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What Does Katharine Viner's Appointment Mean for the 'Guardian'

28/03/2015 21:31 GMT | Updated 27/05/2015 10:59 BST

Katharine Viner's appointment as the new editor of the Guardian this week was met with a flurry of excitement. But once the boilerplate stories had gone live, there was silence. No follow-ups, no major UK opinion pieces. At the time of writing, nothing.

Why so little in-depth analysis? This is, after all, a huge event for a major UK newspaper; an institution respected around the globe. The change will herald a new era for the Guardian and decisions made by the new editor may well have far-reaching ramifications for the entire UK media. Or will they?

One way to interpret this lack of substantive coverage is that the majority of the press have decided that Katharine Viner's appointment means nothing and changes nothing. The Guardian will still be ruled by the ghost of the legendary Alan Rusbridger channelling his enormous energy through Viner and into the running of the Guardian. This interpretation is based on the fact that Rusbridger is not leaving the Guardian entirely - he is to succeed Dame Liz Forgan in 2016 as chair of the Scott Trust Limited, the company which owns and famously bankrolls the Guardian.

Another interpretation is that the media wrote themselves dead when Rusbridger first announced his retirement back in December and just can't bear to start that all over again. Both these opinions may well be true: Rusbridger is not leaving entirely and pretty much everything you can say about this iconic figure has already been said. However, the idea that nothing will change is one that's up for debate and in my view very far from the truth.

Let's look at the facts. Katharine Viner is an enormously capable, tough, ambitious and highly intelligent media person. She has been startlingly successful in her previous two Guardian jobs. She set up Guardian Australia from scratch, and in a remarkably short space of time it became a major force in the Australian media industry. No mean feat. She currently runs the Guardian's operations in the US where the paper is now gaining real traction. This is not a person who will be content to steer the ship on its current course - a 'safe pair of hands'. And there are a number of hints that under Viner the Guardian will see colossal changes.

First, Viner is an enthusiastic Twitter user and has long believed that readers should take an active role in journalism. In October 2013, Viner gave the AN Smith lecture in Melbourne. In it she returned to two of her most consistent themes: the newspaper as a digital entity - the Guardian Australia was an online-only publication, and putting 'the people formerly known as the audience at the heart of everything.'

In the speech she said that: 'Digital is not about putting up your story on the web. It's about a fundamental redrawing of journalists' relationship with our audience, how we think about our readers, our perception of our role in society, our status.' On the role of the people in journalism, she said: 'We are no longer the all-seeing all-knowing journalists, delivering words from on high for readers to take in, passively, save perhaps an occasional letter to the editor. Digital has wrecked those hierarchies almost overnight, creating a more levelled world, where responses can be instant, where some readers will almost certainly know more about a particular subject than the journalist, where the reader might be better placed to uncover a story.'

The editor of the Guardian is chosen by the employees in a ballot. In her candidate statement she again returned to these themes. 'Bring readers closer: New techniques mean readers can share expertise, help us find stories and make decisions. We host big communities and engaging conversations, whether below the line, with our professional audiences such as teachers, or between Guardian members at live events -- we should build on these relationships and invite readers into our journalism at an early stage.' On digital, she said: 'Cherish print, but don't let it hold us back. We need to develop clear strategies for the Monday-Friday paper, Saturday Guardian, and the Observer. Our decisions about print's future should be based on well-communicated, non-ideological criteria and a structured plan. Print must not hinder our shift to digital, but we must cherish it while we choose to keep it, with an experienced team of journalists taking care of it.'

So while the mainstream media in the UK is dismissing Katharine Viner as someone who will ensure nothing changes at the Guardian, I suspect there are very big changes on the way. Not least the inevitable move to stop printing papers and become online only, and using non-journalists to write, first, comment pieces and regular columns - and then? Who knows.

Editors at the Guardian are traditionally chosen by a ballot of all employees. Viner was not tipped as the favourite by the commentariat. But I think the staff at the Guardian knew exactly who they wanted and why. Despite its success, the Snowden affair left Guardian staff with a bad taste in their mouths. They were looking for a fresh start with someone at the helm untainted by the Snowden affair. And they wanted a relative outsider - someone not at the heart of the Rusbridger set. This theory is well-articulated by USA Today.

In Katherine Viner the staff have got everything they want and more besides because if Viner is true to her themes, the Guardian will focus all its energy online and take citizen journalism to the next level. I think Viner's appointment is inspired and in 20 years' time there's every sign that we'll look back and find that her achievements have eclipsed those of Rusbridger. Make no mistake there are exciting times ahead for the Guardian and the changes Viner makes will affect the entire UK media.