May 20, 2016 - 2:59pm
When Alan Rusbridger retired last year after two decades as the editor of The Guardian, he was lauded as one of the finest journalists of his generation, having transformed a midsize British newspaper into an international digital media giant. He racked up a string of investigative scoops and made the organization a darling of left-leaning readers around the English-speaking world.
But Mr. Rusbridger on Friday departed the organization to which he had devoted his career. With mounting financial losses that threatened The Guardian, he was forced to give up the plum role he was set to assume in September, as chairman of the Scott Trust, the nonprofit organization that owns The Guardian.
Mr. Rusbridger’s decision to cut ties with The Guardian follows a series of events that made his presence seem increasingly untenable: lingering resentments from a battle over his replacement as editor; a string of articles detailing the paper’s deteriorating finances; and, finally, a clash with his successor, Katharine Viner, who helped spearhead his strategy for international growth but now faces a period of retrenchment.
The tensions, playing out on a public stage, deviate from the familiar news media angst in the digital world, where print’s changing fortunes can create upheaval at the top.
In his resignation statement, Mr. Rusbridger, 62, seemed to imply at times that he had been undone by the new regime — which he helped put in place — as well as a rapidly shifting environment in which even forward-thinking news organizations hemorrhage money while titans like Facebook and Google devour advertising revenue.
The Guardian lost an estimated 45 million pounds, or $65 million, last year. It is seeking to cut its annual budget of $380 million by 20 percent over the next three years. It is cutting its British work force by 310 positions — 250 job cuts and 60 vacant positions that will not be filled — or 18 percent of the total.
“Much has changed in the year since I stepped down,” Mr. Rusbridger wrote in a memo to The Guardian’s staff members on Friday, stating that the leadership of The Guardian — David Pemsel, the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, and Ms. Viner, the editor — no longer wanted him to take over the Scott Trust.
“We all currently do our journalism in the teeth of a force-12 digital hurricane,” Mr. Rusbridger said in the memo. The leaders of The Guardian “clearly believe they would like to plot a route into the future with a new chair,” he said, adding, “I understand their reasoning.”
A central point of disagreement within The Guardian has been its refusal — for Mr. Rusbridger, virtually an ideology — to charge online subscribers, as news organizations like The Financial Times, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have come around to doing. The Guardian has recently experimented with a membership model that amounts to seeking donations, but Mr. Rusbridger insisted that a digital pay wall would be at odds with the newspaper’s editorial mission.
Under Mr. Rusbridger, The Guardian invested hundreds of millions of dollars in expansion, fueled in part by proceeds from the sale of a trade publication, Auto Trader. The Guardian Media Group’s investment fund had been shrinking recently at an alarming rate — to £740 million in January, from £838.3 million in July.
The Guardian, which started in Manchester, England, in 1821, built a presence in Australia and the United States beginning in 2011. It seemed to move easily into the digital realm, staffing 10 bureaus in the two countries and hiring more than 50 reporters.
Along the way, Mr. Rusbridger racked up an investigative hat trick, with electrifying scoops on illegal phone hacking by British tabloids, the WikiLeaks trove of diplomatic cables, and leaks from Edward J. Snowden describing the vast electronic surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. The Guardian won its first Pulitzer Prize in 2014, shared with The Washington Post, for the surveillance articles.
The Guardian succeeded in significantly expanding its international readership — the company says traffic from outside Britain now represents two-thirds of its digital audience. But its resistance to charging readers for content came at a significant cost.
“He made The Guardian’s mark, and made it an international brand,” said Dominic Ponsford, the editor of Press Gazette, which covers the British news industry. But it was an expensive proposition, and Mr. Ponsford said, “That cost is one of the reasons that its losses are so high now.”
In a statement on Friday, Ms. Viner lauded Mr. Rusbridger as “a truly towering figure at The Guardian over the last three decades.” But she added: “In his email to staff, Alan recognized how much has changed in the year since he stepped down as editor, and that it is right that we all plot a new route to the future. We face a formidable challenge over the coming months in a digital environment that is shifting all the time.”
Current and former colleagues of Mr. Rusbridger’s, who acknowledged criticism of his business decisions, characterized him as a brilliant journalist — not to mention a talented pianist, an affinity he explored in a 2013 book — and nearly universally declined to discuss his departure for attribution, describing it as a sad way to end his affiliation with the institution.
Mr. Rusbridger, who was born in Zambia and graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1976 with a degree in English, started as a journalist at The Cambridge Evening News. He joined The Guardian in 1979, and in 1988 became an editor there. In 1994, he was promoted to deputy editor, before taking over the next year as editor in chief, a position he held until his departure last spring.
Cerebral and academic, with often unruly hair, Mr. Rusbridger had an inner steel that won him admiration and devotion. Early in his career at The Guardian, Mr. Rusbridger led the newspaper’s tenacious investigation of what became known as the cash-for-questions scandal in Parliament, which contributed to the fall of the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major in 1997. Mr. Rusbridger stared down a libel suit against the newspaper by a powerful former minister involved in the scandal, Jonathan Aitken, who was ultimately jailed for perjury. In the hypercompetitive and partisan world of British journalism, Mr. Rusbridger was sometimes a lonely figure, often more admired in the United States than among his rivals at home.
As Mr. Rusbridger’s vision for the newsroom played out, the strategy appeared to have the full support of the top brass. Shortly after Mr. Rusbridger retired in 2015, Mr. Pemsel, the chief executive, said he was “hugely excited at the prospect of managing the next phase of growth at The Guardian, building on our international audience, capitalizing on the many commercial and digital opportunities.” Around that time, another top executive said the company’s finances had been good that year.
Then the bottom fell out. Print advertising cratered, and expected digital money never materialized.
Support for Mr. Rusbridger suddenly shifted, as he was cast as a negligent manager who had saddled the paper with a slew of problems. Janine Gibson, a favorite of Mr. Rusbridger’s who lost out in the race to succeed him, left with other senior Guardian journalists, further shifting the way his legacy was viewed in the newsroom. In January, Mr. Rusbridger’s choice as The Guardian’s opinion editor, Jonathan Freedland, stepped down in what was seen as a leftward shift in the organization’s editorial stance. And Ms. Viner’s plans for the newsroom seemed increasingly at odds with Mr. Rusbridger’s, making the idea that he would soon return, as essentially her boss, increasingly unsavory.
The negative sentiment started to rise in recent months, as several news media reports detailed a rising tide of internal discord, quoting high-ranking insiders who placed the blame for the company’s woes on Mr. Rusbridger’s policies and what they saw as his intractability. A critical article in Prospect Magazine took aim at Mr. Rusbridger’s decisions to “lavish money on new presses and delightful new offices.” It prompted Mr. Rusbridger to strike back, defending the move to make a “significant investment in digital today” in the hope of having a “sustainable business tomorrow.”
It all reached a head on Thursday when the board of the trust met to discuss Mr. Rusbridger’s future. The meeting ended without a decision.
Mr. Rusbridger was by all accounts apparently dismayed by the public back-and-forth and the sour tone at the institution he dominated for so many years. While his supporters framed the decision to go as his, others said he had lost the battle with the trust and had no choice but to leave.
In his memo, Mr. Rusbridger, who is currently the principal, or head, of Lady Margaret Hall, a college at the University of Oxford, wished his colleagues well. In September, he will also become the chairman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, also at Oxford.