Editor Janine Gibson banks on The Guardian's distinctly British appeal to the ‘internationalist' Yank
One morning just a day or two into the new year of 2011, Janine Gibson was curled up on a couch in Soho, where she'd been staying for a winter vacation from her native England.
Gibson, then editor of the website of British newspaper The Guardian, had earned her vacation after an autumn of big online news breaks, including the WikiLeaks diplomatic document-dump and the phone-hacking scandal, a story that was huge in Great Britain at the time but had yet to hit the boil on this side of the Atlantic.
Snow was falling outside the fifth-story window of her friend's apartment, and her laptop was open to the welter of tabs that generally clutter her browser, when Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian and her boss, sent her an IM. Rusbridger wanted to know what Gibson was thinking about America.
It was cold, she replied, quite literally.
“No, no,” Rusbridger pressed her. What was she thinking about America?
The Guardian’s then-nebulous plan to expand its U.S. footprint with a new website geared toward American readers was beginning to take shape. As one of Rusbridger’s top newsroom lieutenants, Gibson's input was central to the development of the new title.
She told Rusbridger she thought the U.S. site was a fantastic idea. That it made complete and utter sense. That they had to make it work. To which Rusbridger replied: “And what are YOU thinking about America?”
Rusbridger wanted Gibson to run the thing. If she were to take him up on the offer, it would mean uprooting herself, her husband and her two elementary-school-aged daughters and whisking them across the ocean.
Gibson didn’t have an answer. They decided to continue their discussion when she arrived back in England. She closed the chat window.
Several months went by, during which Gibson and Rusbridger had one conversation after another about her possible role in the venture. In April, it became official that she would lead it.
“It was a big decision,” Gibson, who is 39, told Capital this week. "But it was the right thing to do."
FIVE MONTHS LATER, ON SEPT. 14, GIBSON'S new website went live. The URL that parent company Guardian News & Media settled on was GuardianNews.com, the "dot com" part being the title's only identifiably American feature.
The site doesn't so far look like it's trying to be anything it's not.
It's designed to serve the sizable U.S. audience cultivated by its flagship in the years following 9/11, when Americans, frustrated with the supine approach their own media took on complex stories like W.M.D. and the war in Iraq, started wanting to read these types of stories the way they were being covered outside the U.S.
More recently, the U.S. audience grew as Americans began following WikiLeaks and the phone-hacking scandal.
The idea is to marry the scale, nimbleness and digital flexibility of a startup with the credibility, reporting muscle and institutional gravitas of a legacy news brand.
But how important is The Guardian's Britishness to its success in the U.S.? And will a U.S. edition remove the reason to read The Guardian instead of the Times or The Washington Post?
At one point on the morning of Oct. 13, featured high on the page were stories about the unfolding situation in Libya, Slovakia's ratification of an E.U. agreement, and a sit-down interview with the owners of the Boston Red Sox—about their plans for their English soccer team, Liverpool Football Club. (It's not clear reading the site whether in American stories the sport will be called "football" or "soccer"; you won't find the word "soccer" in this article except where an American is advised never to use the word.)
Postseason baseball and Congress' free-trade pact deliberations are also prominent, and around midmorning, stories about Occupy Wall Streeters fearing eviction and the sentencing of Raj Rajaratnam popped up.
But overall the effect is of a keenly interesting British expat friend talking to you in a Soho bar: They're keen on local and national news, but have their ear to other things as well.
The most-read stories on the U.K. site are sold on the homepage: The resignation of a publisher at News Corp. over a circulation scandal in European editions of The Wall Street Journal; the Saudis' call for a reckoning with Iran in light of the recently exposed bomb plot in D.C.; a story about British hit television show "Top Gear"; a "Life in the U.K." piece quizzing readers on whether they'd pass the British citizenship test; and a dispute between footballer Carlos Tevez and his club, Manchester City. Another headline, referring users to the British site, read "Shred your dosh, or buy a superyacht?" The regular old Anglophiles of America, in other words, are accounted for on the American site.
This is where The Guardian has arrived from its roots as a paper that reported on the United States as a major part of its own international report.
"We made great strides with our presence in Washington," said Rusbridger. "The Guardian is taken seriously as a player in U.S. political reporting and not solely as a foreign news organization. We think the best way to serve our U.S. readers is to be The Guardian in the U.S."
Gibson characterized those readers as "internationalist in their perspective."
"The kind of people who in the U.K. would go, 'Yes, I read Le Monde,'" she said. "They often work in media or publishing or tech. They have a bias to the coasts and many are based in cities."
More autonomous than a bureau but not quite a standalone publication, Guardian News will also function as a clearinghouse, for coordinating U.S. coverage with London, where a broader digital transformation is currently underway at The Guardian proper. It's a system on which Rusbridger hopes to model future internationalized versions of The Guardian around the world, including the Middle East.
As with all web ventures, part of it is to grow the readership. But The Guardian doesn't necessarily need more readers in the states. It already has 17 million of them online, according to internal metrics verified by the U.K.'s Audit Bureau of Circulation. That's roughly a third of its overall global reach of more than 50 million unique monthly visitors, an audience that has increased by 40 percent year-over-year. The current U.S. total is more than the total number of people worldwide who were visiting The Guardian online each month the last time it flirted with a U.S. product, back in 2007, with the launch of GuardianAmerica.com, a Beltway-based website edited by Michael Tomasky that the company dissolved two years later. (Tomasky stayed with The Guardian until this spring, when he moved to Tina Brown's NewsBeast.)
The problem is, The Guardian needs those readers to be more engaged. Apart from a small core of dedicated users here, a lot of them tend to stop by to say hello, but don't end up sticking around. They stumble upon a story (or two, or three) that interests them and then they move on. The Guardian is mired in the lower rungs of their daily bookmarks. Gibson and her crew want it to climb to the top, and maybe even nudge The New York Times, The Huffington Post, CNN and Yahoo News down a notch in the process, with the right readers.
"We need to make this into an audience rather than a passing audience," said Gibson.
It was Monday afternoon, still warm enough for the editor to be wearing a striped elbow-length button-down and a blue pencil skirt. She has a friendly, freckled face, and brown hair that's just long enough to touch her shoulders; she was nursing a coffee in a courtyard across from Guardian News' temporary office near 27th Street and Sixth Avenue.
"We're not actually short of readers," she said. "What we would like to do is become more than the third or fourth on their daily or monthly reading schedule."
The plan is to specialize in two types of coverage. The first is what Gibson called "very live, very real-time news." The tick-tock of the Troy Davis execution. (They were there.) The on-scene dispatch from Occupy Wall Street. (Their reporters have been visiting the encampment regularly.) The play-by-play on primary night. (The G.O.P. is a special obsession.)
This type of coverage will also serve as a local anchor for the big foreign stories. So the next time there's some earth-shattering uprising abroad, The Guardian will have boots on the ground, to be sure, but you can also expect someone to be live-blogging it out of New York.
The live-blog, a rising journalistic form with which The Guardian has already found success in covering stories like the Arab Spring and the London riots, will be a key feature of the American operation. (This morning, the site was live-blogging events in Libya.)
They recently poached The New York Times' star live-blogger, Robert Mackey, only to see him head back to the Times after just four days on the job. Mackey did not respond to requests for comment via email, but a person familiar with the situation said the Times never stopped giving him offers to come back. Gibson would only say: "Sometimes things just don't work out."
The other type of coverage, according to Gibson, will be long-form.
"But not necessarily long words," she said. "Obsessions over various topics and themes that will be clearly identifiable as Guardian themes."
Big ones? The death penalty. Phone-hacking and its implications in the U.S. The 2012 election.
The editorial team so far consists of Gibson; her deputy, Stuart Millar, and several others imported from guardian.co.uk, including editors, writers and producers; nine correspondents who were already stationed in the U.S.; and a growing roster of name contributors such as Ana Marie Cox, who has been signed to an 18-month contract as a political blogger and commentator.