The Guardian's decision to relocate senior staff to New York parallels the newspaper's shift from Manchester to London.
In 1964 the Guardian’s editor relocated from the newspaper’s birthplace in Manchester to new offices in London. It was a risky move but one that almost certainly saved the organisation in the long run.
Now, 45 years later, the Guardian is making another move – this time relocating several senior staff from London to New York to head an international digital expansion of Guardian.co.uk. Is it on a par with the shift from Manchester to London? It could be.
Of course the Guardian isn’t about to decamp for New York City en masse – we are only talking about a handful of staff – but there are strong parallels. The move from Manchester to London was a reflection of the social and economic logic of post-war Britain: the south-east of England was where the readers and the advertising were. Similarly, the US offers a potentially huge English-speaking readership and – as with Willie Sutton’s alleged advice on robbing banks – it’s where the money is.
American readers are by far the single biggest audience for Guardian.co.uk outside Britain – the latest audited figures shows 8.6m unique users (the best proxy for readers) coming to the site from the US per month. That makes Guardian.co.uk more widely read inside the US than many well-known American titles.
There’s also a lot of news out of the US as well. The 2008 presidential election was a case in point: the demand for news – literally any news – was enormous. Similarly, as the WikiLeaks embassy cables detailed, the US has a finger in more pies than other countries have fingers. The world needs to know what is happening here.
Finally, the US is the centre of online innovation. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube and many others emerged from the US, not to mention the iPhone and iPad. In that sense, it’s the place to be. And as the rapid growth of news sites such as Politico and Huffington Post have shown in the last few years, the barriers to entry into the US news market are lower than anyone guessed.
In fact, if the success of Politico and others has proved anything it’s that the appetite for news appears to be infinite. As Slate.com founder Michael Kinsley said of Politico: “I would have thought there was no more room for another Starbucks in Dupont Circle, and there always is.”
(Although Starbucks has faltered since Kinsley made that remark in 2007, several new coffee shops have opened near Washington’s Dupont Circle since then. And Kinsley is now a columnist for Politico.)
Obviously, as a Guardian journalist based in Washington, I’m all in favour of the latest move. It’s not the first time the Guardian has tried to break into America – the last push unluckily ran into the 2008-09 recession, leading to budget cuts and job losses in all parts of the organisation. Then again, the move from Manchester to London had its perils, and was spread out over several years, starting in 1959 when the Guardian dropped the name Manchester from its masthead.
There are other, more prosaic, reasons why the move makes sense. News doesn’t stop at 2am GMT. Guardian.co.uk now has an editor based in Australia to cover what would be the graveyard shift in London. With our reporters spread across the world’s time zones, it makes sense to have our other resources match those patterns. One day soon that could mean having editors in India as well.
But will it work? The fact that we have a large US base already suggests we are doing something right. Personally, I think the élan and approach of British journalism suits an online audience. British media tend to cover news incrementally, day by day, while the mainstream American media aim for sporadic, comprehensive coverage, at the cost of timeliness and readability.
But let’s not pretend that the Guardian is going to overtake the New York Times or CNN any time soon. It’ll be a triumph if the US media stop calling us “the Guardian of London”. Then again, we do still get mail addressed to the Manchester Guardian.
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