Why the Guardian needs its American dream to come true

Guardian, CC licensed from Flickr user Stuart PilbrowIt’s no secret that a lot of U.K. news websites want to cash in on their popularity with American audiences. In fact, the plans by several newspapers to take a shot at expanding their online presence in the States have had media observers chattering for a while about what they see as the biggest British invasion since the Beatles.

Earlier this week the Guardian stepped that up by unveiling its new homepage and a URL — guardiannews.com — aimed squarely at an American audience and then confirming that Ana Marie Cox was coming on board as a political blogger.

“It’s the first tiny step in our bid to improve the Guardian website for US users,” said new U.S. editor Janine Gibson of the rejiggered site in her launch post. The move, she added, “marks the beginning of our new digital operation based in New York.”

The site — which will soon be displayed by default to any Guardian user with an American IP address — does pretty much what it says it will. The British site remains intact, but the U.S. version is switched around with a different focus. Sometimes that’s good, such as the prominent focus on real-time coverage of the day’s political news. Other times it might not be so strong (as I write, users outside America are presented a huge picture story on Palestinian statehood; the same slot for the U.S. edition is taken up with coverage of New York fashion week).

Guardian News.com front page

But whatever it actually does, guardiannews.com is the first real evidence of some ambitious new editorial plans by the London-based group: Gibson previously told the New York Observer that the site would be hiring aggressively “to combine the Guardian’s internationalist, digital journalism with American voices and expertise.”

Is it that simple? Unlikely.

While its arrival might be accompanied by the sound of trumpets, the reality is that we’ve been here before . . . several times, in fact. The Guardian has actually made a concerted series of attempts to crack the U.S. market over the past decade, spending an awful lot of money and achieving little.

In the early 2000s it planned to launch a weekly news magazine for the American market, a scheme that crumbled before an edition hit the streets. In 2008 it bought New York–based media news site paidContent before — in the words of founder Rafat Ali — letting it be “completely ignored.”

Meanwhile, in 2009 it closed down Guardian America, a two-year experiment to appeal to U.S. audiences and laid off most of its Washington bureau. Its mission had been to “combine content produced in the UK and around the world with content that we originate here to create a Guardian especially tailored to American reader.” Sound familiar?

So what’s different this time?

Alan RusbridgerIn order to succeed where it has previously failed, I think there are some important questions that the organization — and perhaps those who want to follow it — need to answer.

But before we go on, some serious disclosure: I worked for the Guardian for a decade, and I was a staffer from 2002 until 2010, when I took voluntary redundancy after two years as the organization’s correspondent in San Francisco. I still contribute articles from time to time and have lots of friends who work there, including some of those who are now in New York. These are my own observations, so take them as you will.

So what do I think is different this time? Well, some things have clearly changed.

The biggest, most obvious difference is resources. Instead of pushing half-heartedly (as has happened in the past), the company has decided to go harder and spend heavily to get where it wants. This cash is partially going toward a larger newsroom but also toward importing old hands to New York from London, instead of relying on American figureheads.

But what’s really different this time isn’t the approach or the cash that Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger — a bookish, quiet man who runs the organization in such a hands-off way that he sometimes appears to be watching the world through a telescope — is prepared to spend. It’s the size of the stakes involved.

The big gamble

Like most of the news industry, the Guardian is in financial trouble. On the surface, the organization has had a good couple of years. It’s spearheaded the campaign to uncover the truth about phone hacking at newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, helped bring WikiLeaks into the public imagination (even if that partnership has now largely descended into political squabbles), and gained many plaudits for its open and digital first approach to the web.

Yet despite the awards and acres of coverage, it has struggled to make ends meet. In fact, it is no secret that it’s been hemorrhaging money for years.

Kevin Anderson, like me a former Guardian employee, recently outlined what he saw as a dangerously noncommercial attitude in the organization. The organization is officially subsidized by the activity of its other business units, which gives it some breathing room, but its trust-fund attitude also means it is not always as hard-nosed about money as it should be.

In fact, according to Anderson, going “digital first” was not a clever bet on the future but an act of desperation.

The Guardian needs an intervention. Digital first will not be enough to save it . . . The Guardian has time to make some relatively easy decisions to ensure its future, but it needs to get serious, not just about digital but about its business. The Guardian’s often lauded as the future of journalism, but without a sound business model, it doesn’t have a future.

The promise of a successful push into America, then, is that it can help stem those losses and even — if the site’s many U.S. readers can be turned into valuable customers — reverse them. But that is a big task that requires nimble thinking as well as brute force.

So here are three questions the Guardian needs to answer, fast.

What is its voice?

Lots of foreign news outlets have consistently struggled to understand why they’ve found significant audiences in America. Is it because they are less afraid to have a political viewpoint than local sources? Is it that they are more international in their outlook than American rivals? Is it that they are more voracious and competitive than U.S. incumbents? Or is it simply that they are now more visible?

In some ways, all of these things are true — yet at the same time, none of them are. The Internet is a great leveler, allowing small companies in faraway countries to compete more actively. But good Google rankings don’t tell you much about what readers really want, and despite much agonizing in news groups around the world, it remains distinctly unclear what American readers of non-American websites really want.

Trying to achieve a voice that is appealing to more Americans without losing what makes it stand out is a tough job. Does the Guardian‘s decision to run a combination of British editors and American contributors show that it has decided on an answer to that question? I’m not sure, but it does lead to the next one.

Who does it hire?

Revolving doors under CC license from Marianne O'LearyGibson has staked out ambitious hiring plans and heads up a sizable British contingent that has been sent from London to New York to run the operation. That’s a shift, since hiring American talent to head things up has rarely worked out well: In the past five years it’s operated like a revolving door, hiring — and then parting ways with — a sequence of executives brought in for their experience with the likes of Slate, the American Prospect and the Washington Post.

But shipping out a cohort of editors doesn’t get the meat-and-potatoes work of reporting done. The company will have to hire locally in order to fill its ranks. So far it’s brought in former Wonkette editor Cox and New York Times blogger Robert Mackey.

In order to entice the most talented people to jump ship, however, the Guardian is either going to have to show them a lot of money or give them some time and security to build a success — two things that it has struggled with before. Unless it answers the next question.

How does it make money?

This is the most important one of all. The Guardian‘s digital newsroom has been ahead of the game for more than a decade, but the majority of its journalistic overheads have been covered by a printed product that is shedding staff and paring back coverage.

It’s true that web traffic has been high throughout all of this turmoil. But the company’s problem has never been that it doesn’t get enough visitors: It’s that it has been unable to sell that traffic to advertisers.

History has shown that whether it is working on its own or in partnership with others, the company has found selling traffic to be very tough. The enormous losses suggest it’s bad enough on its home turf, but things on the other side of the Atlantic have proven even more difficult. After trying to do American ad sales in-house, it opted for a much-vaunted U.S. sales partnership with Reuters that rapidly went nowhere. Meanwhile Rafat Ali suggests that New York–based paidContent seems to be treading water, and rumors appear periodically suggesting that the site may be up for sale.

Chasing the American dream

All of these questions are linked together inextricably. Turning American readers into valuable readers is a burning business necessity — but it requires more than just presence. Untangling these threads is something that is very difficult but utterly necessary.

As somebody who still has a great deal of affection and respect for the Guardian, I am concerned that its dream of breaking America is becoming rather like the search for El Dorado. Sure, New York loves a British journalist who comes along with some fresh ideas, whether it’s Harold Evans and Tina Brown in the 1980s or Gawker’s Nick Denton over the past decade. But the city’s streets aren’t paved with gold — and sometimes its warm embrace is simply a honey trap.

Maybe this time around the Guardian can find what it’s looking for. It is obviously enamored with the idea of bringing its business to America. But the trouble is that each time it tries, the gap that its new British invasion can exploit just gets smaller and smaller.

Photograph of the Guardian used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Stuart Pilbrow. Revolving door courtesy of Marianne O’Leary