July 08, 2003

The British are coming—again. The launch of a U.S. edition of the unabashedly liberal Guardian may be just what the Bush-whacked U.S. press needs.

Lo and behold SeeNot News (CNN) reports "Bush
Official: Iraq Uranium Claim Wrong," BUT not as its
lead story. There are hundreds of US fatalities in
Iraq (and mounting day by day) and thousands of Iraq
fatalities (and mounting day by day) But they led with
the death of the Siamese twins joined at the head
earlier today, their current lead story is a factory
shooting with six fatalities in Mississippi. But do
not despair, help is on the way. The Guardian, which
LNS describes aptly as America's best newspaper, is
coming to the US like water on parched land...


This Media Life
En Guardian!
The British are coming—again. The launch of a U.S.
edition of the unabashedly liberal Guardian may be
just what the Bush-whacked U.S. press needs.

By Michael Wolff

It was a daylong conference about the media’s role in
the Iraq war, sponsored by the Guardian newspaper and
held in its archive center—a newly refurbished
building with café—across the street from the
Guardian’s main building on Farringdon Road in London.

Everything about the conference seemed foreign—not
just the self-critical nature of the conversation, but
the bad air-conditioning and stifling temperature of
the room. I tried to imagine such an event in New York
or Washington—picking at the fresh scab of how we had
covered the war—and what news organization would
sponsor it. Of course, the real subject here—which so
much of the U.S. media had closed ranks around—was the
U.S. itself. That most massive of Bigfoots. Indeed,
more and more, the foreign media had a distinct
journalistic advantage over the U.S. media: Foreigners
could go after the central story and openly dispute
the Bush-administration message, whereas U.S.
journalists were tied to the party line by a
complicated emotional, social, political, and
corporate etiquette.

In this respect—as a robust counterpoint to the
American media—the Guardian (to which I sometimes
contribute) had had a very good war. It became an
almost-fashionable read on select U.S. campuses and in
certain American liberal circles. Traffic on its
Website, which has had a steadily growing American
audience, climbed dramatically during the war. The
electronic Guardian was the alternative press—if you
were looking for one.

Still, when, during a coffee break, Alan Rusbridger,
the Guardian’s editor, said to me, in a most offhanded
way, “We’re coming to America,” I assumed he was
talking about a personal visit.

“Well, let’s definitely get together,” I politely

“No,” he said. “We’re bringing the Guardian to
America. We’re going to publish an American version.”

It struck me first that—even given the Guardian’s
campus chic-ness—the U.S. has never been less
receptive to the European point of view than it is
now. By any measure, to be successful in the U.S. news
business is to be staunch, patriotic, defensive. It’s
Fox or bust. And it struck me even more forcefully
that beyond the difficulties of liberalness, the
prospects for literate media—the Guardian being a
writer’s paper—were, as everybody knew, nil.

Then, during the next break in the conference,
Rusbridger took me across the street to his office and
showed me the prototype for the new American Guardian.
Its tentative form is as a weekly magazine, quite
unlike any other weekly magazine that has been started
in the U.S. in the past generation. Not only is it
about politics (Rusbridger is looking to launch in the
winter to cover the presidential-primary season), but
the magazine—meant to be 60 percent derived from the
Guardian itself, with the rest to come from American
contributors—has a great deal of text unbroken by
design elements. This is almost an extreme notion.
Quite the antithesis of what virtually every
publishing professional would tell you is the key to
popular and profitable publishing—having less to read,
not more. Even with the Guardian’s signature
sans-serif face, it looks like an old-fashioned
magazine. Polemical. Written. Excessive. Contentious.
Even long-winded.

This was either radically wrongheaded, or so
forcefully and stylishly counterintuitive—and
unexpected—that I found myself thinking,
light-headedly, that it might define a turnaround in
American publishing.

Bear with me. There is something here.

First, it’s important to understand the anomalous
nature of the Guardian itself.

There may not be anything else quite like it in
commercial publishing anywhere. The Guardian is the
fruit of a legal trust whose sole purpose is the
perpetuation of the Guardian. In other words, the
trust—the Scott Trust, created in 1936 by the
Manchester family that controlled the paper—eliminates
the exact thing that has most bedeviled media
companies: the demands of impatient shareholders and
the ambitions of would-be mogul CEOs.

The Guardian, because of this flukish independence,
occupies for well-bred left-wing Brits something like
the position that the New York Times once held for
Upper West Side liberals (or that Fox now holds for
red-state anti-liberals): You cannot be who you are
without it.

Young people even read it.

What’s more, under Rusbridger, it has become, along
with the Daily Mail (with its lock on middle England)
and the BBC’s morning news show, The Today Programme,
among the most influential media voices in the UK.

The sudden turn in popular opinion against Tony Blair
for the Iraq war and the anger at his government’s WMD
misrepresentations—a development that George Bush has
yet to face—have been led by the Guardian.

It is also the paper everybody wants to work for.

“Unlike American packaging genius, which is about
packaging down (resulting in the deterioration of
taste), the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger packages up.”

Rusbridger is a large, rumpled, Harry Potter–esque
49-year-old. He’s a Cambridge-educated, well-married,
Establishment figure running an anti-Establishment
newspaper. He’s dry, slightly mocking (he came to
prominence in his early thirties writing a daily-diary
column that, in classic English diary form, skewered
the rich and pompous), and full of long silences.
What’s more, despite the long pages of type, he’s a
packaging genius.

“G2,” which he created when he was the Guardian’s
features editor (Peter Preston, a Fleet Street
eminence, was then the paper’s editor-in-chief), is a
daily inside-the-paper tabloid section. But instead of
this representing the tabloidizing of the Guardian,
Rusbridger gentrified the tabloid. While the American
evolutionary step has been to forsake hard news for
soft—for instance, the Times’s and the Journal’s
ever-expanding leisure, consumer, and service
sections—the Guardian in “G2” has morphed headline
news into a daily bath of stylish opinion, context,
and narrative. It’s high-concept news. It’s
story-behind-the-story news—which is, of course, the
real story. It is not unlike the kind of magazine
journalism that flourished in the U.S. a generation
ago—before cableization and tabloidization and

This is the marketing point: Unlike American packaging
genius, which is about packaging down (resulting in
the deterioration of taste as well as attention
spans), Rusbridger packages up.

While I was standing in Rusbridger’s office and
leafing through the prototype, thinking that this was
novel and exotic—quixotic, even—and quite a profound
misunderstanding of the American market, it suddenly
occurred to me that I was overlooking the obvious. The
Brit niche.

Against the background of the rise of Fox, the
deification of tabloid queen Bonnie Fuller, and of the
general decline of quality U.S. publishing, there’s
been something of an exceptional, and profitable,
highbrow British invasion. Arguably the two most
successful print publications to be introduced during
the past decade in the U.S. market are The Economist
and the Financial Times. (The third is Maxim, also
English in lineage, and a different packaging story.)

Both The Economist and the FT succeeded by pursuing
the opposite strategy of almost every other U.S.
publication: offering too much, rather than too
little, information—and charging plenty for it.

Rather than a lot of readers at a small price, the
idea is fewer readers at a greater price (whereas most
U.S. magazines discount their subscription price as
much as 80 percent). Rusbridger figures that the
American Guardian, charging a hefty subscription
price, will be in safe financial territory at a
100,000-level circulation. (Advertising, in this
approach, is welcome but not the main driver.) In
other words, against the trend of all other commercial
media (wherein the price the consumer needs to pay or
is willing to pay gets progressively lower), the job
here is to make the magazine—the writing, the
attitudes, the opinions, the content—worth more by
being better, smarter, more exclusive.

Being foreign helps. It’s not a mass-produced American
product. It’s imported. Authentic. Hand-tooled.
Tasteful. Indeed, in some fine irony in this
jingoistic age, its non-American-ness (and, hence, its
ability to be anti-American) makes it worth more.

And being written helps. The very thing that every
American publisher eschews—long articles by actual
writers—starts to look like something valuable. (Every
week, The Economist goes on—and on—at quite an amazing
and interminable length.)

The smarty thing—which runs against the Fox-led
Zeitgeist—might, counterintuitively, work here too.
The Wal-Marting of the publishing business (as well as
every other business) invites the inverse strategy:
You’re too dumb, too low-class, too fat for our
magazine. Sorry, it’s not for you. That’s a marketing
approach that could potentially be worth real dough.

There is also, perhaps, a logical progression here.
For the past generation, American publishers have
imported British editors—the natural next step is to
import British publications.

And there is, of course, the very Englishness of the
Guardian brand—and in publishing, no one has ever gone
broke appealing to a reader’s inner Anglophile.

Then there is the political point: The Europeans have
long divided their media along ideological lines—they
know about this sort of market segmentation. It seems
obvious that such targeting is coming to the U.S.

But meanwhile, the Fox-led conservative fatwa—or
merely its clever marketing ploy—against liberal media
has largely purged the slightest liberal inclination
from the media, meaning there’s a yawning market hole.
Between the New York Times and liberal trade magazines
like The New Republic and The Nation, there’s nothing.
It’s an open field. The very down-and-out-ness of
left-leaning media, together with the great antipathy
to smarties in America, means a blissful business
condition of absolutely no competition at all. What’s
more, the left wing in America has always had terrible
packaging skills.

These are, of course, dark days for liberals
(out-Foxed, Bush-whacked) and for magazine people
(more celebrities, more “elements,” fewer words), so
it is natural to latch onto any potential sign of a

There’s Al Gore’s liberal television network, which
seems rather too well-intentioned to be true. And
there is talk of the launch of a radio network
featuring liberal shock jocks.

And now there’s the prospect of a genuine,
rough-up-the-president-and-the-nabobs magazine.

Well, it could happen.

You go so far in one direction that common sense
suggests the real opportunity lies in the other.

Related Links:
Author E-mail: michael@burnrate.com
Previous Stories: This Media Life Archive
Also In This Issue: New York Magazine - July 14, 2003

From the July 14, 2003 issue of New York Magazine.

Posted by richard at July 8, 2003 02:07 PM