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Emily Bell

Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Emily worked as a leading print and online journalist and editor for over twenty years prior to joining the Tow Center as its inaugural Director in September 2010. The majority of Emily’s career was spent at Guardian News and Media, first as a reporter and business editor for The Observer newspaper, moving in 2000 to take charge of the Guardian’s network of websites.

As editor-in-chief across Guardian websites and director of digital content for Guardian News and Media, Emily led the web team in pioneering live blogging, multimedia formats, data and social media ahead of many other mainstream news outlets.

Under Emily’s direction, became one of the world’s leading digital news brands, winning four Webby awards in five years for ‘best newspaper on the web’ and numerous other UK industry awards. She continues to write and blog about developments in the media and journalism.

— Columbia University

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John: That’s interesting, I’m here in New York with Emily Bell, at
the Tow Center for Journalism ar Colombia. Emily, why don’t you
tell me how you got here, what your career path was?

Emily: I’ll give you the short version, I won’t tell you very much
about where I absolutely started. I’ll tell you a little bit, I
started journalism is a graduate straight from college in ’87, and
I was really a business journalist.

My first jobs were in agriculture, which was great, then
with a magazine that was no longer around, Big Farm Weekly. Not pig
farms, big farms. And then I moved to the Advertising Age
equivalent in the UK, which is a magazine called Campaign.

And then I moved to the Observer newspaper, where I was for
10 years, and after the Observer, which by that time had been
bought by the Guardian, between 2000 and 2010, I worked for the

I worked entirely there in an online capacity even though my
entire background is writing, reporting and editing. From a subject
matter, I’ve been a business journalist almost by accident, rather
than choice.

But when I got to the Observer the things that I found
myself covering were media, marketing and the business side in the
90s. And the interesting thing about that is, it was the point at
which we have convergence.

We started to see for the first time in the UK, these big
American companies like Liberty Media or actually it’s canadian
company like Can West or some of the cable operators coming in,
digging up roads and putting in fiber-optic cable.

We had Rupert Murdoch and another consortium in the UK
installin dish technology, so really through reporting on that, I
was an expert on things like cable technologies and broadcast
regulation. All I ever wanted to do was be a TV critic, and I
couldn’t be a TV critic.

Then around the mid-90s, because I was on that beat, I
started to go over to the West Coast of the states every so often.
See, you find it quite unusual that companies like Cisco have to
learn what routers were, how is this thing working.

Through that, because I’ve had a long term interest in,
really, the communications business, the natural place you then
turn is into what was happening with that broadband fiber and the

And if you’re looking at anything from a policy and
regulation angle, which I was, as well as a business angle. So, I’m
not a traditional technology journalist.

John: You covered the pipeline, if you will.

Emily: I covered the pipeline, I covered to the convergence, and I
covered to the regulatory issues from this European perspective.
And all of that was remarkably under-covered and also quite
unsophisticated. There were a few really great, focused trade
papers, but a small handful.

John: In the communications world, something like the equivalent of

Emily: Exactly. Because a lot of that hasn’t happened on the UK
market, so any paper that was covering it for stock prices and
things like that, there would have been no real reason to cover
those companies.

You suddenly had Liberty media in a scrap with News
Corporation. You had cable versus satellite, you had the unbundling
of the local loop with British Telecom being privatized. You had
all that. Really, that was my routine term.

Then, from 2000 until 2010 I was editor-in-chief of the
Guardian’s web presence. It must have been four years, between 2006
and 2010, on the board. I was Head of Digital Content, but I never
lost that operational perspective.

That was interesting because you were suddenly dealing, on a
daily basis, with technologies and technology companies. I had to
learn a lot more, a lot quicker than just being a reporter about how to
make certain technology choices.

Listen very carefully to what very smart people were saying
about the progression and development of the application layer of
the Internet, if you like. What we would have to do is to as a
publisher with our data structures.

I had a 10-year fairly hardcore tutorial in the platform
technologies. I was helped by the fact that it had something of a
reporting background in it, already.

I did find it phenomenally interesting, from the very broad
principles as well as to the individual movers and strategies that
were in the market. Then, I ended up here because I’d done 10
years, I’d been 20 years in total in the Guardian Publications. I
still sit on the board as I’m still very involved.

I also joined the Scott Trust which is the ownership board.
I write for them occasionally but at the end of that 10 years
where we’d taken the Guardian from having a million users to having
50 million.

We’d gone from being not at all known internationally to
having two-thirds of all traffic outside of the UK. We’d gone from
being, maybe potentially struggling, seventh in the market paper to
being one of the most progressive.

For publishing we were pretty innovative. We weren’t
innovative in terms of the web, but in terms of the Publishes we
were very innovative.

We weren’t innovative in terms of the web, but in terms of
the publishers we were very innovative. At the end of that you have
to take stock inside, do i want to spend the next 10 years fighting
some of the same battles.

Coincidentally, just as I was deciding I didn’t really want to
do that, I loved the Guardian and I’d like to continue to be there,
Sig Gissler who was the administrator for the Pulitzer Prizes, rang
me up here and said, “We’ve got this startup thing that has
to do with digital journalism. I don’t suppose you’re at all

Honestly, there
were two factors that influenced it, first of all that you got so
operationally bogged down. I wasn’t doing either of the things I
really enjoy doing, one of which was operational editing. I’m a
writer and I say that I love doing that.

I honestly didn’t have time to do the thing that really
caused me some anxiety, which is I knew that things were really
progressing quickly outside the organization, and I never had time
to find out what. This offered me an opportunity to do it.

None of this was here four years ago. It was great to be
involved in that sort of startup. i like the idea. I’m very committed
to public service journalism. Columbia was a really important part of
encouraging those skills and that culture.

It was struggling with its digital mission, not struggling
but they knew it needed one. That’s it. That’s how I ended up

John: That’s a fascinating path, especially because you, like many
of us, got into business journalism almost opportunistically, you
started covering the pipeline of tech and directing it. Were there
any eureka moments you had? In the sense of journalism is going to

Emily: Yes, lots. Let’s think. This is a weird Eureka
moment but it was a Eureka moment. I went to Seattle for the
launch of Internet Explorer. I remember sitting in a room with a
group of European journalists and Bill Gates.

And the guy whose name I’ve forgotten now who was the
product manager or the product director for the Internet Explorer.
I still remember him saying, “I am the man who is leading the
division that Bill Gates said we would never have because the
Internet was not going to affect our businesses.”

That was a Eureka moment because it was the point at which
you realized that, and this was, what, 1994? It’s ’94. That was
when you could about, we have about three people thinking about the
Internet at “The Guardian.”

I followed Netscape, I knew it was going to be a big thing.
But that was a moment when you thought, “Right. Whatever it is that
journalism is doing is not adequate.” That was the first.
The second Eureka moment was sitting at my desk, or standing,
probably, at my desk.

On the 12th of September, 2001, when we looked at the crazy
preceding 24 hours and we looked at our traffic logs. I opened my
email inbox. Nobody had much sleep. We were working through the
night trying to keep the servers up.

It was in those days where you literally came in, started
the Internet at 9:00 in the morning. You finished at about 7:00 or
8:00, the night shift came in, uploaded the newspaper. You started
to get…

But I remember the incredible volume of traffic that we had
from places where we did not, had not, planned to have readers. We
had not planned to have American readers. We had not planned to
have Middle Eastern readers.

You thought, “This is it.” We had literally seen the world
change before our eyes. I do remember thinking, “This is the moment
where everything changes.” Then, 24 hours later, sifting through
our traffic logs and looking at the emails, particularly the

And people saying, “I came across you guys yesterday. It’s
amazing. We can’t get this coverage in the States. Nobody is
talking about Middle Eastern politics.” You realize that you’re
exposed now to a market who’s finding you that you haven’t planned
for. That was the second one.

Then the third and final one, which is an ugly moment, was
in Oxford where we were having a closed meeting with some
executives from Silicon Valley companies. They always wanted to
talk to the media, the BBC or The Guardian or whatever.

We had a meeting. There was Reid
Hoffman, who’s now come up with the grand, good LinkedIn. There was
Matt Cohler, who was at Facebook. These were all people, way before
the business kicked in.

There was a guy who will remain nameless from Google. He’s
no longer at Google. The Google executive…everyone was very
polite to us. But the people in the room, the news executives, kept
saying, “What do you think about newspapers?” Finally, this guy
from Google said, “Look.

What’s happened here is we have listened to what audiences
want and what advertisers want and we’ve made them fit together.”
“You haven’t been listening. We have completely taken your lunch
and eaten it. Not just taken your lunch and eaten it, but we’ve
destroyed the supply line.

You’re never going to be seeing lunch again.” It really ran
through a fairly chilling exposition about, “This is how Google
technology and our thinking has ripped through the center of this
business.” That wasn’t so much the Eureka moment, because I knew
all of this.

We got outside the room, and somebody I was with turned to
me and said, “This is all very well, but they’re not really in our
business.” I remember thinking, “They are in our business. They
understand how to find and surface information, which is what
journalism does and they’re doing it better.

Yes, we’re writing the stories but they’re aggregating
them. We can’t hold back. We cannot be King Canute…
I used to have a slide with King Canute on it. But that’s not an
option. We have to understand how to cope with that.” One final
Eureka moment was Steven Dunn, who is…

John: When was that? First, before you get to Steven, when was

Emily: Meeting, again, it would be 2005 or ’06. In some ways this
was retrospective. This is when you’re beginning to see the real
growth in Web traffic coupled with the realization that it’s not
going to be accompanied by revenue.

We consistently under-forecasted audiences and we over-
forecasted revenue. We couldn’t think beyond the old model. Then,
as I say, an internal Eureka moment was Steven Dunn. He was the
Chief Technical Strategist.

A little bit before this, if you like, Eureka moment with
Google, we used to spend a lot of time talking about things like
the actual structure, the underlying platform structure, and the
journalism that we sat on top of it and how we could make those
two things work.

Steven, who is an absolutely brilliant guy and should be
widely credited with a lot of The Guardian’s success on the Web
because he was such a good thinker, said…He just had this throwaway
line which, again, he says, ‘That was not by me, it’s…” Whoever
it was, some other Web thinker.

He said, “We don’t want to be on the Web, we want to be of
the Web.” I wrote it down and put it, and that was a slide that I
used to, whenever I was presenting, I’d say, “This is what we’re
going to be at the Guardian. We’re not going to be on the Web,
we’re going to be of the Web.”

Not my idea. I wrote it on a slide, so I get to…But
that’s the moment where you think, if you follow that, it sounds,
it’s a trite slogan. To actually do it is really hard and challenging.
It means rethinking your processes. It means rethinking your

It means thinking about that relationship with your
audiences and the broader public as a “publish to” as well as a
“publishing at.” That really informed every single decision that we

It’s like, “This has to be aligned with best practices of
the open Web not just what we think as being journalism that sits
on the Web.” That was it.

John: That was a huge transition in your path, in your career, in
these touchstones that you’ve noticed, that you’ve called out.

That relationship with the audience has been
transformative, because it started with when you were writing, when
you were covering agriculture, I imagine that now and then you
would get a letter through the mail.

Emily: Yes, that was it. And that’s what a lot of my career was
about, really. I’m quite a talkative person, I like to interact
with people. There are two types of journalists. There is a
journalist who likes to be outward facing, hearing from people.

And then there are journalists who love secrets, and like
exclusivity, and that is important as well, because that’s how
investigations get done. I’m not sure whether it is anymore, but
there’s that journalist which is addicted to secrets, controls
their information very carefully.

Even among their colleagues is quite opaque, and I was the
opposite. I was one of those journalists, because you are a media
reporter, you’re on the phone to dozens of people. To trade
information among them, you hear back from them. So, I loved it, I
used it.

There was nothing that gave me more pleasure than one of
my, perhaps not such a great piece of legacy was insisting that the
Guardian, we were first to have comments on stories, and we did it
through commentary first, which Georgina Henry launched.

And I remember that, again, being the first week that we
opened up unmoderated comments to people, being both terrifying and
realizing that we’d done something we hadn’t quite understood
properly, but also exhilarating.

Suddenly exhilarating, thinking this is how the future is
going to be.

This is how it’s going to be. This is how journalism is
going to look, really, really, really different. And that open
access, again, if you are, you have to see journalism as being
something which elevates those with no power against systems of

And you can’t do that from a position, you can have elitist
arguments, but you have to have your ears and eyes open and you
have to be considerate of what people are thinking beyond the walls
of your own institution.

John: Your own institution, but the interesting thing, too, isn’t
it? Here’s the question. Journalists in your earlier role were
definitely, if you go between the public at large and the companies
who covered it. Now, to a certain extent, they’ve been bypassed.

Emily: Yes and no. We went through a phase in the last, it’s 2014
now. We went through a phase between about 2006 and 2010, where the
real, if you’d like, technologists, the Silicon Valley culture said
there will be all of this available data.

And there will be a set of tools that will make it very,
very easy for anybody to find anything. That’s going to happen.
When that happens, you don’t need journalism. In fact, a very
senior exec at a very large search company, every time I see him he
says, and he’s not being entirely disingenuous.

He says “Just remind me again why we need journalists.”
That happened for five or six years, quite recently. The last two
or three years we’ve seen a different story emerge, which is, even
though companies, not just companies.

But governments, sports stars, celebrities, all bypass the
press with their own direct to market routes. Show me footballers
who are not on Twitter, and those are footballers who have had
their Twitter accounts taken away from them because they can’t keep
out of trouble.

But all of those routes that cut out the press are, in a
way, galvanizing and useful because one of the problems that we see
in the technology press is being too close to your sources. I
suffer from that.

And probably myself as someone who covers the media, London
is not a big city and you end up knowing everybody from the
minister through to the director general of the BBC, through to the
director of Ofcom.

And whilst it shouldn’t ever affect your coverage,
inevitably in certain sectors it really does. Tech coverage is one
of those where there has been a really robust debate about this.
So, the fact that you are cut out of the loop, you are an outsider.

You should always be prodding from the outside, and this is
like if somebody is running to you with their story. Are you
trading access for truth? When you talk to political journalists,
who this maybe happens to more than any others.

You talk to the people here, and you look at the studies on
people who follow the campaigns around. The view is it’s
frustrating because Obama, for instance, controls press really
tightly. He doesn’t really like journalists and he doesn’t
interface with them or chat to them in the same way.

He’s way less friendly than George Bush. But at the same
time, the pack following him and covering him, particularly during
election coverage, are saying that it’s very freeing because you
don’t suddenly have to worry about whether you get your 20 minutes
with the president.

You know that you’re not going to get 20 minutes, so you’re
free to probe around the edges, write what you see and not fret
about that window and that one sound byte that you are the only
person. You have to dig deeper and differently for stories.

John: Let’s step back and ask that in a different light. How do
you think technology journalists covered the last 20 years?

Emily: First of all, I would not lump all technology journalists
in together. So, I would say somebody like, let’s say Kara Swisher
and Walt Mossberg have managed to walk a line whereby they are both
revered by the tech industry.

But my God, they break story after story after story
without fear or favor. So, I would say that there are not captured,
but that there has been, it’s almost like I didn’t appreciate this
until living in America, which I have done for the past four
years, since 2010.

But it’s almost like there’s a West Coast/East Coast
culture, and when you go to the West Coast, the proximity of the
tech companies to that, it’s almost like a cultural view of what
constitutes good business practice.

There’s been some Valleywag, TechCrunch, infinite numbers of
smaller blogs. They’ve had a more close relationship with
technology to the point where sometimes they’d hold their hands up and
this and say it is true that they missed stories.

And you have, I think, the more traditional publications which have maintained
offices, have not taken technology seriously enough, quickly
enough. So technology stories should be covered as a human rights story.
They should be covered as a cultural story. They should be covered
as a political story.

And actually for a lot of publications, it was like well, it’s really a
business and gadget or tech story. We’re looking at it still through
that channel that we were looking through in the mid-90s. So I think, so the
press has, in general, been slow to pick up on some of this.

It’s not been sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to be
confidently critical. What I mean about that is, I think that there
are a lack of journalists who really understand what companies are

And what the technologies are enabling them to do and what
the broad implications of that might be. There are a handful of
journalists to understand that very well,there’s Nick Bilton at the New
York Times, Kara and Walt who are definitely in that category.

But of the younger journalists, you look at Alexis
Madrigal, who was at The Atlantic and is now at Fusion. Those are
the people who have been bringing that broader but even they —Re/Code
or AllThingsD-, were covering it from a very much business

Alexis is just one person. Nick Bilton writes, but he writes for
the New York Times. It felt to me as though, weirdly, technology
was almost weirdly over-covered by all of those people lining up for an Apple
iPhone6, but the implications of technology have been

And we are just seeing a few organizations that are waking up to
that. People like Julie Angwin actually at the Journal, who perhaps
wouldn’t have come out of one regards as a traditional tech journo background.
When the Journal produced “What do they know?” I don’t think
it did win a Pulitzer, but it probably should have done,
because people couldn’t quite see…. it was a like a bit of a “So what? We
know they track us that way.” But, for a business publication to
begin to push back on those technologies and practices that was really
good work

And now, I honestly think one of
the big five stories of the next decade or two, along with
climate change, along with the decline of American power in the world,
along with all of those other things, is really the resonance of
technology through every part of society.

And being able to challenge it and pick it apart with some
detail and some expertise from the outside in.

John: Are you optimistic about journalism rising to meet that, or
do you think that the business challenges are going to hamper us?
Are you optimistic about journalism?

Emily: Yeah, I’m pretty optimistic about journalism right now. We
are in the middle of a major transformation program here as every
newsroom is. Our aim is to change the skills and outlook of
students as they come through the door and equip them way better for
the world of information and
data as it comes to them without losing any of those vital skills
of inquiry and narrative, and making people care, joining the dots.
And you see, the falling away of this romance with institutional
journalism, working for “The New York Times” or “The Guardian” or
whoever it is — big organizations looking after your career
forever. We can see that in the mindset of the students who come in
and do well now.

The requirement on them to think quickly and critically and
accurately about things that happen in real time…developing and
giving them the skills and the tools to be able to really mine the
available information and to make sense of it in a way that people
would receive it well.

And then to distribute it through these amazing both
proprietary and one hopes, eventually, non-proprietary platforms.
It’s a really perilous time for journalism. It’s not well-funded.

But the opportunity is extraordinary. We’ve been through
lots of periods in history where you can live in the truly creative
part of the world and find yourself very short of money.

We see over and over again all through the
Enlightenment, all through Paris in the ’20s, you see this
burgeoning of ideas and opportunity and it’s not comforting to
people. It’s awful for people my age, late 40s, that you have to
acquire the new skills or you’re done.

If you’re 22 or 23, you may look at it and say “This is
not going to be a job forever for me. This is maybe three or four
or five years.” But boy, do they really want to do it. Do they
really want to do something which is because it is the best job
in the world and you can now do it with such freedom and creativity.

We’re seeing in America…one of the interesting things that’s
happened even in the time I’ve been here is a mindset that’s gone
from “journalism has to be
profitable to be successful” to “good journalism is probably going
to struggle to be profitable, so we have to find ways of supporting

We’re suddenly seeing external money coming in to
journalism that wasn’t available before — ironically, much of it
from Silicon Valley.

Do I feel optimistic? I’m not sure that…you’re not going
to have a career in this in the way that you might have had in the
’70s or ’80s — or ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, which were the real boom
times for it — -but it’s an incredible field to be going into right

John: Excellent. Thank you very much.

Emily: Thank you. I probably talked a bit too much.

John: That’s OK. We did a half-hour as I…

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