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For the Thirsty Girl

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,387 words)

“She’s got the nerve to say / She wants to fuck that boy so badly.” These are the lyrics to the titular track from Third Eye Blind’s 2003 album Out of the Vein (stay with me). They are written by Stephan Jenkins, who has admitted his three-year relationship with Charlize Theron acted as inspiration. Whether or not that particular song is about her, one thing is clear: Charlize Theron knows she wants to fuck a specific boy, even if she is uncertain who that boy is. “I’ve been single for ten years, it’s not a long shot,” she said recently in some interview, dorkily referencing the title of her new film, which is about a presidential hopeful who falls for Seth Rogen (why not?). “Somebody just needs to grow a pair and step up.”

Charlize Theron is thirsty. That surprises people. And by people, I mean me. How is it possible that Charlize Theron has to desire at all, considering she is so desired herself? (Doesn’t one negate the other?) You could sense an army of unworthy men clutching their collective pearls in response to her statement. That this statuesque blond with the kind of face you only see carved out of marble not only has to, God forbid, ask for it, but that she can speak like a sailor about it, shatters the pristine image of beauty — no wants, no desires — she otherwise projects. Theron’s words jolted us back to her humanity. The balls she asked for were the balls to approach her with desire, knowing that she has the power not to desire in return. Charlize Theron is dictating the expression of her thirst, but also the man who is worthy of it.

If the original iteration of “thirst” was a plunging desperation, this one is an uplifting affirmation. NPR traced its root, “thirst trap,” back to 2011; but Jezebel actually defined the singular “thirst” first in 2014, as lust “for sex, for fame, for approval. It’s unseemly striving for an unrealistic goal, or an unnecessary amount of praise.” This was the definition picked up in 2017 by The New York Times Magazine, imbuing thirst with negativity. But in the intervening years, women got a hold of it. These women, objects for so long within an atmosphere of men’s ambient lust, emerged to twist thirst from a cloying wish into full-bodied desire. Out of the wreckage of male toxicity, they used thirst to mark the men who remained worthy. There’s a reason Theron is still single — few men can step up. What’s more, in a world run by female desire, some are terrified of being left unwanted if they do.

* * *

It’s hard to get a clear picture of female desire across a history mostly seen through the male gaze, afflicted as it was with the rare myopia that focuses only on the virgin and the whore. So you had virtuous, prim, usually classier orderly women who were worth marrying, and sinful, messy, gutter-dwelling hysterics who were worth a quick screw, and that’s it. If a woman expressed desire and wasn’t faking it for money, she was a deranged man-eater, like a witch or a harpy. Men’s lust was natural, women’s was the most unnatural. Eventually, fandom offered a means of escape. “While it was risky for individual women to lose control or to surrender to passion, there could be safety in numbers,” wrote Carol Dyhouse in Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. So women swooned all over the place for Franz Liszt in the mid-19th century before having a collective orgasm over Vaslav Nijinsky, then Rudolph Valentino — the first man (the first person) for whom the word “sexy” was deemed worthy of use. What these men had in common was fluidity — of gender, of sexuality, of race. “I hate [him],” cartoonist Dick Dorgan wrote of Valentino. “The women are all dizzy over him.” Real men hated this new masculine ideal because real women wanted it and they couldn’t deliver. So they took sexy back. The Hays Code put women who wanted sex in movie jail and in their place installed women with whom men wanted to have sex.

The new “sexy” icon became Marilyn Monroe, described by Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies) as “the lie that a woman has no sexual needs, that she is there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs.” It is a meandering but fairly unbroken line from Monroe to reality star and one-time child bride Courtney Stodden, who has not only physically fashioned herself into her idol, but also appears as troubled. In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, the now 24-year-old pitied her boyfriend for not cashing in on his expectations. “He thought he was going to get in a relationship with this hot young celebrity who’s all sexual and fun,” she said. “He gets in there and I don’t have sex, I’m a mess, and I’m crazy.” So, not really much change from the original dichotomy, the one which limits big-busted babes like her, like Kim Kardashian-West, to conduits for sex. The latter can launch her career off a sex tape, while Jennifer Lawrence, the slapstick virginal non-bottle blonde, can almost be undone by a couple of photos. And forget being a woman who has sex with more than one man; Kristen Stewart had to apologize publicly for that, forced to do a glorified perp walk in a world where husbands have had mistresses longer than Edward Cullen has been undead.

Almost every article I read about female sexuality cited Freud — specifically his inability to figure out what women want. It says a lot that on this subject we are still deferring to a psychoanalyst who predates women’s liberation. It served men like Freud and those who followed him to theorize that women had a lower sex drive (unproven and kind of the opposite), were more romantic than randy (unproven and kind of the opposite), because it meant women could not use men for sex the way men used women. Yet, as Psychology Today reported back in 2013, “If women believe that they will not be harmed and that the sex will be good, their willingness to engage in casual sex equals that of men.” Relax, bros, rape culture keeps that in check. “It is anti-sex and anti-pleasure,” writes Laurie Penny. “It teaches us to deny our own desire as an adaptive strategy for surviving a sexist world.” And now you can stop relaxing; since women have begun dismantling that world, they have also begun releasing their desire — these days better known as thirst.

Some men think the objectification of women has simply turned into women’s objectification of men, but that’s not what thirst is: Where the male gaze limits women to the flesh, the female gaze fleshes men out. Famous guys provide an aspirational model, with women filling in the holes with their wants, showing real guys how to enhance themselves to satisfy women like Charlize.

We have women of color to thank for pushing men to meet us halfway. Their brand of lady thirst went mainstream in 2017, the year ELLE announced “the Golden Age of Thirst Journalism,” and BuzzFeed got celebrities to read “thirst tweets” — their fans’ horny messages — and launched the “Thirst Aid Kit” podcast. That show centered on the famous crushes of hosts Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, from established hunks like Chris Evans to pensive actors of color like John Cho. “We are two straight black women talking about lust and desire and sexuality,” Adewunmi told Salon last year, “and all these expressions of humanity [are] not something that has traditionally been given to black women.” In their wake, black Canadian writer Kyrell Grant quietly articulated the concept of “big dick energy” (in reference to recently deceased chef Anthony Bourdain). “It’s a phrase I’d used with friends to refer to guys who aren’t that great but for whatever reason you still find attractive,” she wrote in The Guardian. But while black women are stereotyped for being game, they aren’t expected to set the rules. The Cut sought to profit off the term without crediting Grant, effectively muting her, though it was writer Hunter Harris whose desire was more directly silenced.

Vulture’s resident thirst critic — “i have something adam can drive” — was suspended by Twitter last week amid protests by fellow writers. “JUSTICE FOR HUNTER HARRIS, a thirst maestro and one of the funniest people on this hellsite,” Alanna Bennett tweeted. I DM’d Harris for the details of her suspension and she told me that a photographer had issued a copyright complaint about an image she used last summer in a tweet on the “secret romance” between Rihanna and Leonardo DiCaprio (she can’t remember the exact words and, because Twitter removed it, she can’t check). Around the same time that this happened, Quinn Hough, the editor of a tiny online film and music publication, Vague Visages, went viral (in a bad way) after pulling a strong anti-thirst stance on Twitter. The tweet in question has since been deleted, but Hough told me via email that he’d written “a poorly worded thread after seeing tweets from young critics that I thought were excessive and wouldn’t necessarily be acceptable in a professional environment.”

With women being the ones who thirst tweet most visibly, Hough’s comments were interpreted as an attempt to police women’s desire. “I just get very angry at any kind of sex-shaming because I’ve been told my whole life that if I express sexual desire, I’m a slut or dirty,” Danielle Ryan tweeted in response. “It really comes across differently to women.” While Hough’s site may be small, he still acts as a gatekeeper in the world of criticism, a conduit to larger more established outlets. His discrimination against what appeared to be young female writers, was a microcosm of a wider systemic double standard, particularly when he claimed, “Critics can say anything they want, but expressing sexual desire for subjects will minimize their chances for a staff position somewhere.”

This is where Hunter Harris resurfaces. The simultaneous timing of her suspension with the Vague Visages pile-on acted as a trigger for women accustomed to being muted, turning a copyright notice into a symbol of the suppression of black women’s desire. Meanwhile, other Twitter users expressed their delight at Harris’s expulsion. “It’s sad that @vulture encouraged her psychosis, but will probably be looking to dump her, now that @hunteryharris got her twitter account suspended,” wrote one guy who goes by Street Poetics (“PhD in These Streets”). A man he referenced in that same tweet, Jurg Bajiour, responded, “It’s true. @hunteryharris seemed to want to show me that it was *her job* to endlessly horny-tweet about actors.” (Harris denies this).

The missives were rich considering male film critics readily maintain staff positions despite waving around their boners in their actual reviews. “I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup,” New York’s David Edelstein wrote in his Wonder Woman review. You may remember him also writing of Harry Potter, “prepubescent Watson is absurdly alluring,” in a review that originally appeared in Slate in 2001 and resurfaced after his Wonder Woman hard-on. Compare this to famously thirsty film critic Pauline Kael, whose books boast titles like I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated.” There is a lot of sex here, but Kael is not the subject, Travolta not the object, and it layers rather than reduces. In fact, Female Film Critics’ Twitter poll on critical thirst — “What do you think of ‘thirst’ in film criticism?” — which followed the Vague Visages controversy, attracted 468 votes with a runaway 44 percent responding, “A grand tradition (Kael!)” Still, Hunter Harris admits she felt odd being erroneously credited as its icon. “i dont want to be like a martyr for the horny cause lmao,” she told me via DM, “but it is very nice that ppl are defensive of woc being openly desirous !”

* * *

While thirst is most common in the field of Hollywood celebrity — ground zero for idolatry — it has recently moved into politics, a place where masculinity has increasingly become a bone of contention. At one time we thirsted for Justin Trudeau’s “it’s 2019” yoga moves; more recently that thirst turned toward an emo crossdressing Beto. “Ojeda and Avenatti as candidates are like the guy who thinks good sex is pumping away while you’re making a grocery list in your head wondering when he’ll be done,” political analyst Leah McElrath tweeted in November 2018. “O’Rourke is like the guy who is all sweet and nerdy but holds you down and makes you cum until your calves cramp.” While politicians have an extensive history of abusing their positions for their own sexual gratification, this explicit dispatch from the beltway still left a number of us open-mouthed. Yet this is where we are — in the context of a presidency rife with toxic masculinity oft expressed in terms of sexual harassment, good sex acts as an analogy for progressive politics.

Over the past couple of years, women have also elected Noah Centineo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Goldblum, and Mahershala Ali as worthy of their thirst. Like the men who have historically inflamed female desire, they represent an aspirational form of masculinity, one which counteracts the retrograde misogyny trumpeted by the president. The thirst women express for these men’s physical form is informed by the men’s insides as much as their outsides. And the strongest men do not shrink at the prospect of not measuring up, but adapt the way women always have. In this new world, on the red carpet for their shared movie, Long Shot, Charlize Theron’s Alexander McQueen gown is matched by Seth Rogen’s Prada suit. “I was highly aware I was going to be standing next to Charlize for a lot of pictures,” Rogen said at the time. “I always have that image in my head of Beyoncé next to Ed Sheeran in a T-shirt, and I don’t want that.” Finally, it’s no longer about what a guy wants.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Coming Home, One Word at a Time

Illustration by Missy Chimovitz

Sharanya Deepak | Longreads | March 2019 | 13 minutes (3,366 words)

“Big bird, red eyes …” my teacher said, hinting me toward the new word I was learning. “Big, big bird … think about Central Delhi …” he added, excited for me to untangle his clues, for this big bird to fly into my brain. I was in my third Urdu class, ripening my vocabulary in a language I had always known but never formally studied.

Gidh!” I finally screamed, the Urdu word for vulture, leaning onto my notebook. I thought about the times I would lay under trees in central Delhi and watch the birds perch on branches. Gidh, a vulture my friends and I once fed jam sandwiches, determined to get close. Gidh, the bird I once saw feed on an elderly man’s remains in Old Delhi. The simple word for a bird so ubiquitous in folklore, flushed in memories of warm Delhi winters, of stories told to me as a child, of faces of friends I had long forgotten, of the bird both revered and condemned in the city that raised me. But like the Urdu word for it, the vulture was long since gone from my life.

I grew up in a flurry of languages: in the beautiful, unfurling Tamil of my mother’s rage, in the curt English of my grandfather’s routine, in the effervescent Hindi of my father’s quickly changing moods. The concept of one native tongue had no meaning. Languages switched quickly in our house: New ones entered with meals presented by neighbors, unknown nurturing words appeared in the homes of friends. Our everyday lives were a wonderful linguistic mess, but Urdu — the language that floated in the backdrop of everything in Delhi, in songs, in corners of the old city, in anecdotes told by poetic uncles, in the history of the city’s kings — was the one that got away.

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Is It Ever Too Late to Pursue a Dream?

Brendan Burden

Matt Giles | LongreadsMarch 2019 | 28 minutes (6,730 words)

Dry heaves racked Dan Stoddard’s body as he bent his 6-foot-8, 325-plus-pound frame awkwardly over a toilet, shaking as he vomited up the Gatorade and other fluids he had consumed in an attempt to stave off dehydration. The 39-year-old hadn’t slept well in days, and even when he did manage some shut-eye, it was only for a few hours at a time before beginning the first of his two six-hour shifts driving a bus for Ottawa’s OC Transpo public transit system. Stoddard had never felt this exhausted, but he couldn’t rest — down seven points at halftime, his team needed him.

It only took the first 20 minutes of this early February 2018 game against Seneca, one of the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association’s top teams, for Stoddard to realize his body was fully gassed. Algonquin had lost 10 of its first 14 games, so the final outcome — an 80-71 defeat — was immaterial, but Stoddard had joined the team to finally act on the lifetime of regrets he had accumulated, and he didn’t want to add another disappointment to the ledger.

In September 2017, Stoddard enrolled as a freshman at Algonquin College, one of Canada’s largest public colleges. Not long after, the accounting major joined the basketball team. But Stoddard wasn’t just acting on a whim, a loosely conceived midlife crisis outfitted in size 14 Air Jordan 8s: Stoddard, who is known around campus as “Old Man Dan,” has serious hoop dreams. “You can call it lunacy,” he told me over tea with honey at Tim Hortons on campus. “I’m not saying I’ll make the NBA or go play overseas, but I want to get to a point where I can do it.”

He knew others would think this experiment was crazy — during the Thunders’ preseason schedule, Stoddard heard the laughter from opposing coaches and players — and he even realized that his endeavor reeked of desperation, but he never felt the pull of quitting. “If I’m not talented enough, I can live with that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to put in the effort to be the best player I can be,” he told me. “I don’t want to be wasting time hemming and hawing thinking about it.”

Most of Stoddard’s teammates are at least two decades younger than he is; at first, they thought of him as something of a sideshow, but Stoddard’s commitment to training earned him respect: “They see me on Instagram at the gym at 5 a.m., and they see me in practice every day, and they understand how dedicated I am to the team.”

According to Trevor Costello, Algonquin’s head coach, “All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain. He sprained his ankle before last Christmas, and after a twelve-hour shift driving a bus, his foot down on the ground the whole time, his foot was the size of a watermelon. He’s just so dedicated. Fuck, if he was a real stud, he’d get us thirty points a game. But he’s working — he’ll be better next year.”

Photo by Brendan Burden

Yusuf Ali, Seneca’s guard, didn’t initially understand Stoddard’s passion. He was taken aback when the two teams first met in November — “[Stoddard] looked so old, it was very confusing,” he told me — but before the February rematch, he congratulated Stoddard: “I told him it was an honor to play against him. I know people out there are scared of the risks to pursue their dreams, so he is a hero in my eyes. This doesn’t happen every day.”

At the start of his freshman season, Stoddard experienced something of a 15-minute burst of fame in the Canadian press; several outlets featured his journey for the same reason — his story touches the very base emotions of our human core — but then the novelty of his quest wore off. Now, he’s just a player with immense hustle in a changing body still growing accustomed to the grueling athletic demands of a college athlete.

‘All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain.’

The now 40-year-old is more than a publicity stunt, and although he’s taken it to the extreme, Stoddard’s career is part of a trend of competitive athletics taking hold among adults well into and beyond their 30s: Of the 2,500 or so adults surveyed for  a 2015 study commissioned by Harvard, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, only a quarter said they’d played or participated in some sport in the past year. But of that quarter, a large majority played once a week or more. The majority play mostly because they enjoy doing so, but 23 percent said they played mainly for health reasons. Stoddard’s quest is emblematic of this shift. Not only does he plan to keep attending and playing for Algonquin for the next three years, after which point he will be 42 years old, but he has also already lost nearly 150 pounds pounds in a 12-month period and hopes to drop nearly 200 pounds total by the time he graduates.

Where Stoddard differs from those other midlife warriors, though, is that he would actually like to continue playing beyond Algonquin — to explore the possibility of becoming a pro athlete. Stoddard claims ex-pros have been encouraging, and his stats, were they those of a 19-year-old are promising: Through 21 games of his sophomore season, the center averaged 6.4 points and nearly five rebounds per game, and his field goal percentage (54.7) was  fourth-best in the conference. During a November win against Georgian College, Stoddard barely missed a double-double (10 points, nine rebounds), hustling up the court in a high-paced (77 possessions) game, which he could never have done when he joined the team.

But still, the facts are glaring. Stoddard has spent decades willing his body across eastern Ontario; stabilizing badly sprained ankles with tightly bound boots while working a 100-hour week at a construction site; falling 22 feet from a ladder and breaking his hand, only to cut the cast off to avoid unemployment. Stoddard estimates he has had about 60 jobs since graduating high school; construction, sewer maintenance, a bouncer who once fought off a knife-wielding assailant — you name it. The work has put an untold amount of stress on his body. It has, in other words, been through the wear and tear that everyday life requires.

“To jump in at the top rung without developing one’s body fully is a recipe for disaster,” said Andre Deloya, a retired sports trainer with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The predictive formula is not rosy. Our bodies are developing, evolving, and positively growing until the age of twenty-five, which is the peak of the mountain. After that, we all start to deteriorate.”

Stoddard is aware of the risks, but to his mind, they make his current moon shot all the more enticing: Who could have possibly conjured up a tale of a bus driver to the Algonquin hardwood (and potentially beyond)? “The reality is that when growing up, you see the NBA, and that’s where you want to be,” he said to me when I met him in February 2018. “It’s the best, and you strive for the best. You don’t just want to be the guy no one remembers. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

He added, “So what if it happened at forty-two? Who gives a shit. I’ve always said age is a number, but that’s bullshit. We all know it’s old, especially when it comes to basketball. But if you can play, you can play, and I just want to have the definitive answer, to have someone tell me I don’t have the talent to make it at the highest level. It’s just to know.”

***

According to his Ottawa-Carleton (OC) Transpo colleagues, Stoddard’s a “big teddy bear,” someone who “shoots the shit” in the locker room between his daily bus routes. “I’m always honest and I don’t beat around the bush,” he told me, detailing his childhood in what he calls the boondocks of Ontario, helping his father to build houses for a burgeoning community on what previously had been acres and acres of farmland. Stoddard had a sheltered upbringing: If he wanted to visit friends, he biked several miles to the next town, which explains why he didn’t take to basketball until high school. “I was a teenage kid doing nothing,” he explained, adding that until the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors expanded north of the border in the mid ’90s, he had never watched a basketball game on television.

Stoddard started playing a bit early in high school, but in 11th grade he sprouted and added several inches to his frame. While he lacked coordination and his understanding of the game was limited, a player with his size — by then 6-foot-8 — was very much in demand. “My center of gravity was thrown off,” he said, “and after six months of being messed up, I had to retrain my body’s balance. I was just a tall guy.” Stoddard flunked out of high school before he could improve upon his burgeoning basketball skillset, and his biggest regret, he told his family, was that he didn’t play organized basketball beyond high school. That failure gave way to a chip on his shoulder, one fueled by a sole thought: Why didn’t he succeed on the court? No matter the highs in his life, the nagging perception remained. I spent a long part of my life not knowing what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to be perceived, or the legacy I want to leave behind,” he said.

“Once I achieve a limitation or a goal or an understanding of what I’m doing, I get bored quickly,” he continued. “I tend to drive myself a thousand miles a minute.” And off the court, that chip was a hindrance — dropping out of college after a semester or two, he rebuffed his father’s offer to take over the family’s construction business. “It felt like he was encroaching on me, and I couldn’t be bothered,” said Stoddard.

Stoddard forced himself to do things for the health of his own family — working those 100-hour work weeks to not only provide for his son and daughter but also to help pay for his wife, Amanda, to get a nursing degree in palliative care. Basketball was his one outlet that provided unfettered joy; it was his lone constant and getaway from the demands of life. “You fend for yourself, and you take care of yourself,” he said. But on the court or at the playground, he wasn’t a construction worker, a sewer company employee, a garbageman, a nightclub bouncer, or a husband married at 20 years old and father of two teenagers.

Photo by Brendan Burden

He could be found on the playgrounds of eastern Ontario at least four nights a week, finally “doing something for me, and not for the family.” All those reps had an added bonus, transforming Stoddard into an immovable center with an unguardable skillset. His hulking frame — “I told people that I weighed 386 pounds, but that’s only because it was the last number on our scale, so the notion I weighed somewhere around 400 pounds isn’t far-fetched” — belied a pick-and-pop nimbleness with a soft touch around the basket. By 2017, he was “crushing” guys with backgrounds more advantageous than his.

Each summer, Stoddard participates in a high school alumni tournament. It’s very low-key: #BallIsLife during the two-day round-robin setting, burgers and beers at night. Stoddard’s team — a roster of mid-’90s graduates, the group’s name is “We’re So Old It Doesn’t Even Matter” — was typically good enough for a win or two but unable to compete with others in their athletic prime. But few teams had a player Stoddard’s size, and even fewer had a player of Stoddard’s size who, prior to the tournament’s tip, was balling a dozen-plus hours a week.

As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, ‘Look at the size of you! You could play for my team.’

When he isn’t coaching the Thunder, Costello supports himself through refereeing (he also works at an elementary school as an educational assistant and spends his nights overseeing a group home), and he was refereeing Stoddard’s alumni tournament that summer of 2017 when he first spotted the ultimate diamond on the blacktop. Stoddard’s play was a revelation to the coach, who was about to coach his 18th season at a school that had once been the crown jewel of the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association but recently tumbled down the rankings. “The best Canadians who don’t cross the border to play college basketball play in the OUA,” said Costello. “That’s the dream for most kids”.

He added, “The last few years haven’t been good. I don’t want to demean it, but Algonquin is a last chance resort. It’s tough to get kids.” Three players Costello expected to join the team bailed before ever arriving on the Ottawa campus, and his lead recruiter had taken a new job, which prevented him from working Algonquin’s sidelines.

As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, “Look at the size of you!” recalled Stoddard. “You could play for my team.” The more he thought about it, the more the coach began to formulate a different sort of recruiting pitch. Yes, Stoddard was clearly overweight, but few teams in Algonquin’s conference had a taller player. On a team whose prospects were already dim for the upcoming season, inviting Stoddard to try out didn’t seem much of a gamble. “I’m all about winning games,” explained Costello. “Dan was far from a sideshow. I’m hardly getting paid enough to do this as a goof. Did I know he would ultimately end up starting for us? That might be pushing it. His upside is far from that of a twenty-two-year-old, but his brain is working so much harder.”
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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 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.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

What’s a Good Hourly Wage for Developing PTSD?

If you haven’t read Casey Newton‘s haunting story about Facebook moderators at The Verge, it’s not too late. Next time you’re mindlessly scrolling there and liking dank memes, spare a moment for moderators like Chloe, who are shouldering a traumatic burden — but at an outsourced content moderating center, so they aren’t supported or compensated like actual Facebook employees.

The moderators told me it’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”

Chloe cries for a while in the break room, and then in the bathroom, but begins to worry that she is missing too much training. She had been frantic for a job when she applied, as a recent college graduate with no other immediate prospects. When she becomes a full-time moderator, Chloe will make $15 an hour — $4 more than the minimum wage in Arizona, where she lives, and better than she can expect from most retail jobs.

The tears eventually stop coming, and her breathing returns to normal. When she goes back to the training room, one of her peers is discussing another violent video. She sees that a drone is shooting people from the air. Chloe watches the bodies go limp as they die.

She leaves the room again.

Read the story

Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me

Associated Press / Unsplash / Virgin Records / Vertigo Records

Kimberly Mack | Longreads | February 2019 | 28 minutes (7,118 words)

 

“Will you sing to me?”

My mom’s pain had subsided for the moment, and her voice was strangely perky. Happy even. The morphine had kicked in. She was strapped in tight, on a stretcher, at the back of the ambulette. An assortment of pillows and towels cushioned her body to protect her from the impact as the wheels slowly rolled over each pothole, each bump, each uneven patch of street.

I had been warned that the ride from Midtown Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital to the Lincoln Tunnel would be the worst of it — a minefield for my 68-year-old mother, whose stage-four uterine cancer had metastasized to her liver and lungs and, as her palliative care doctor characterized it, “filled her entire abdominal cavity.” It was the pain that finally got my mom to visit the doctor seven weeks earlier. There had been other signs, but she had refused to go to the doctor before that, only repeating to me what I’d heard her say when I was growing up: “Doctors look for problems…they make you sick.”

It was August 2015. We were now headed by an ambulette service to my new home in Toledo, Ohio, ten hours away, where I was a college professor. The plan was for her to first spend a few weeks at a skilled nursing facility, so she could relearn how to walk after her recent long hospital stay. That would give us time to order a hospital bed and other medical supplies before bringing her to our house for in-home hospice care. I had been looking forward to showing my mom our new home ever since I texted a picture of it to her after we found it in June.

“Look, Mom!” I wrote. “I can’t believe the house comes with such colorful flowers. There are dark pink rose bushes in the backyard.”

“Oh Kim, it’s so beautiful,” she texted back.

“I can’t wait for you to see it,” I replied. And that was true. Neither one of us had lived in a house before.

Read more…

‘What Would Social Media Be Like As the World Is Ending?’

Hulton Archive / Getty, Greywolf Press

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | February 2019 | 22 minutes (6,069 words)

 

Mark Doten is a deranged seer, a mad scribe mapping the end of the world. In The Infernal, his wonderfully strange first novel, he tackled a host of twenty-first century horrors: Osama Bin Laden and his followers, the moral disaster of the War on Terror, the gravitational pull of the networked world on our minds, and a seemingly inevitable post-human future in which one of the few survivors is Mark Zuckerberg. Now, in Trump Sky Alpha, Doten’s produced a fierce, unexpectedly moving, and surprisingly quickly conceived book about the Trump presidency. The new novel begins with a nuclear conflagration that wipes out 90 percent of the global population. The protagonist, Rachel, a journalist steeped in the folkways of the internet, is one of the few survivors. In an effort to reboot American journalism, the New York Times Magazine, risen from the ashes, assigns her to write an article about internet humor at the end of the world. What were people tweeting as the bombs fell?

It may sound like a deliberately obscure assignment, but it soon takes Rachel into some of the darkest corners of the post-apocalyptic American landscape. Mourning her dead wife and child, Rachel is also searching for their final resting place; along the way she finds a new lover, encounters an American security state that seems just as malevolent as its pre-apocalyptic forebears, tangles with a frightful hacktivist-turned-cyber-villain, and meets a novelist dying of radiation exposure who may be the key to it all. Trump Sky Alpha begins as an elaborate farce and ends as something much more grim and compelling, covering issues of politics, resistance, identity, and what, after all these years of mindless info-consumption, the internet actually means to our society. Read more…

Atlantic City Is Really Going Down This Time

Illustration by Matt Chinworth

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,579 words)

Atlantic City covers the northern third of Absecon Island, a barrier island made up of an alarming amount of sand. It is a bad town to die in — there are plenty of vacant lots but no cemeteries. In many places, if you dig down more than eight feet you hit water. A couple blocks away from the beach, the Absecon Lighthouse is built on a submerged wooden foundation for exactly that reason — so long as you keep wood wet and away from oxygen, it won’t rot. “We haven’t tipped yet,” said Buddy Grover, the 91-year-old lighthouse keeper, “but it does sway in the wind sometimes.”

“The problem with barrier islands is that, sort of by definition, they move,” said Dan Heneghan. Heneghan covered the casino beat for the Press of Atlantic City for 20 years before moving to the Casino Control Commission in 1996. He retired this past May. He’s a big, friendly guy with a mustache like a push broom and a habit of lowering his voice and pausing near the end of his sentences, as if he’s telling you a ghost story. (“Atlantic City was, in mob parlance … a wide open city. No one family … controlled it.”) We were standing at the base of the lighthouse, which he clearly adores. He’s climbed it 71 times this year. “I don’t volunteer here, I just climb the steps,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting than spending time on a Stairmaster.” The lighthouse was designed by George Meade, a Civil War general most famous for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. It opened in 1857 but within 20 years the beach had eroded to such an extent that the water was only 75 feet away from the base. Jetties were added until the beach was built back out, but a large iron anchor sits at the old waterline, either as a reminder or a threat.

A little more than two years ago, when I was an intern at a now shuttered website called The Awl, I went out to Atlantic City to cover the Trump Taj Mahal’s last weekend before it closed for good. My first night there I met a woman named Juliana Lykins who told me about Tucker’s Island — New Jersey’s first seaside resort, which had been slowly overtaken by the sea until it disappeared completely. This was a month before the election. The “grab ’em by the pussy” tape had just broken, it was pouring rain, the city was on the verge of defaulting on its debts, and 2,000 casino workers were about to lose their jobs. At the time — my clothes soaking wet, falling asleep in a Super 8 to the sound of Scottie Nell Hughes on CNN — it was hard to understand what Lykins was saying as anything other than a metaphor for the country. I missed the larger menace and focused on the immediate. Trump was elected obviously, but Tucker’s Island wasn’t a figurative threat; it was a very straightforward story about what happens to coastal communities when the water moves in. Read more…

The Battle Over Teaching Chicago’s Schools About Police Torture and Reparations

Illustration by Cha Pornea

Peter C. Baker | Longreads and The Point | February 2019 | 35 minutes (8,900 words)

This story is produced in partnership with The Point and appears in issue no. 18.

“What do you know about Jon Burge?”

Barely seven minutes into her black-history elective on the morning of April 16th, Juanita Douglas was asking her students a question she’d never asked in a classroom before, not in 24 years of teaching in Chicago’s public schools. She’d been preparing to ask the question for over a year, and she knew that for many of her students the conversation that followed would be painful. Disorienting. She didn’t like the idea of causing them pain. She didn’t want to make them feel overwhelmed or lost. But she thought, or at least hoped, that in the end the difficulty would be worth the trouble.

It was only second period. Several of Douglas’s students — a mix of juniors and seniors — were visibly tired. A few slumped forward, heads on their desks. I was sitting in the back row, so I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought one or two might be fully asleep. Some were stealthily texting or scrolling through Snapchat. Others were openly texting or scrolling through Snapchat.

After a few seconds, Douglas repeated the question: “Do you know Jon Burge?”

A ragged chorus of noes and nopes and nahs.

“Tell me again what year you were born in,” said Douglas, who is 54 and likes to playfully remind her students that they don’t know everything about the world.

2000. 2001. 1999.

“Okay,” she said. “Well… Welcome to Chicago.”

Like so many new curriculum units in so many high schools across America, this one began with the teacher switching off the lights and playing a video. Who was Jon Burge? The video supplied the answer. Burge was a former Chicago Police Department detective and area commander. Between 1972 and 1991 he either directly participated in or implicitly approved the torture of at least — and this is an extremely conservative estimate — 118 Chicagoans. Burge and his subordinates — known variously as the Midnight Crew, Burge’s Ass Kickers, and the A-Team — beat their suspects, suffocated them, subjected them to mock executions at gunpoint, raped them with sex toys, and hooked electroshock machines up to their genitals, their gums, their fingers, their earlobes, overwhelming their bodies with live voltage until they agreed: yes, they’d done it, whatever they’d been accused of, they’d sign the confession. The members of the Midnight Crew were predominately white men. Almost all of their victims were black men from Chicago’s South and West Sides. Some had committed the crimes to which they were forced to confess; many had not. The cops in question called the electroshock machines “nigger boxes.”

The video cut to Darrell Cannon, one of the Midnight Crew’s victims. He spoke about getting hauled by cops into a basement:

I wasn’t a human being to them. I was just simply another subject of theirs. They had did this to many others. But to them it was fun and games. You know, I was just, quote, a nigger to them, that’s it. They kept using that word like that was my name… They had no respect for me being a human being. I never expected, quote, police officers to do anything that barbaric, you know… You don’t continue to call me “nigger” throughout the day unless you are a racist. And the way that they said it, they said it so downright nasty. So there’s no doubt in my mind that, in my case, racism played a huge role in what happened to me. Because they enjoyed this. This wasn’t something that was sickening to them. None of them had looks on their faces like, ugh, you know, maybe we shouldn’t do this much. Nuh-huh. They enjoyed it, they laughed, they smiled. And that is why my anger has been so high. Because I continuously see how they smile.

Text on the screen explained that Burge was fired in 1993, following a lawsuit that forced the Chicago Police Department to produce a report on his involvement in “systematic torture,” written by its own Office of Professional Standards. After his firing Burge moved to Apollo Beach, Florida, where he ran a fishing business. In 2006 another internally commissioned report concluded that he’d been a torture ringleader, but still no charges were brought; the Illinois five-year statute of limitations for police brutality charges had by then expired. In 2008 FBI agents arrested Burge at his home, and creative federal prosecutors charged him — not with torture, but with perjury. In a 2003 civil case, Burge had submitted a sworn statement in which he denied ever taking part in torture. In 2010 a jury found him guilty. After the trial, jurors pointed out that the name of Burge’s boat — Vigilante — hadn’t helped his case.

As soon as the video ended and Douglas flipped the lights back on, her students — most of whom were, like her, black — started talking. Their confusion ricocheted around the room.

“How long did he get?”

“Four-and-a-half years.”

“He only got four-and-a-half years?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“I really feel some type of way about this.”

“Is he still alive?”

“I’ve got it on my phone.”

“He didn’t torture them alone. Why didn’t anyone else get charged?”

“I’ve got it on my phone. He’s still alive.”

“I’m just… angry.”

“He lives in Florida!”

“Didn’t no one hear the screams?” Read more…

The Lost Boys of #MeToo

Lee Roth / AP, Herman / Corbis, Dave Hogan / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)

At the end of An Open Secret, the 2015 documentary by Amy J. Berg about child sex abuse in Hollywood, a card reads: “The filmmakers emphasize that this is not a gender based issue. We chose to tell these specific stories, but they are representations of a greater issue that affects both boys and girls.” It was an odd thing to read after watching a 99-minute film — one that could not secure a distributor and was self-released on Vimeo — in which no girls were mentioned. Whether or not it was intentional, the statement had the effect of equating the two genders, erasing any nuance that might exist in a male victim versus a female victim. It leaves the impression that the abuse we predominantly talk about  which, in our current climate, targets girls and women  is the standard. So the way girls and women are mistreated and how they react to this mistreatment is how all of us do. The fallout from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and R. Kelly is the fallout from Michael Jackson and Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer and Gary Goddard. Read more…