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October 30, 2007

The Guardian Comes to America (Sort Of)

Earlier this week, the Guardian entered the US market by introducing the Guardian America website, the latest in a string of online efforts from the liberal UK paper. Because of the paper's previous successes with internet content like Comment Is Free (which contains a number of blogs from its columnists and editors), its arts blog (which is well-regarded by critics), and its comprehensive media site (which makes deft use of video and podcasts), American readers could understandably be thrilled that the Guardian has a site dedicated to them. But some English journalists don't think the new Guardian America is all it claims to be.

Firstly, what exactly does Guardian America think it is? American journalist and editor of Guardian America Michael Tomasky spells out the vision behind the site. According to Tomasky, the paper "will combine content produced in the UK and around the world with content that we originate here to create a Guardian especially tailored to American readers." He gloats about the victory in renaming the "Sport" section "Sports," and begrudgingly concedes to keeping the British spelling style, which is probably a first for a paper primarily serving American readers (well, maybe not a first, but it's been a while since anyone read the New England Courant). But there is a crucial point that Tomasky does not address. Namely, why shouldn't American readers get this information from the Guardian's formidable pre-existing website, as five million of us already do? The question he should be answering isn't just, "What is Guardian America?" but rather, "What's the point of it?"

The Guardian is known for its liberal views, and, according to Tomasky, Guardian America will continue to promote the liberal interest. While it adheres to the strictest standards of accuracy and fairness, the Guardian America will be open to expressing its world view, as British newspapers are known to do. So is the Guardian America a new and vital resource for Americans to see the way the world sees us, in the words of a newspaper that isn't afraid to speak its mind?

Michael Goldfarb, a former NPR correspondent and Guardian contributor, doesn't think so. "I honestly believe there is very little new that can be added from the American operation," Goldfarb tells Gelf. "Most Americans who read The Guardian regularly will also read the Nation and other left-liberal organs… The insights that they might get from the Guardian's coverage wouldn't be a million miles from stuff they get from those liberal websites, anyway. And, sadly, there are very few Brits writing about the US with anything like the insight that guys who were based there 25 years ago brought."

If the content isn't groundbreaking or even remotely different from what's already out there, why have the site at all? "My guess is that Guardian America is a way to sell another stream of online advertising to US advertisers, not a way of bringing stunning offshore insights into what the US is today," Goldfarb says.

Former BBC journalist and manager Tim Fenton (who is also my professor at NYU in London) agrees with Goldfarb. Says Fenton, "It looks to me to be a sensible attempt to make more of the Guardian brand in the US. It may be that a small additional investment in a new front page and a little extra content can generate a larger rise in users and ad revenue." Fenton helped the BBC with a similar effort, the creation of World and US front pages, which didn't have to face some of the challenges ahead of the Guardian. "The BBC did have an established (if not perfect) world-news operation on which to draw," Fenton says. "I don't know if the Guardian has (or can build) a sufficiently strong US operation to make this work so well."

This seems to be a case of the numbers adding up in the paper's favor, presenting the Guardian's money men with a business opportunity they could not pass up. "The paper has been trying to crack the American market for a long time," says Goldfarb. "It was simply too expensive in a hard-copy edition and the web offers them a cheap way to be there."

There is no shame in this strategy. As a newspaper mainly supported by advertising, the Guardian is making a smart business move in trying to expand its reach. I don't think anyone at the paper would deny the economic reasons for this move, though Tomasky avoided the subject in his editorial welcome note. Personally, I'd be very happy to see my newspaper of choice in London expand its American coverage in a significant way. However, I get the feeling that the changes are mostly cosmetic. The section may say "Sports" instead of "Sport," but as Fenton points out, it still leads to a story about the Tottenham Hotspur soccer club that few Americans (besides Bill Simmons) are likely to care about.

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