Editor Janine Gibson banks on The Guardian's distinctly British appeal to the ‘internationalist' Yank
1:15 pm Oct. 13, 2011
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.
"We wanted a voice to take us through the election coverage, and she has just the most brilliant voice for digital journalism," said Gibson.
The Guardian's star investigative reporter and phone-hacking scoopster, Nick Davies (as was first reported on Capital), will join the operation this spring from a yet-to-be established satellite office in L.A., where he has family. Gabriel Dance, formerly of The New York Times and The Daily, recently joined as interactive editor. On the business side, former Wall Street Journal and Financial Times executive Steve Howe has been installed as chief revenue officer. They're in the early stages of searching for a publisher, but sales people are already on the ground in New York.
Most importantly, though, all of The Guardian's coverage should feel contiguous.
"If we're doing our job correctly," said Gibson, "you ought to be able to go from Guardian coverage of Egypt produced out of New York, to Guardian coverage of Egypt produced out of London, to Guardian coverage of Egypt produced out of Cairo, without feeling like these are three different things. It should feel coherent. It's The Guardian at GuardianNews.com."
The Guardian has found in Gibson a leader for the U.S. who has digital chops, media industry smarts and the institutional knowledge necessary to seamlessly integrate with the central organization. But most people agree that starting any kind of new digital journalism venture in the American market is tough.
"I don't think anybody expected the economy to be this bad for this long," said Emily Bell, the media critic, Columbia journalism professor and Guardian alumna. (She's also a good friend of Gibson's.)
"With any kind of startup, your costs will be front-loaded," she said. "Meeting the commitments of that in the current market is tough. That's part of the challenge—making sure that if you're doing something innovative in the digital space, that it's properly scaled."
"I have no predictions about whether it will work," said Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor, who is in discussions with Guardian News about doing a joint project around the elections.
"But I think they have a shot," he said. "You have to remember, before the web, The Guardian was not one of the largest U.K. properties. They made themselves into a force through their web smarts and openness. We see in The Guardian so many things that journalism has to become to adapt to its new environment: Being nimble with technology. Data journalism. Having 'voice' but also having reportorial authority. Being expert in social media, open to digital tools as they arise, open to new ways of reporting. Other news organizations are onto these things, too, but The Guardian is, I think, faster, more agile."
"For launching something, having an editor who understands the business as well as the editorial challenges is key," said Bell, "and you must have the confidence of the top management to back you up with resources."
"Janine's one of The Guardian's most experienced and talented editors," Rusbridger said.
GIBSON'S ONLY JUST BEGUN SETTLING IN HERE IN NEW YORK, but it's not the first time she's been an expat. She was born in Germany to a mother who was a teacher and a father who worked for Ford Motor. His job required the family to move every few years during Gibson's childhood—to Luxembourg, France, Spain.
"Just about everywhere," she said. "There's not a car plant in Europe that I haven't some familiarity with."
Eventually, her parents moved back to Germany and she to their native England for boarding school. She knew she wanted to be a journalist from a very young age. Her first stint in New York media came during college (she was at St. John's College, Oxford), when she landed a two-month summer internship at Adweek. After graduating, she bounced around between British media industry trade magazines before landing at The Independent as a media correspondent. The Guardian poached her several months later in the same role.
From there, her rise was meteoric. She became media editor and launched Media Guardian, the publication's first online vertical, with Bell in 2001. She then transitioned back to the paper, overseeing a variety of beats before heading back to the website as managing editor in 2003. She was named editor of guardian.co.uk three years ago when the online and print operations were integrated.
Gibson's decision to relocate to New York to run Guardian News was not an easy one.
“I had a really great job. I loved my job," she said. "I really went back and forth about it."
But by midsummer, Gibson was all packed up and ready to go. After her plane landed at JFK on July 19, there was a surprise waiting for her as she shuffled through the airport with the husband and kids. (Luckily for her, they were excited about the move.)
That afternoon, British M.P.s were grilling News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son James about the phone-hacking scandal, which by now had brought the U.K. arm of the Australia-born moguls' media empire to its knees. The Guardian had been aggressively covering the phone-hacking story for years, and thanks to the paper's recent scoop that a murdered 13-year-old girl was among those whose voicemails were hijacked by journalists at News Corp.'s since shuttered News of the World tabloid, the scandal had finally become a blockbuster in America.
U.S. cable news channels were carrying the Murdoch testimony live. As Gibson made her way through the international terminal, she happened upon a remarkable scene from back home. Splayed across the gaggle of TVs displayed in the arrivals section, there was the 81-year-old Murdoch, taking a shaving-cream pie to the face, punked by a protestor who'd managed to infiltrate the apparently not very well-secured parliamentary hearing.
It became a top headline all over the world that day. Gibson watched the recap in awe as she waited for her bags. This would have been a good day for the American Guardian. It was a good day for the U.K. Guardian with American readers, after all.
Over the next few days, the family camped out at a hotel in midtown. To escape the heat, Gibson and her husband took their young ones, Martha, 9, and Kitty, 5, to the Red Hook Ikea via water taxi.
"I know," she said. "But the kids love it. It's cool! It's six dollars, you see the Statue of Liberty, it's on the water, the boat looks like an actual taxi and you get the six dollars back!"
The next day, they moved into their new apartment in Brooklyn.
Guardian News, too, will soon be moving into a new home. Since September, they've been squatting in the midtown offices of Content Next, the parent company of paidContent, which Guardian News & Media acquired in 2008. There's exposed brick and hardwood floors, sure, but with 20 employees already on board and another 20 expected to be in place by April, they're starting to burst at the seams.
The new digs will be in Soho, which is no accident.
"We'll be around the back of N.Y.U. We'll be near Gawker. We'll be near Slate. We'll be near a whole bunch of exciting digital agencies that I'm keen to work with," said Gibson. "There's a whole bunch of nice adjacencies there I'm excited about. I see us as a digital publication more than a U.K. or a U.S. publication."
Speaking of New York more generally, she said: "I was really clear that we wanted to do it here not because of where it sits in the American cultural landscape, but because it seems to me that this is where the exciting things in digital media are happening." And of her new life: "We're acclimatising well. My 5-year-old has started calling me 'Mom.' We're ready for the citizenship test."
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