“On the vibe” with Alan Rusbridger

Alan RusbridgerThose familiar with my work will find familiarity with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s brilliant essay today about “The Splintering of the Fourth Estate.” It is a terrific read, and I highly recommend you take the time today to read it.

I want to add a couple of notes, because more and more people like Rusbridger are talking about and writing about Gutenberg and the similarities between today and 15th Century Europe. Rusbridger’s piece, however, is the first I’ve read where he connects Gutenberg with the beginning of modernity and today’s digital world as marking its end.

He’s also spot on in referencing Web 2.0 — the interactive Web — as that which is ushering in a new era. So assuming you go read his piece, let me take it one step further.

Premodernism: That era AD in Western Europe dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. The operating mantra of humanity was “I believe, therefore I understand.”

Modernism: That era between Gutenberg and the Web. The operating mantra shifted to “I think and reason, therefore I understand.”

Postmodernism: That era beginning with the Web, the operating mantra of which is: “I participate, therefore I understand.”

Rusbridger also quotes my old buddy Walter Lippmann:

The American essayist Walter Lippmann, in his famous 1922 book,Public Opinion, made it plain that the press could not live without the subsidy of advertising. He wrote of the reader:

“Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper … The citizen will pay for his telephone, his railroad rides, his motor car, his entertainment. But he does not pay openly for his news … He will, however, pay handsomely for the privilege of having someone read about him. He will pay directly to advertise … The public pays for the press, but only when the payment is concealed.”

In the middle of all the turmoil we’re living through, it’s clear that the subsidy model of serious general journalism is – with one or two exceptions – the only one that actually works at the moment. That subsidy may be a trust, an oligarch, a patriarch, a billionaire, a sister company, a licence fee, an income direct from public revenue … or an advertiser.

The context of Lippmann’s thinking in the above quote is the establishment of the idea of objectivity in journalism, which provides the sterile environment in which to sell advertising to support his methods and goals (social engineering). If we’re going to have any serious discussion about how to fund journalism in the future, we’re going to have to be honest with history and ourselves about what we’ve created through Lippmann’s folly. To me, such discussions are useless without this, because we want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want that subsidy to continue to practice that which the public is increasingly rejecting.

My colleague Jim Willi sent me this old piece of wisdom this morning:


  1. Buying a stronger whip.
  2. Changing riders.
  3. Saying things like – “This is the way we have always ridden this horse.”
  4. Appointing a committee to study the horse.
  5. Arranging to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.
  6. Creating a training session to increase our riding ability.
  7. Changing the requirements that we can declare – “This horses is not really dead.”
  8. Hiring contractors to ride the dead horse.
  9. Harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed.
  10. Declaring that – “No horse is too dead to beat.”
  11. Providing additional funding to increase the horse’s performance.
  12. Purchasing a product to make dead horses ride faster.
  13. Declaring that the horse is – “Better, faster and cheaper” dead.
  14. Forming a quality circle to find uses for dead horses.
  15. Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.

To quote Lisa Williams (again), journalism will outlive the death of its institutions. And we’ll all — every one of us — will play a role in it.


  1. i’ll need to remember NOT to take a swig of coffee before reading anything from jim willi.

    now spending the next few minutes wiping coffee spray off the laptop screen/keyboard.

  2. Actually, Lippmann’s idea of objectivity is much more suitable to journalism today than what was actually practiced through most of the 20th Century.

    Lippmann’s definition of objectivity was nothing like the view-form-nowhere-objectivity practiced by most newspaper journalists from the 1950s (or so) on.

    What Lippmann called for was a scientific objectivity, by which a reporter makes observations and draws conclusions.

    This is nothing like the strict objectivity of he-said/she-said journalism that we get from most newspaper journalists.

    For a complete understanding of Lippmann’s view of objectivity, read Liberty and The News.

    FWIW: I believe I’m the first blogger to quote the Lippmann passage on free news some three or four years ago. Since then, I’ve seen it pop up in many other commentaries.

  3. Howard, my view is that Lippmann, Bernays and other members of the Creel Committee were social engineers who used the press to “manage” the culture on behalf of themselves and the élite. He wanted to sell advertising, and that’s what we have today. He is the author of our current confusion and not a hero of journalism. Of course, I could be wrong.

  4. That’s a view I once held — then I read a bunch of his work.

    Public Opinion has been greatly distorted and misrepresented by Noam Chomsky, and that seems to be the source of a lot of confusion about Lippmann’s own ideas.

    Not sure if you’ve actually gone back and read his work … but it’s worth the effort, especially Liberty and The News.

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