Six insights from Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s AMA on Reddit

One of the most interesting Reddit features from a journalistic point of view is the site’s regular free-for-all interviews with celebrities and prominent public figures, which it calls “Ask Me Anything” — so it’s fitting in a way that the site’s latest guest was Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian (please see our disclosure below). Rusbridger answered a wide range of questions, including some about the British newspaper’s business model and also about its disclosures related to the NSA surveillance story. Here are five of the answers that seemed the most interesting:
— On whether the decision to publish the original WikiLeaks dump of U.S. classified diplomatic cables was stressful or not:

“Handling these big stories (wikileaks, phone-hacking, NSA files) can be stressful. You’re upsetting powerful people, who have the means, the money and the legal firepower to make life very uncomfortable. But if you don’t like stress it’s probably best not to go into journalism.”

— On what impact scoops and investigations like the NSA surveillance story have on the business side of The Guardian:

Complicated answer: huge readership on mobile and website. Hasn’t made much impact on print sales. So, no direct revenues. It has also been very expensive: it’s involved a considerable number of reporters, several lawyers, a great deal of cost in travel/hotels etc etc. Happily, the Guardian has been owned by a family Trust since the 1930s. That means that the main imperative for what we do is journalistic.
The business side of the operation completely support this kind of editorial endeavour because they understand that’s the mission. Having said that, we do have to make money. And this kind of reporting does – hopefully – reinforce a perception of the Guardian as a paper that still does proper journalism. And that, in the end, builds a readership and a reputation. And that’s being reflected in our digital revenues (grew last year 28.9% to £55.9m). So, in the end, good journalism = good business. That’s the theory, anyway!

— On what he thinks about Reddit as a journalistic entity:

“It’s interesting to watch how it crowdsources information and reporting on big moving stories. Sometimes that’s a really good thing, like with Sandy, but at other times it’s not so clear, the misidentification of the Boston bomber being the obvious example. I’m sure the community will keep evolving, though.”

— On the implications for journalism of the Snowden leaks and the Bradley Manning/WikiLeaks espionage case:

“Mostly, it’s all bad. I don’t think most news organisations have remotely considered the threat to journalism potentially posed by the methods revealed in the Snowden documents. One basic question: how are we going to have secure communication with sources in future – by phone, by chat, by email, by anything except face to face contact? And, obviously, the use of the Espionage Act – a first world war panic measure passed in 1917 – to clamp down on whistleblowing is really dismaying. But the US still has the First Amendment. Wish we had one of those in the UK.”

— On what advice he would give a journalism student thinking about entering the workforce today:

“Main thing is to publish. Blog, tweet, write, photograph, tweet, video, code, play around with data – or a combination of all of the above. a) it will keep your journalistic ‘muscle’ in practice. b) if you’re any good, you’ll get noticed. And bear in mind you can do these things at other places than conventional news organisations. Many businesses, NGOs, arts organisations, public bodies, universities, etc are now publishers of extremely high quality stuff. Good places to practise your craft before moving on.”

— On whether he would rather fight a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses, a traditional Reddit question for AMA interviews:

“I thought you’d never ask! I’d rather the former. Just so I could say ‘A duck, a duck, my kingdom for a duck!’ Before I killed it.”

Rusbridger and I spoke about the newspaper and its challenges — both journalistic and financial — during our paidContent Live conference earlier this year. A clip from that interview is embedded below:
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Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.