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. [Photo]
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 said. “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. [Photo] “Unlike American packaging genius, which is about packaging down (resulting in the deterioration of taste), the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger packages up.” [Photo] 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 consolidation. 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 Renaissance. 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, old-fashioned, hire-some-good-writers-and-give-them-space-to-write, 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. Right?