Our outgoing Editor-in-Chief introduces us to his successor, Magnus Nome, and invites us to share the kind of ambitions he has had for openDemocracy over the last six years and onwards into the future.
My childhood summers were spent at the end of a dirt track on the then still quite remote island of Menorca where my grandparents had retired. My mother had spent her teenage years on the island, being welcomed - this was the late '50s, early 60's - into the lives of the young islanders in what one imagines was a charmed, if fraught time. Western youth were just guessing at the various sorts of liberation which were in the air, already audible, for example through the rock and roll they partied to. But Franco, conscription and still raw memories of Civil War were the uneasy backdrop of the excitement.
My mother hung onto the little house she'd spent those teen years in - La Vina, the gardeners' house in the vines at the end of the dirt track - that is still what it is - and last summer I was there with my daughters, now the fourth generation from my family to be imprinted with the rocky, dry Mediterranean enchantment of this isolated place.
The first three days of holiday were spent, for me, doing something that I was not sure was completely in keeping with the spirit of seclusion that so defined la Vina for us: with A..., my brother-in-law, I was jerry-rigging some antennae between F...'s farm up the road and La Vina so that we might get WiFi for the few weeks we were there.
F... had been a teen with my mother; he had gone to prison rather than serve in Franco's conscript army; and he is now retired, online, and proud of what his generation of Menorquenes has achieved, even if today's economic crisis does cast a shadow.
We spent hours in the leaden sun wiring things up, climbing on roofs, pointing tin cans this way and that, trying to swap a router on F...'s balcony for this router hanging out of a top-floor window at La Vina ... we wondered around the fields of prickly pears with WiFi monitor apps downloaded onto our phones as we tried to understand where the signal was getting lost ... until, on day three, A... triumphantly announced that we had a few bytes trickling into La Vina.
All the traditional houses on the island are built with an obsession with collecting water; every drop is saved. There is no ground-level fresh water anywhere on the island. And somehow, the feeling that just a few kilobits would flow down from tin-can to tin-can between F... and us seemed in keeping with the parsimony of flows that so define the place. So even if we were violating the complete isolation of La Vina, we were doing so with measure, sensitivity and retaining something of the spirit of seclusion of what was there before. It was an accident of technology, but a happy one, I thought.
What a shock, then, that those first bytes that came down the dirt track should have come with news of the massacre at Utøya. Those children, also on a summer island retreat, so viciously murdered. That flow of hatred and bullets destroying so much. Immediately, the scale of the attack - a self-conscious attack on the spirit of openness and democracy - became clear. Over the weeks that followed, the responses and debates on openDemocracy reflected the nature of the attack - an attack designed to destroy, to bring down the open and democratic values that we work to build.
It was in that sad environment that byte by byte, down the dirt track, came a remarkable article, and my first exposure to its equally remarkable author, Magnus Nome. It is with great pleasure that I can today announce that it is he who will replace me as Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy.
On my slow connection, I watched the response to Magnus' article grow into the most impactful piece we have ever run, and by a long way, and on whatever measure you pick - tweets, comments, reads, republishes. This article struck the tone that openDemocracy seeks: sensitive, self-critical, analytical, not shying from being critical of others and deeply compassionate. It is a cocktail we don't always get right - but out of the horror of the massacre, this article not only got it spot on, but also showed that when you do, the values of democracy and openness that it so embodied resound and resonate across the world and that people everywhere are hungry for this perspective. Magnus Nome, whom none of us editors knew at the time, was certainly an open democrat, and one with a real talent for communicating the values of open democracy.
It is when open democracy - the values - are most under attack that openDemocracy - the publication - is most needed. This happened early in our existence with 9/11, when a small number of far-sighted organisations funded our work and allowed us to grow. That first big threat to our values made openDemocracy possible.
It happened again with the Iraq War and the ill-fated War on Terror. Indeed, it was my own reaction to the war that personally brought me to my role at openDemocracy. From having been, in 2003, a supporter of war, I came to see in its aftermath that something was deeply wrong with the view of the world that had allowed me to take that position. And I knew that if I wanted to play a better part in the unfolding long war, I would need to understand my error of judgement. openDemocracy was the place to do it: its debates contained the depth of understanding of the world together with the values and judgement that, I now understood, I ought to have been receptive to in 2003. Again, the great threat to openness and democracy that the long war now represents became - in this way that relates very personally to my involvement - transformative for openDemocracy as well.
And so with Utøya and the risks to our values from exclusivist fanaticism, racism and supremacism. Another deep threat; another way in which that threat will strengthen openDemocracy.
Things moved rapidly after Magnus' article for us. I had already warned the Board and my editorial colleagues that it was time for me to move on to other roles and that we should be on the look-out for my replacement. The Board drew up a description of the kind of person we might want to lead an open organisation. Anthony Barnett was, by lucky accident, invited by the UNDP to the Oslo Governance Forum and met Magnus. He called our Chairman David Elstein who said, “Young is good” and invited him to meet with us all in London. We offered and Magnus accepted and Anthony inspired and spear-headed a terrific campaign to raise the funds to allow us to employ Magnus and for him to move to London with his wife.
I am not only enormously pleased that this has happened, I am also enormously proud of openDemocracy and the support it enjoys, the place it has in people's hearts, for us to have inspired such a plan.
This message of welcome is also traditionally a moment to look back at my six years at the helm.
I don't want to do much of that. In fact, I'd like to just leave you with the metaphor that I started this piece with - how I spent 3 days last summer stringing up DIY antennae to sensitively transform the magical and secluded place that is La Vina. I suppose I hope that this is what I have achieved at openDemocracy: in 2006, it was a wonderful publication, but, despite being exclusively _on_ the web, it was not _of_ the web. I quickly understood that my task - with the limited means that not-for-profit online journalism has to spend - was to take it out of its seclusion, to make it truer to its core values of openness and democracy. But I also knew that this carried great risks - that performed insensitively, this transformation could wash away much that was good and unique in openDemocracy's character.
Just as my jerry-rigged antennae let the web into La Vina, but happily in just the right way to preserve its uniqueness, so with my transformation of openDemocracy - especially the recognition that editorial values need to be at the heart of a group publication, that authors need editors to jointly produce valuable and meaningful texts. This was forgotten by many online journalism start-ups, but has been preserved at the core of openDemocracy's model as I rebuilt it.
I also recognised, however, that this editorial core can, if unchecked, run quite counter to the values of openness and democracy that we stand for. My colleague and brilliant deputy editor, David Hayes, taught me the importance of the Gandhian injunction to "be the change you want to see". Editorial dictatorship, I came to understand, could never be the default position of a publication whose values were ours. And so - together with the ever-encouraging and energetic trio of Rosemary Bechler, whom I’d asked to be Editor, Julian Stern, who came in as publisher and then executive director at a time when I would otherwise have been overwhelmed by the task at hand, and Anthony over in OurKingdom, together with all the many, many others who have helped - we rebuilt openDemocracy as a federation of editors - a shared collection of projects with enough centralisation to make meaning, and enough decentralisation to make openness.
Every day as I come to the site to read and browse and publish and participate, I feel joy at the energy and plurality that we now embody, and I feel wonder at the fact that we do this while preserving the core editorial values of quality, meaningfulness and coherence.
It is a balancing act that is evolving and which will lead to ever greater things and an ever more influential collective voice for our values. I can think of no one better to whom to entrust the magnificent and important project that openDemocracy is than to Magnus Nome.
Magnus Nome is taking up the position of openDemocracy’s Editor-in-Chief on 1 June 2012.
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