or questions necessary. The point being that sex isn’t sexy unless it’s between people, not just their bodies; people who change their minds as well as their positions. In isolation, where you have nothing to do but wait for it, it only makes you hotter to watch not only the physical restraint and psychological tease, but every move, every look, every word that says “Yes!” before it’s screamed aloud.

* * *

I have no idea where or when I first heard the term “edging,” but I think it was a couple of years ago. I recall being told that it came from teenagers who used it to describe holding off orgasm deliberately to make it that much stronger in the end, a kind of pleasure binge that seemed to fit that generation (if everything sucks, might as well overdose on suckage). Which is not to say that climax control is new; it goes back to Tantric and Taoist traditions, where it’s less about splooging as hard as you can and more about a kind of physical transcendence. But the idea of mindful sex, of really feeling everything — together — instead of just trying to get yourself off as quickly as possible, didn’t really hit conservative America until the sixties. Masters of Sex reintroduced us to William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple responsible for the huge human sexuality study published in 1966 that identified the four-stage sex response: excitement (arousal), plateau (pre-orgasm), orgasm, resolution (post-orgasm). Of course, it turned out that cycle was generally reserved for men, while women across the country were left dissatisfied (and often pregnant). But the sixties and seventies brought heightened awareness of women’s rights along with heightened awareness of sexuality.

Enter edging. “Understanding this new kind of orgasm can be especially difficult for men. When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.” This comes from the worryingly titled Extended Massive Orgasm by Vera and Steve Bodansky, a 2002 addition to a slew of slow masturbation and one-hour-orgasm how-to books, all of which fall under the rubric of edging. The Bodanskys emphasize being fully present — fully engaged with yourself and your partner — and aware that the mechanics of sex are not the sole source of pleasure. A human being has a psychological as well as a physical self, and sex also has both elements; eye contact, verbalizing, variations in touch, and breathing responsively aren’t requirements for ejaculation, but they definitely make it more agreeable. Which is why the Bodansky book, somewhat patronizingly, addresses men the way it does. Because sex has been generally dictated by men, it has generally served them and them alone. Putting women first doesn’t mean men are neglected, it means women aren’t.

But Hollywood is still predominantly run by men and men predominantly run it the old way when it comes to heat (erotic thrillers were a brief light at the end of the tunnel, but then the tunnel just kept going). Think of Game of Thrones or anything on Starz: what passes for hot, once again, is conventionally beautiful women with no clothes on being bent over. The physical part may be there, but the psychological part, not to mention the consent, is not. Which is why reality series like Too Hot to Handle (contestants win by not touching) and Love Is Blind (contestants get together before seeing each other) are not particularly orgasmic, though they are positioned as the perfect pandemic watch. The payoff of edging requires real chemistry and it helps to have some real stakes thrown in.

Which is not to say it can’t be fictional. There are nine sex scenes in Normal People. Actually, there are more than nine, but there are nine between the two superficially polar-opposite teens we follow from high school to college. (There are only 12 episodes). Try finding a story about Normal People that doesn’t mention its horniness. You can’t; horniness defines it. Obviously, being particularly susceptible in lockdown to anything related to the possibility of sex has affected how we respond to it, but this is also the kind of hotness that transcends pandemics. Let me explain, with Connell and his little chain.

Connell (Paul Mescal) isn’t just hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David, he’s hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David and is shy. He is hot because he is entirely uncomfortable in his own skin despite inhabiting skin in which he should be entirely comfortable — he is a super-smart, super-handsome, super-athletic white man; how much better can he have it? Connell is hot because despite all of that, he can’t stop staring at the guileless-verging-on-neurodivergent-poor-man’s-Anne-Hathaway Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) when Marcia Brady (that’s not her name, but does she ever look like her) can’t stop staring at him. He is hot because he is charmed as fuck when Marianne, during their second kiss, blurts out the “guy” question: “Now can we take our clothes off?” He is hot because he gives Marianne an out during her first time. He is hot because he takes Marianne’s advice about his future. He is hot because he is inconsolable when he realizes how badly he has treated her by keeping them secret. Connell is hot because as much as Marianne is at his mercy, he is even more at hers.

And the sex scenes in Normal People are hot because the director realizes all of this — that the hotness is as much in everyone’s heads as it is in their bodies. “In some movies, they treat sex scenes like they treat car chases or gun fights, like an opportunity to try a different form of filmmaking,” Lenny Abrahamson told the Irish magazine Hot Press. “How I shot, if we were moving from dialogue to sex, there’s no point where we enter a different dimension, it’s just a continuation of their interaction.” The way the show is filmed, the confined settings, the proximity of the camera to their faces, their eyes — all of it magnifies the intimacy. But it isn’t just in the shooting, it’s also in the choreography. With the help of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, every frisson between Connell and Marianne — from every long gaze and every small touch to all that heavy breathing in flagrante — coalesces into an intoxicating six-hour expression of the fluid physical connection between two characters whose psychological connection (whose verbal agreement, even) came first. It’s like nothing else exists but them. These two are entirely in it with each other.

While Run is less about what’s in their heads than what’s coming out of their mouths, its not-so-brief encounter on a train has a similarly close-quartered intimacy. The HBO series stars Merritt Wever as Ruby, a wife and mom of two, and Domhnall Gleeson as Billy, a Jordan Peterson type. The two exes reunite after 15 years on a cross-country trip to escape their lives. She has her family to lose, he has his book deal. The stakes are slightly uneven, but their banter is not: their edgeplay is their wordplay. Like Normal People, the camera stays close to the two lovers who are already confined in their seats (and, later, “roomette”) shoulder to shoulder, face to face, almost mouth to mouth. Just like we do, they become so hot off each other’s proximity that they are forced to take breaks to secretly masturbate in the bathroom. Both of them. Separately.

But here again, as in Normal People, the woman ultimately has all the power. With a family back home, this is Ruby’s encounter to take or leave, not Billy’s. It is her thirst that fuels the ride, not his. “I turned up to have sex,” she says. And later, “I want to fuck you… now.” These exclamations are all the more pregnant for the person saying them — Wever herself has admitted she did not see herself as a lead in a rom-com (Gleeson had already done About Time). And yet here she is not only in one, but subverting it. A man admitting he wants to fuck a woman who might not want to fuck him isn’t transgressive, it’s a cliché. But a woman admitting she wants to fuck a man (more conventionally attractive than she is, more successful, more single) who might reject her? That’s hot. So will he say yes? Do we even need him to anymore? “Holding back on the sex was always something we knew we had to do,” creator Vicky Jones told Refinery29. “Because it’s not really a will-they-won’t-they, since they do. It’s, will they have sex and how?” But with foreplay this good, the sex can’t help but be an anti-climax.

That upending convention, that the woman dominates really, suggests why the queen of edging is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a queer love story by a queer filmmaker (Céline Sciamma) about a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). There is no dilution here by the well-trod tropes of male sexuality, there is only a pair of  women drowning in each other. The female gaze turns in on itself as Marianne’s view of Héloïse becomes ours. The film’s title summons the slow burn of their relationship, with every new plateau advancing so achingly slowly — Marianne even seeks consent before repositioning Héloïse’s arm as she sits for her, which is the first time they touch — that every act, when it comes, is that much more extreme, the whole thing mimicking that aforementioned menacing “massive extended orgasm.” It takes 13 minutes for the heroines to meet, despite being in the same house, and even then, one of them is only introduced from behind in a black head-to-toe cloak, a funereal tease. This is no meet-cute; it’s the slowest reveal ever, with her cloak fluttering in the breeze until a mess of blond strands escape, which almost make you gasp despite yourself, before the whole hood falls to expose the back of a blond head. And then, suddenly, the faceless woman is running to her death, we think, until she stops right at the edge of a cliff and, abruptly, turns, her flushed face, her great blue eyes, downplaying the grand mort to a petit mort. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” Héloïse says breathlessly, post-coitally. A pure distillation of the female apex, no wonder the French, their sexual legacy defined by males, thought the film wasn’t erotic enough.

* * *

The hottest scene in Normal People, ergo the hottest scene of my isolation, doesn’t actually include an orgasm. And it, fittingly, takes a while, not arriving until near the end of the second half of the series, which was directed by Hettie Macdonald. Now in college, no longer dating, Connell and Marianne are sort-of-not-really watching some sports game in Connell’s hot, cramped childhood room in a haze of hormones. Everything is sweating. She stares at him. He stares at the screen. She pretends to sleep. He gets up. “Want some ice cream?” He goes, she stays. He returns. It’s not ice cream, it’s penis-shaped rocket popsicles. And the room is dripping in sex. When Marianne stretches out her bare feet to his end of the bed, I squeak. She says she wants him to kiss her. He says he does too — the pain on his face! — but they always end badly and he doesn’t want to lose her friendship. Fuck. She gets up to leave, telling him not to drop her off at home ‘cause he’ll miss the rest of the match. Olive branch: “I forgot there was a match on, to be honest.” Game on.

Even though the sex is ultimately abandoned (I won’t spoil it), it doesn’t matter. This prelude is more satisfying than 99 percent of the orgasms I’ve ever watched. Despite all the sexual tension, the woman still ultimately commands the room. Theirs and ours. In that Hot Press interview, director Lenny Abrahamson, who shot the first six episodes, laughed perversely about the show coming out during a worldwide pandemic. “You start to miss the human touch, people’s skin — and that is all over the show,” he said. “God help everybody!” But it wasn’t Abrahamson behind the episode I’m talking about, it was a woman. And while it’s true that thirst can hurt, it can also take the edge off, as that scene choreographed by three women — conceived of by Rooney, directed by Macdonald, managed by O’Brien — proves. No one finished, but it wasn’t about that. Because all the elements were there, all that want and all that permission. And that was enough for me, if for no one else. And what was that line again? “When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.