She started as a print-business reporter and later became the digital leader at The Guardian. One concern has always been around her: how technology is affecting everything in an unknown and unprecedented magnitude. Now, as the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Emily Bell is trying to figure out the present and future of the profession in an ever changing landscape. We talked with her after she delivered the keynote “How to save journalism (and democracy) from Facebook” at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile, in November 2016. » Versión en español.
—I want to go a few years back. Can you describe your journalistic mindset when you started working at The Guardian?
I’d already been a print journalist, business journalist, for 10 years. And most of that was with The Observer newspaper which was a Sunday paper that The Guardian bought. I was already a business journalist covering mainly media and advertising but increasingly technology. So from about 1992 or 1993 a lot of my job was really about trying to understand from a business perspective, a journalistic perspective, what was happening with converging technology.
» In 2000 Alan Rusbridger was my distant boss. He was the editor in chief of the whole organization but he was not my direct boss. We had a conversation about what the right strategy should be for The Guardian on the web. I really wanted to start a media site because I felt that I couldn’t read the stories that I wanted to read. I mentioned this to Alan, who is very decisive. And he said “Well, you should come and do that.” By that time I was actually business editor of The Observer and people thought it was a slightly crazy move, because if you have that kind of job with a department of journalist on a newspaper, the idea you would give up to go and start something online was at that time still quite a big career risk.
» I was still relatively young. I thought hard about making the transition. This was a time when people were starting and doing things for the first time on the web. So I really wanted to pursue that, which is what I did. So my mindset was “This is going to be really significant, is going to change everything about journalism.” I am a media writer and commentator and business journalist and it felt to me like there couldn’t be a better move to really be doing that job, particularly in a news organization where the leadership—which is really Alan Rusbridger—wanted to make a successful transition.
—I want to quote you from a post on The Guardian, dated September 5th 2000, when the media website at The Guardian was launched. You wrote: “The problem with the internet is controlling the tidal wave of possibilities.” But for a long time reporters, editors, news organizations, saw this more like a problem than an opportunity. Do you think that?
Yes, definitely. And I think it’s lucky that in 2000 I was perhaps ignorant of some of the bigger problems because otherwise I wouldn’t ever have done it. But journalists are curious and intelligent people. I think they knew that it would be a threat to the status quo. That’s never a comfortable position to be in. And I think that The Guardian was unusual in that. People were skeptical about the Internet but nobody was actively trying to stop it. I had colleagues who were in other news organizations doing similar job to mine who had a much harder time. But in general there was great support for what we did among colleagues in the newsroom.
» And my first few weeks I gradually said less and less and less in meetings and listened more, because it occurred to me that particularly the technologists and the journalists and the editors—didn’t matter how old they were—they just had a grasp of really what web technologies meant for journalism, which was in a way more profound than I had. Even though I’d been sort of studying it and writing about, until you are actually doing it it’s very hard to really appreciate what the dynamics are. We had probably at the time some of the best technologists and developers in the world who dealt with the content and format. And listening to them and hearing their vision of what we could be on the web was incredible exciting. Sometimes we encountered other journalists who would say “We know what you should be doing.” My job became as editor to make sure those people did not get in the way when they were wrong.
—In 2010 you moved from The Guardian to Columbia. I am quoting you again from a Wired article: “I am boundlessly optimistic about journalism. I really believe that this is the dawning of our new golden age.” What made you take the decision to move from newsroom to classroom? Everything was going on at The Guardian.
Yes. Ten years is a long time working in that environment. Don’t forget we’ve had some real game changers. I took over as editor in chief so I moved very quickly from being setting up the media website to actually bringing overall control on the whole network. Nine months after that we had 9/11 which changed everything. It absolutely changed everything for us because it gave us a global audience and it gave us a story which redefined how the world wanted to engage with the news.
» People stay in jobs way too long. I thought very consciously about having done it for 10 years. And I started thinking about what my journalistic life was like then as opposed to in 2000. I spent a lot of time in meetings, advising and talking to senior colleagues. I was working now within an environment where getting things done was getting slower and slower and slower. I don’t think The Guardian was different. And also I was aware that I had stopped learning things.
» Just coincidentally, Sig Gissler, who ran the Pulitzer Prize, had rung me. We were friends and we spoke before how online journalism should be recognized by the Pulitzer. And he rang me up and said, “Look, we have this new thing in Columbia. I don’t suppose you’re interested.” And I said, “Well, actually I might be. I don’t know. I feel like I need some change.” I felt we didn’t have it within journalism to make the next set of transitions. The convergences with the world and the open web was getting closer and closer and closer and the engineers are really in charge. And we didn’t really know enough.
» So the opportunity to go in, first of all, work with the new science and train journalists with dual degree. Secondly, the opportunity to actually pass some time to think about this. The third thing was really being in New York. For a long time New York had pretty much been on the fringes. Like everything was happening in Silicon Valley, the media institutions in New York were actually really slow to change, with one or two exceptions. And suddenly in about 2008, 2009, you started to put people doing really interesting things in journalistics startups and it felt like everything, for a short period, was happening right there. It was a collision of factors.
—According to an article by the Nieman Lab, in 2011 you explained three goals of the Tow Center: “experimentation and research in the field; bringing the results of that experimentation back into the classroom; and creating a stronger digital presence for Columbia j-school.” This was five years ago. How do you evaluate those goals today?
I think the transformation of Columbia as a journalism school has been a really tremendous thing to be part of. And I don’t think anybody thought that we would necessarily succeed so quickly and completely. There’s still a lot of work to do. It’s like newspapers, it’s a legacy organization. It has deep roots in very traditional methods of journalism. It’s a long form writing school. I’m not a data journalist. I knew the value of and advocated very strongly. But we didn’t teach any pure computation or data courses, not one. And now I think we have introduced well over 20.
» I don’t want to take credit for that because I shouldn’t. But the Tow Center was definitely part of that. And we’ve had the measures at being able to experiment and find research. We’ve looked at sensor journalism, virtual reality journalism. And we’ve looked at chat apps and user generated content and eyewitness media. And I’m proud of how our research team thought about things ahead of them actually happening.
» We’ve built tools on measuring impact, we’ve done award winning actual combining experimental journalism with ProPublica and with PBS Frontline that runs a sort of virtual reality documentary which won a Peabody award, which is amazing. We’ve done a good job in finding the right subjects and bringing them back into the classroom. For us then the next phase is how do we grow and what are we looking at as our next set.
—You co-authored one of the most cited works to explain the panorama of digital news: “Post-industrial Journalism” with Clay Shirky and Chris Henderson. One of the core beliefs of the report was “journalism matters”. After what happened with the U.S. Presidential Election, the question is: to whom?
It matters to everybody. And I think we lose sight of this. When you don’t have journalism, things fall apart. It is a central part of how intelligence and information and options reach the broad public. For years I used to be asked the same question by an engineer at Google. Every time he would say: “Remind me again. We’re going into a world where there is all the data. And there is all the tools. And there are people. And when you have all that data and the tools and the people, why do you need journalism? What does that layer do?” And he wasn’t saying it to be offensive. As an engineer he was genuinely interested.
» That particular engineer has stopped asking that and actually was sending me lots of links over the weekend about fake news and about what can we do about this, what’s the right conversation to have. How should journalists be working with Google, with Facebook.
» And journalism is not perfect and it has been pretty bad in the past. But the good journalism has always made a difference. And the good journalism continues to make a difference. I think that whilst there’s a real civic crisis and there’s a commercial crisis, there is not a creative crisis. I see better journalism now than I have seen ever in my career. If you talk to the deans or the sort of experienced journalist I work with at Columbia, nobody thinks we’ve left a golden age behind. You have an Oscar winning movie. You had the amazing work colleagues at The Guardian and the Washington Post did with Edward Snowden. You have organizations like Wikileaks who have said “Well, we’re radical on transparency.” Wikileaks has demonstrated really interesting lesson that journalists need to learn from. But it also demonstrates what happens if you adopt a kind of partisan agenda or you’re not fully accountable.
—In the past weeks we have seen tons and tons written about who’s to blame for the results of the election: fake news, echo chambers, filter bubbles, if it was Facebook responsibility, media responsibility. Is the news industry traumatized by the outcome of the election?
The answer to that is a part of it, definitely. Because we now have an authoritarian President with a Chief of Staff who came from a very aggressive right wing hyper partisan website —Breitbart— which doesn’t care much about the truth; is quite happy to publish things which are misleading and wrong, to create a kind of an ideology and an excitement. On one level, the trauma —which is not really about our personal beliefs or how we voted or whatever— it’s kind of legitimate because press freedom is now potentially under threat in America, which is not something that we ever thought would be the case. As as a presidential candidate Donald Trump called out certain media outlets and banned on certain journalists. He has already started to go places without the pool of reporters. He doesn’t seem to respect the idea that you need a link between the presidency and the press. I think the trauma is kind of correct. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
» And I think that it gives us a purpose as any changing regime does. You always have this around an election and now it’s sort of more extreme. To get so many things wrong was a real shock to press as well. We’ve been talking about fake news in a viral context for two years. We highlighted this at a Tow Center report over two years ago with Craig Silverman who’s on the reporting on it now for Buzzfeed. We supported the work that got him onto that track. All of these things play a part. There was failure of the platforms to promote the right information. But there were also just people who was sick of the status quo, who wanted things to change and to see things in a very different way.
—Some people say news organizations should not work with Facebook. Jeff Jarvis says “No, we should work with them.” Is there a middle ground, a balance?
We’ve been talking about this for over two years now. I did a speech in Oxford called “Silicon Valley in journalism: make up or break up?” which was a slightly silly title but it was the point at which I could see that those frictions and that sort of relationship was just going to get closer and closer. There is this question about how do you react to that as a field. Is exactly as you say, it’s a balance. When we wrote “Post-Industrial Journalism” we hit a moment where we weren’t trying to tell people what to do or to predict the future. We were just trying to take a snapshot of what we thought was going on. And I think it was sort of cited and successful because we looked at the unbundling of journalism on an institutional, individual and an ecosystem basis. But I think there are certain things that we didn’t see coming. Whilst we did say that the advertising model is wrecked by the Internet —which is right— we didn’t quite see Facebook with such a dominance. And we always saw a mixed ecosystem of platforms.
» Most media companies now are trying to decide how do they allocate resources to this. How do they negotiate for the best deals. How do they choose which platforms to work with and how much to work with them. And there is a real dearth of information. We know that the platforms have the ability to really pick winners in the news ecosystem. And we’ve seen great disparities between rich and powerful news companies like The Washington Post, The New York Times. [They] inevitably get better access than small local companies.
» The platforms have to be part of the answer. Mark Zuckerberg saying “We are a technology company” over and over again is grounded in a real sense of self preservation and he doesn’t want to take on the responsibility as being the world’s editor. They are the people with all the money. They are also participating in helping our field do good work to make their field work better as well.
—There is an upcoming book, “Journalism After Snowden”, and you interviewed him on December 2015. Can you give us a hint about the book?
Actually “Journalism After Snowden” was the name we gave to a track of research that we did at the Tow Center over two years. And we thought we would use the attention that was given to the NSA cables and the story to asked deeper questions about how journalists work within and with a sort of surveillance state that we had just been made aware of. The book it’s got chapters from people like Jonathan Zittrain and Ethan Zuckerman, Susan Crawford, Clay Shirky, Steve Coll—our dean—Jill Abramson, Alan Rusbridger.
» What we’ve tried to do was all the work that we did over those two years: talking about the legal aspects, talking about the actual story itself, talking about what it meant for national security reporting, what it means for that relationship between technology and journalism. It’s a framing of a lot of the same issues that we’re looking at now, which is what happens when journalism is vulnerable to losing its independence. Whether it’s financial independence or it’s technical independence or it’s political independence. And how should we protect ourselves legally. How should we think about it practically.
» I’m shocked by how relevant some of this or most of it still is. I’m really hopeful that journalism schools, mass communications students, working journalists as well and maybe the general public will find things in there that helps them think through some of the existential challenges to their work or how they think about the free press right now.
—Can you describe your actual mindset and if it’s too distant or close to the initial one you describe at the beginning of this interview?
There are things which I think have happened which concerned me more now. Concentration of power in tech companies is one of them. We sort of knew the world was changing. We couldn’t have anticipated that there would be a small number of companies that would really dominate in the way that they have. Or we wouldn’t necessarily have anticipated that they would effectively become the publishing infrastructure industry. I would not have predicted it would happen so quickly.
» I feel that we have absolutely the ability to reinvent. The disappearance of advertising is a new challenge. Not just to journalism but actually also to the whole of civic society to make decisions about how much they actually value journalism. And whether or not we can make that case in the current climate I think is a real test of the kind of value and strengths of our work. I was never found to the idea of implementing a paywall at The Guardian for all sorts of reasons. But that was a time when building a paywall really meant cutting your work from the public and I’m very impressed by how news organizations have negotiated and been very inventive about introducing different models and methods for people to participate or pay for their journalism. That’s a reason to be optimistic on the business side.
» We can’t ever stop thinking about what our role now is in an environment which is never going to stop changing. And I think more people like me and you can help give other journalist the frameworks to think about what that means for them and how they do their work, which I think is now got to be collaborative rather than competitive. In the next phase we will see journalism redefining itself as this very important but not majority kind of activity within the information ecosystem. I’m not willing to give up yet on the idea this is actually really worthwhile sort of practical, financial and intellectual fight for a free press. And I think it’s arrived on America’s doorstep.