Simon Waldman, director of digital publishing at the GuardianPart evangelist, part futurologist, the Guardian's director of digital publishing is charged with leading the UK news brand through one of the biggest transitions in the industry's history. As he clocks up 10 years at the paper, he tells how Guardian Unlimited (GU) is weathering the storm.

What has kept you at the Guardian for 10 years?

Well, it's always been interesting. I arrived here in 1996 to work three days a week as a freelance journalist - quite determined that I didn't really want a proper job - but somehow, I never quite moved on. Whenever I've even thought about packing my bags, something fascinating has always emerged and there's always been plenty for me to do.

In addition to that, there has been a long standing commitment to the net from the top of Guardian Newspapers down.

That doesn't mean it's always been easy - but it does mean we've been able to spend most of the last decade building a fantastic online presence and business - rather than constantly having to justify our existence. Lots of organisations have been willing to chuck huge chunks of cash at the net in sporadic bursts, but few, if any, have shown the same level of steady, continuous support - and that is probably the single reason why we've been able to do so well.

The biggest surprise has been everything coming true. Everything we talked about a decade ago is happening now, a bit later than we thought but it's all pretty much there. Blogging; the fantastic growth of broadband in the UK; the spread of Wi-Fi; the digital music revolution; eBay; podcasting; 3G phones that work - all quite remarkable when you think that all of this has really happened in the past decade and much of it, in fact, within the past five years.

Guardian aside, who is doing the best work in online news? Who do you look to for inspiration? And what are you working on at the moment?

Well, I still think we're way ahead of the pack among newspapers and the BBC only ever nudges ahead because it has such a vast resource to play with.

I think the WashingtonPost has done some interesting things recently with mash-ups and Technorati, and at the other end of the scale I think the way that the Newbury Weekly News has adopted video is really quite spectacular given the scale of its operation.

What are we up to? These days of course, everyone else is noodling about with blogs - often rather desperately - but our planned comment blog 'Comment Is Free' will take things to a whole new level. We're also going to build up our podcasting activity in the coming months.

In terms of inspiration, I'm more interested in the software that allows people to sift and sort news and information, socially and otherwise, rather than the detail of who does the best job around individual acts of journalism.

So like everyone else - I'm fascinated by and Digg and some of the elements of Technorati, and I look at with a mix of awe and fear. My guilty pleasure is and I scour for musical bootlegs whenever I have time.

And I don't know whether inspiration is the right term, but I'm constantly impressed by the amount of effort some bloggers put in.

"A new generation of under-25s is emerging with radically different expectations of media. We can't just think of them as our future readers and users, but as the brand managers and media buyers of the future as well.

"We ignore them - and their expectations of us - at our peril."

Simon Waldman

Is there any official Guardian policy on external staff blogs? Are you expected to 'toe the company line' on your own blog?!

Our policy is quite light touch at the moment and most of the fundamental issues are covered in our normal staff guidelines.

We actually have quite a few staff who have been keeping personal blogs for a while, and it's something we're pretty proud of. I might be missing something, but I hardly ever see personal blogs from staff at other newspapers or media organisations. Frankly, unless you've kept a blog for a while, it's very hard to understand the attraction of it and how to do it successfully.

Do I toe the line? Well, I did have to get permission from my boss to do the blog. But I'm a director - I help create 'the line' so I don't mind toeing it!

How much further do you think newspapers can and will go to incorporate reader content on their sites?

It's not how much further they can or will go - but how much they have to go. And I think the answer to that is much further than many currently feel comfortable with.

If newspapers want to remain relevant and exciting in the decades to come, it will be essential for us to rewrite the rules on how we engage with our readers and users.

Some people find this abhorrent and will choose to ignore what's happening. And there will be times when they can feel quite smug as those of us going down the engagement route hit some inevitable road blocks. But in the long term they will find themselves preaching to an ever-smaller congregation.

We should acknowledge that a new generation of under-25s is emerging with radically different expectations of media. To put a commercial spin on this, we can't just think of them as our future readers and users, but as the brand managers and media buyers of the future as well.

We ignore them - and their expectations of us - at our peril.

Why aren't there more independent, local citizen journalism projects in the UK as there are in the US?

I don't think there's a clear business model in much of this - as Dan Gillmor has found with Bayosphere - hence a lack of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists rushing in. Generally, start-up culture in the UK is much more muted than in the US and even more so when the revenue picture is so uncertain.

I think user contributions work well as a complement to a traditional publishing framework but on its own it becomes rather rudderless - and certainly not enticing enough to attract a significant audience.

So rather than start-ups, I sense traditional regional and local news organisations that are finely tuned to their communities will move into this area.

What will it take for RSS to become a more mainstream tool? And what can news publishers do to use RSS in more innovative ways?

It will start to become mainstream when the technology is invisible - when people don't know they are using it. A real leap forward will be when feeds are integrated into Windows Vista.

The theory is that there will be an invisible line between content on your hard drive and the content you want to look at online - and RSS or whatever it turns into is simply an invisible protocol that connects the two.

Actually, I think publishers on the whole have been pretty nimble around RSS. Us, the Scotsman (hell - even the Telegraph) were out of the blocks quite quickly.

The potential for a feed-fuelled world of content is both exciting and scary and threatens another set of headaches and opportunities for publishers. But in reality it's still irrelevant to the mass audience. We have a bit of time, but not much.

Ultimately, this is all about letting users engage with us on their terms and trying to find a commercial model that works around this. I think our Newspoint product is an exciting step forward here. It is all built around RSS, but not branded that way.

Does financial pressure in the corporate news environment stifle creativity and innovation?

In any other sector they'd think you were mad for asking that!

The iPod came out of Apple at a time when they were under probably more financial pressure than at any time in their history. Sky Plus - one of the truly great leaps forward in broadcasting - came out of a corporate environment. There are entire corporations driven by innovation; 3M, for example, insists that 30 per cent of sales come from products less than three years old. There is nothing inherent in corporations to stifle innovation.

However, newspapers are going through a major wave of digital disruption. Whether it's blogs, free classifieds or Google News, there is a myriad of services and suppliers eager to take a slice of what has traditionally been ours. It is a challenge unprecedented in modern newspaper history.

There are two ways to deal with a storm like this: you either hunker down and hope it will pass over (which some people have been doing for the past decade) or you innovate your way out of it. If you look at the sort of disruption that has hit other sectors, it's pretty clear that the latter is really the only option.

None of this is easy. It takes time, effort, resources and no small leap of faith. As a result, digital innovation within the newspaper industry is utterly dependent on the right leadership and ownership.

Plenty of things can get in the way. Shareholders and boards who are averse to risk. Private equity investors looking for a quick exit. Newspaper editors and chief executives who feel uncomfortable with the net, and would rather contain it within their organisations for now, leaving it for their successors to tackle.

All of these attitudes are understandable in the here and now, but they are not helping their organisations in the long term. These are extraordinary times, and they call for extraordinary measures.

I should add of course - that none of the above obstacles apply at the Guardian.

As newspapers introduce more video, audio and interactive services online and broadcasters move to the web, is it inevitable that the industry will become more homogenised?

Everyone is on podcast alert at the moment and that's not a bad thing, although there is a danger of oversupply into the market.

Within 12 months we'll have a much clearer picture of the real value of this, both in terms of audience and advertising. I have no doubt video will be next and we'll see an increasingly wide range of offerings from different organisations.

The point about homogeneity is an important one and we need things to kick against it.

The first is truly distinctive content - in particular for newspaper sites that means original news reporting and informed analysis.

The second is the community of users - and the way that publishers let them interact with the site and with each other.

Ever tempted to abandon the news industry and build your own music monitoring empire?

If I was 17 again, I'd be making music bootlegs and mash-ups in the hope I could be the next Mylo or Dangermouse. Every time I hear something from Party Ben, Steve Lima or Go Home Productions, I just think: "Now that sounds like fun - how can I do that for a living?"

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