03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Newspaper Editor Against Pay Walls

Newspapers face "sleep walking into oblivion" if they fail to learn from the digital revolution and all "stampede" behind universal pay walls, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger warned in the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp Lecture.

Rusbridger said universal pay walls were "a hunch". It was good for some people in the industry to be trying them - but the newspaper industry would learn more valuable lessons from different players trying different business models, including staying generally free while charging on mobile or for specialist content.

Rusbridger warned that newspapers faced being "unbundled" by free digital sites, some of whom would "begin each day with a prayer session for everyone to follow Rupert Murdoch behind a pay wall."

In the lecture before an audience of journalists and academics in London Rusbridger said that universal pay walls - which attempt to control distribution or create scarcity - were bound to remove journalists from the revolution in information gripping the world today.

"Fleet Street is the birth place of the tradition of a free press that spread around the world. There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started - here, in newspapers, in the UK."

"It's not a "digital trend." It's a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about resisting the people who want to close down free speech."

"If we turn our back on all this and at the same time conclude that there is nothing to learn from it then, never mind business models, we could be sleep walking into oblivion."

Rusbridger quoted Sir Martin Sorrell, one of the most influential figures in advertising, who said he expected the digital share of his $14bn business to more than double by 2014.

Rusbridger said it was too soon - after the worst economic crisis since 1929 - to write off digital advertising as a significant element in supporting journalism. His commercial colleagues at GNM currently believed a pay-wall would earn a fraction of what the Guardian was already earning in digital revenues.

It was not right to hobble the BBC and other excellent public service broadcasters in order to give pay walls a better chance of success. Rusbridger noted that British newspapers thinking about pay walls had to compete with an excellent free Sky TV news site as well as the BBC.

Journalists were learning how to "through edit" stories to use the best of print and digital. A linked world of information produced better journalism - because it got at the truth more effectively - and was preferred by many readers, who wanted to compare multiple sources.

Governments, NGOs, scientists, arts organisations and universities were all learning how to publish their own content and link it. Newspapers had to be part of this web, not simply "on" it.

Rusbridger said that newspaper's growth of digital audiences ought to be a cause for celebration. "In an industry in which we get used to every trend line pointing to the floor, the growth of newspapers' digital audience should be a beacon of hope." He said the Guardian's digital growth was currently running at 40 per cent - with serious areas of content growing fastest.

"Growth isn't being bought by tricks or by setting chain-gangs of reporters early in the morning to re-write stories about Lady GaGa or Katie Price. In that same period lat year, our biggest growth areas were environment (up 137%), technology (up 125%) and art and design (up 84%)."

He noted that roughly a third of the Guardian's 37m unique users came from North America - at a total marketing spend over 10 years of only $34k. He contrasted the influence of UK papers in the US with that of 50- odd years ago, when the Manchester Guardian's total foreign sale was 650.