“Is it live?” “The pioneers who put the” new “in the news | Digital media

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It’s been eight minutes after I started my interview with Tony Ageh and I managed to ask just one question: How did he start working at The Guardian?

The answer is breathless. The stories overlap and come to a halt as he sketches the media landscape of the early ’90s, delves into the creation of the BBC, Sky, the Radio and TV Times ad duopoly, and tells an anecdote about what his Italian grandmother almost cost him. his career by distorting a crucial telephone message.

It’s quite a spectacle, but compelling, especially for me. As the Guardian’s Head of Editorial Innovation, my role is very similar to that assumed by Ageh 31 years ago, although the digital revolution has forged a very different landscape.

Much of my focus is on how we can use technology to understand and serve our readers, come up with new ways of telling stories, and tackle the overwhelming noise of powerful digital platforms that prioritize user engagement over users. precise information.

I work with our engineers to help create tools that can simplify a journalist’s job, or identify how readers found our work, or ensure that we don’t publish too much. I also need to think about how we interact with the digital giants that dominate our lives. But even though the opportunities are unrecognizable from the early days of Ageh, the core qualities required for innovation seem eternal.

Ageh has entered the digital age without interrupting its rhythm. He started out as a copy hunter for Richard Desmond, broke new ground in printing at The Guardian, laid the groundwork for our digital expansion, and co-created the BBC iPlayer during a boozy night out at the World Service bar. He remains a most thoughtful voice on technology, its potential and its dangers in his role as the digital manager of the New York Public Library.

What is fascinating about Ageh is that so many of its innovations are rooted in pragmatism, efficiency and attention to how systems work. He was recruited in 1990 to solve a specific problem with printing television programs (his solution, The Guide, worked for almost 30 years before being incorporated into the Guardian’s new Saturday magazine last week).

Then his brief, much like mine, was to think “of something that could help that we are not already doing”. He began to experiment, to build a team to explore efficiency, automation, and the ways in which emerging technologies modernized, democratized and simplified publishing.

He turned to the Guardian’s rich journalism archives to create special supplements known as the Guardian Collections. This is another example of how he tackled issues just as relevant to the Internet age: finding quality journalism an audience beyond a single newspaper edition. And it has a recent direct successor in the tools we’ve built to create digital specials from the archives of our Editions app.

The leap beyond printing began after he installed an Atex terminal – an electronic composition system for magazines and newspapers – in his home. Suddenly he was able to see the Guardian from a distance before it was published and he began to wonder if “computers and newspapers could have a relationship.” He pushed the idea with then Guardian publisher Peter Preston and found himself in conflict with a feature publisher who saw potential in the emerging internet but, according to Ageh, was not. necessarily also convinced that it was about a revolution in progress.

“And his name was… Alan Rusbridger. And we argue all the time. So Preston said, ‘I’ve had enough of you two. I want you to go to America, find out what this internet thing is about, and not come back until you agree.

After a long fact-finding mission, the couple returned with “samples” – some of them human beings – for presentation to “a room full of CEOs, editors, very senior officials. the entire Guardian Media Group. “

One of their human specimens, an editor at a major US newspaper, was demonstrating their website when it became clear he had lost the coin.

“And one person finally said, ‘Is this screen indicative or is it news now? And he said ‘Yeah, it’s live.’ And we all look at the screen and it says, “IRA announces ceasefire.” And at that point, everyone in the room was like ‘OK, we get it now.’ “

Before leaving the Guardian in 1995 to move to Virgin, and then finding the revolutionary Upmystreet.com, the New Media Lab was formed with a mandate to cover the digital waterfront at a time when the exact future was in the dark.

They laid the groundwork for the Guardian’s digital presence with a series of developments, ranging from Go2, the original digital embodiment of The Guardian’s Tech Supplement, to the UK edition of Wired magazine. Wired wasn’t a success in Ageh’s eyes, but a story from this era told by colleague Danny O’Brien captures a commitment to openness that remains ingrained in The Guardian and underpins the digital products we build. today.

“The US editor had referred to Wired as being for ‘guys who were teased in school for being geeks and now making millions while their classmates make burgers.’ Wired UK, Tony insisted, was going to be for everyone – even burgerflippers… Why, Tony said, can’t everyone define the future?

It’s a philosophy that traveled with him. He thinks the downside of the iPlayer is that it “only contains BBC programming”. His vision for the BBC Archives was to create a new digital public space based on public content and his work at the New York Public Library is rooted in the same ideals. For him, a library is “the only memory institution that allows artists to take their work home with you. It means you can come back with your own ideas.

If that suggests romance, his answer to the question of whether the internet has been the force for good he once envisioned is revealing.

“It’s military grade technology. I use the word numeric in my title the same way firefighters use fire in theirs. I’m not trying to broadcast it. What I’m actually trying to do is contain it, understand it, control it, and point it where it can be useful. And I fear that the internet unleashed in some places has done more harm than good. “

It’s an answer that captures Ageh’s wit, pragmatism, humor, and clear-sightedness so much, and it’s remarkable for being quite distinct from the typical silly evangelism of Mark Zuckerberg and some other greats. founders of technology. It explicitly matches the way I have to think about the technology and its application to the Guardian more than two decades after we left.

Ageh’s desire to make a difference, and her success, springs from an urgent and thoughtful place, centered on “technologies that are universally applicable, that benefit everyone”.


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