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Rusbridger: 'why The Guardian website will remain free'

Interview: Alan Rushbridger talks apps, internet and The Guardian

In a wide-ranging interview, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger gave David Price, editor of iPad and iPhone User, an insight into his own digital life, and how he feels technology has changed the newspaper industry.

A few days before the interview, Rusbridger emailed us his thoughts on a few more topics. We had asked, among other things, what he thought of the Times iPad app, whether Windows 8 was an influence on the Guardian iPad app's design, and if the paper planned to start charging for its website, since the iPad app will follow a subscription model once the free trial ends.

Is the Guardian targeting its app at a different audience from its print and online editions? Is there any concern that the app will cannibalise sales of the paper, is it hoped that non-paying visitors to the website will be converted to paying app users, or is the Guardian aiming to reach an entirely new readership?

AR: It's impossible to develop an app that will suit everyone's news consumption habits and, for people who want to follow breaking news and live updates, the Guardian iPad edition may not be for them - it's for people who love the Guardian, identify with the brand and want to discover thoughtful, reflective content. We have of course thought about how the app may affect sales of the newspaper but we are not in a position to predict what kind of impact this may have. We will be watching everything very closely, but we have been very open about our new digital-first strategy and how we are shifting our focus to offering our readers a range of ways for them to access our journalism, so that each individual can read our content in the most relevant and appropriate way for them. 

At the moment, having a range of products and apps - print and digital - is the best solution for this. Our range of mobile products is diverse - for breaking news there is the iPhone app, our recently launched Android app, apps for Nokia and Windows phones and, of course, our mobile site, m.guardian.co.uk. Each of these products were developed with different audiences in mind and exist within different marketplaces with well-established commercial models.

See also: Guardian Android app review

In light of the subscription model announced for the app, is the Guardian reconsidering its previously stated intention to never charge for its website? Will the two services always be kept separate, or does the paper view them as the same content, simply viewed via two different media?

AR: No, our website will continue to remain paywall-free. The app is a different product with a different audience, offered within a specific marketplace. But it's important to note that other Guardian iPad apps will follow in the future, and that we'll consider each app's commercial model on a case by case basis.

What has the Guardian learnt from the Times app, and what will the paper do differently? Does the Guardian consider the Times app to have been a success, and was it a factor in deciding to launch an app, and in the final design?

AR: We always intended to launch a news-based iPad app, but wanted to spend some time to learn how people were using the device. We have watched the Times and Sunday Times apps with interest, and there are certainly some interesting elements to their approach which we took note of.

But we wanted to create something that was unique, which was designed specifically with the iPad in mind rather than transferring our traditional newspaper layout to the screen. This is why we took the time to design a product which, we believe, is like no other newspaper iPad app out there. Yes, it is our newspaper on an iPad, but it has been completely re-imagined for the device, which is something our users, so far, have certainly recognised and appreciated.

It's been widely noted that the Guardian app shares some visual styling with Windows 8, and Windows Phone 7. Were those products an influence, or is the 'tile' look simply the best approach at the present time?

AR: The similarities are purely coincidental, and I think we share less styling than people may appreciate at first glance. Our 'grid' grew out of the desire to add hierarchy to the layouts, though it's no surprise that other companies have chosen to divide screens up in this way as it fits the iPad, and other digital forms, very well.

Can professional news gatherers ever hope to compete with bloggers and smartphone-equipped civilians? Is the future of news more opinion- and analysis-based? Was this thinking an influence on the structure of the app?

AR: The Guardian iPad edition is indeed a more reflective read, mirroring the new ways that readers are consuming our newspaper content; half our readers now read the paper in the evening, while they get their breaking news from our website or on mobile. So yes, this did influence our thinking behind this particular app.

However, our open approach to reporting on the web means that bloggers and smartphone-equipped civilians are becoming increasingly involved in our journalism, and our rolling live blogs are a fantastic example of how readers can contribute to our stories thanks to their ever-growing access to technologies - at the Guardian we're collaborating with them rather than competing with them.

Several days later, we spoke to Rusbridger. The interview now follows.

When did you know that you wanted to move into journalism?

AR: Well at university I did what we'd now call being an intern, we didn't then - I just went to work on a local paper during my holidays and I got the bug. So that was in the mid 1970s, while I was still at university.

And have things changed a great deal in the time since then? What's the main difference between the newsroom in those days and today?

AR: Much quieter.

Ha ha.

AR: These people don't... there's a sort of library hush. The job as such, and finding things out, interviewing people, verifying - there's going to be some things that are the same, but in lots of ways, it's such a different business these days. Everything about the publishing schedule, the medium in which we publish, the fact that we're publishing live, we're publishing around the clock, responsive, everything else about the job has changed. Apart from the sort of eternal verities of journalism.

Guardian iPad app

So technology is a major factor in the way that things have changed. Do you think this has added extra pressures to the life of a journalist?

AR: Well, yes and no. Given that the only research tool we really had when I started on the local paper was the library and cuttings folders - in a sense, the fact that you've got the world at your reach and so much information is now published, in a way it's easier.

But I think it's undoubtedly true that the pressures have also grown with that. The fact that you're publishing essentially 24 hours a day, at the same time as bringing out a newspaper, means undoubtedly the pressure... people work much harder than they did when I first became a journalist. And there's more pressure to get things right and to do things quickly.

Do you think that contributed to the way the Amanda Knox verdict was reported in Britain?

AR: It shouldn't do, because the people who are quickest and most accurate are traditionally news agencies like Reuters and AP, so there's... being an agency reporter is all about doing things very quickly and doing things accurately. But it's undoubtedly true that mistakes can slip in if you don't keep reminding yourself that it's better to be late than be inaccurate.

How do you consume the news yourself? Are you a paper man, or an online man?

AR: I still get papers at home, though I find now with the Guardian iPad [Edition], the fact that it's downloaded in the middle of the night, I'm one of those sad people who keeps an iPad by their beds. I use it last thing at night before going to sleep and instinctively it's the first thing I actually reach for in the morning. I still like papers, and still read papers, though I guess if you added up the amount of hours that I look on screen, as opposed to the amount of time spent reading papers, I must be overwhelmingly a screen person.

Guardian iPad app

Do you think the tactile pleasure of a paper - do you think that's something that will help it to survive? I'm thinking of the feel of the Guardian app itself, the way you're touching it and you're involved with it physically.

AR: We were trying to recreate something of the pleasure of reading and the things that a newspaper does well, the things that people like about newspapers. You can scan them quite easily, they have a sense of hierarchy, it's not just all undifferentiated. I think the iPad succeeds on that score. It's very legible, and a lot of thought went into the ordering, you go sort of section by section, and you can find your way around it quite easily. I think you're right - the tactile element of it is also important. One of the gorgeous things about an iPad is that the interaction between the hand and the screen is so intimate and immediate.

What about the Kindle - do you think the novel has a different future to the newspaper? Do you think they'll both go digital in the same way?

AR: I think the main advantage of a Kindle... it's sort of cheap and cheerful, I suppose you're a bit less paranoid about the physical... there's something incredibly precious and shiny about an iPad. Whereas on holiday with a Kindle, you can read by the pool, it seems a more utilitarian object. And it's also easier to read in sunlight. The Guardian on Kindle is a less beautiful thing, it's purely utilitarian. There's much less sense of something that's been designed for a screen. I guess that will change with the new Kindle product, the iPad clone. But at the moment it feels like a different idea.

Aside from the Guardian app, do you have five favourite apps that you would recommend to people?

AR: Right! I use iTalk, just as a sort of brilliant recording device. I use Whiteboard as my main drawing app and in helping do presentations and so forth. i find Dropbox a brilliant way of shifting material between devices. I use Twitterlator, that's my default Twitter product. I use a thing called TuneIn Radio as a portable radio device. Is that five?

That is! Do you also own an iPhone, then, and an iPod?

AR: I did have an iPhone, and at some point I thought in order to teach myself as much about technology as possible, I [should get] an Android phone but I must admit it's irritating me slightly. It's a wonderful tiny portable computer, it's just not a very good phone.

I see. If you use Twitter, then...

AR: But apart from that, I've probably got about 20 pieces of Mac technology, I'm afraid I'm a serious Mac addict. Sorry, 'If you use Twitter...'

I was going to say, do you think that Twitter has changed the perception, or the policing... the idea of defamation? Do you think Twitter makes that impossible to police?

AR: One day there will be a gigantic defamation action, I'm sure, over Twitter. I'm sure it just will happen. At the moment my sense is that it would take a determined plaintiff to do it, particularly if it was obvious that the writer lived abroad. If there's someone who's identifiably based in Britain, it can only be a matter of time before somebody gets sued, and I guess it would just be like any other libel action. But I think it gets very complicated when it's anonymous and/or abroad.

Do you think that something like the Trafigura situation, or the situation in the Middle East, show that Twitter is a force for democratic change?

AR: Yes I do. All these things that enable individuals to become publishers - you can't overstate how radical this is, the way this is going to change the nature of information and how it's passed around the world. So I think it's causing huge changes and we're only in the foothills, really, just beginning to glimpse the ways in which it is changing.

Guardian iPad app

Speaking about the internet more generally, do you think the left or the right wing of British politics is more strongly represented online?

AR: I don't know, actually. I suppose we all have our personal tastes of who we follow - I follow people from all wings of politics, and there are lots of enjoyable people from all sides - but I don't know mathematically or quality-wise whether one side is doing better than the other.

You mentioned in an email you sent before that there would be more Guardian apps in the future. Could you tell me a bit about your plans in that area?

AR: We'll get this toe in the water and see what the... obviously the critical thing from our point of view is the paid take-up. I think when I checked this morning there had been something like 175,000 downloads, so that's way exceeded our expectations two weeks in. But we want to get as much feedback as we can. For instance, one idea we had been playing with was the idea of a time-based app, one that would cover the weekend. But we want to wait and see what the research and the feedback is on the first one before we look forward to the next one.

You can imagine a world in which you can slice and dice newspaper content lots of ways, add different functionality at different levels. So there's quite a lot that we've deliberately not done with this first app, in order to judge how well it's been received. But response so far has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, so I think we've judged that right.

How do you feel about the iOS 5 factor, if you will - do you regret making that a requirement, given the problems that people had with it?

AR: I did find it clunky because I had to do it myself.

Ha ha.

AR: On the other hand, the fact is 175,000 people managed to do it. I don't know how many people got deterred and gave up, but it does suggest that an awful lot of people used the opportunity of getting the app to get it done anyway.

I know a couple of people in the office who upgraded so they could try the app.

AR: Yes. The Newsstand, especially the ability to download it in the middle of the night, is a significant advantage.

Do you plan to add more advertising to the app in the future?

AR: Well I hope so! I think the advertising industry has been quite conservative. They all know they've got to get into this digital game, but they've been quite conservative about making the leap.

I think there's a couple of things that the iPad does rather well. One is that you can interrupt viewing quite effectively by placing ads so that they're more disruptive, if that's the right word. So it's not just a banner ad at the top of the page, you actually sort of swipe and see the ad, which I think is good for advertisers.

I mean, everything looks good on an iPad, but you've got amazingly handsome and beautiful ads, and I think once the advertisers start being more inventive in how they use the ads once people have arrived on their page, in terms of embedding links or video or audio or animation or whatever... I really hope that advertisers do take the plunge and we have more of it.

You mentioned that you're a big fan of Mac technology. What do you think of the company - its effects on the world and on the media particularly?

AR: It's at such an astonishing stage at the moment. When I was in New York last week I went into a couple of Mac shops and it was quite astonishing, just the press to get into these shops and the buzz and the energy. They were absolutely packed in the evening. So there is something. They've created things that are incredibly functional and intuitive and desirable and well made. It's not an original observation to say, [but] is that all down to the inspiration of Jobs, and can it survive his passing on, or has he done enough to embed that brilliance in thecompany? It's a wonderfully interesting and innovative company.

But I think Google is too. And what interests me about Google is that they're much more open, and I'm very interested in open technology and open sources of information. And I think it's great to have at least two companies like... with slightly different philosophies.

Well, I was interested to ask about this, actually. Because the Guardian has recently made its newslists public, is that right?

AR: Yes.

And I was thinking about this, and about apps. And a lot of people think that apps are a way of ring-fencing readers, and they're a way of closing down areas of the internet. Do you think apps can transcend that? Can they bring together different parts?

AR: Well I think if that was all you did, then it would be closing down and walling off. But our ambition would be to have the browser as open as possible. And then for people to want to pay extra for the app because it's got a functionality that the browser doesn't. At the moment we don't know where advertisers are going to go. I would love a world in which hundreds of thousands of people bought the app, were paid subscribers, and that would let us be as open as possible in the browser.

Which songs do you play most often on your iPod?

AR: I haven't got one at the moment. It's all on my iPad. I would have to give you a rather serious answer, which is I'm writing a book at the moment, which is about playing one particular piece of piano music, which is the Chopin first ballade, and it's taken me 18 months to learn it so far. And I can't finish the book until I give a concert in which I play it. So I've got every available recording of this, and I listen to that piece rather obsessively.

I'm a pianist myself. I'm very poor indeed. But I love listening to Chopin.

AR: Well I'm pretty poor too. But I went on a piano course last year, and there was an amateur pianist who wasn't much better than me, who played that piece, and it's just such a difficult piece. And I set myself up and thought, if he can play it, I wonder what it would take for me to play it. So 18 months later I can almost play it.

Thank you.

Guardian iPad app

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