The Cutline

The Guardian embarking on significant U.S. expansion

Joe Pompeo
The Cutline

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The U.K. Guardian is on the verge of expanding its U.S. footprint.

"We will be announcing an American editor shortly," Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor-in-chief, told The Cutline in an interview last week. He said the liberal English broadsheet is building a new U.S. digital operation that will be based in New York rather than Washington, D.C. (The paper's roughly 10 stateside reporters are currently based in both cities.) Pressed for additional details, Rusbridger demurred, but said the venture "will be significantly larger than anything we've done in the states before." He was presumably referring to the Guardian's previous attempts to crack the American news market, the most recent being GuardianAmerica.com, which had a short run between 2007 and 2009.

The Guardian began laying the groundwork for this expansion of its American shop last week with the addition of a New York-based chief revenue officer, whose job will be "to plot a fresh course in the U.S.," according to paidContent's Robert Andrews.

"We're not in a position to say more than that at the moment," Rusbridger said. But he offered that "the United States is going to be a more important part of what we do in the future."

Rusbridger spoke with The Cutline from his office last Thursday during the Changing Media Summit, an annual confab the Guardian sponsors in London. The event made headlines thanks to Arianna Huffington's announcement there that her rapidly growing news and commentary website, recently acquired by AOL, will launch a U.K. edition this summer. But Rusbridger was already talking about The Guardian's next big gathering--Activate New York, a technology conference that will, according to a press release, "bring together many of the world's brightest and most influential figures to debate how technology is driving positive social change on a global scale."

Activate New York dovetails with The Guardian's broader push into the U.S. market, Rusbridger said. While The Guardian has hosted several previous Activate summits in the U.K., the upcoming installment, scheduled for April 28 at the Paley Center for Media, will be the first conference it has organized in the states.

"It's had a certain saliency over the last couple of years here, so we just wanted to see whether it would grow roots in the United States," said Rusbridger. He added that the theme of the gathering aligns closely with his own professional interests: "What interests me a great deal at the moment are the dividing lines between open and closed societies," he said. "The most interesting things are certainly happening on the open side. I'm extremely interested in the sharing of scientific knowledge, the sharing of patents, how news organizations can collaborate and form networks and how that's spilling into and affecting government activism."

The Guardian of course has recently gained a very high profile in the media world on the basis of one such collaborative effort--its close alliance with the New York Times and several other international media outlets in publishing reports on a trove of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and classified U.S. diplomatic cables acquired last year via the controversial open-document organization WikiLeaks.

The Guardian has since had a falling out with WikiLeaks and its embattled founder, Julian Assange, and Rusbridger said he had not had any recent contact: "I've heard that he's working on a new project with some different media partners, but I don't know what it is and he's obviously decided to move on from us."

But Rusbridger did confirm that The Guardian has been in talks about a possible collaboration with OpenLeaks, a newer document-leaking platform launched in December by high-ranking WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg. (New York Times executive editor Bill Keller also said recently that his newspaper is mulling an OpenLeaks venture.) On the other hand, The Guardian may develop an in-house document-leaking system, Rusbridger said--in the same vein as a project that the New York Times is reportedly planning.

"We haven't yet definitively worked out how effectively we could build the technology," he said. "It's an ongoing dilemma that we're thinking about."

The Guardian's ambitious U.S. plans come as Huffington's sale and expansion of her namesake property has lately been commanding the lion's share of interest in the digital journalism world. (Huffington is slated to participate in Activate New York's keynote panel.) Rusbridger, for his part, was a bit equivocal about the Huffington push. "She's expanding in all directions. She wants to cover the whole waterfront in terms of every kind of subject. That's admirable, but it's going to be quite fraught in terms of retaining any kind of focus or distinctiveness."

But might HuffPo's rapidly expanding newsroom evolve to a point where its reporting and writing rivals that of papers like The Guardian?

"There's no reason why it shouldn't, except the expense," said Rusbridger. "I think its purely a question of where [Huffington] wants to place her focus. She's a bright woman and she's hiring bright people. ... There's no reason any of these insurgents can't do journalism the same way [as legacy media], but they will run into all the same problems of focus and resource as the old companies."

The Cutline also asked Rusbridger about his thoughts on The New York Times' paid online model, which goes into effect at 2 p.m. Monday.

"I can't see anywhere in world that's tried charging [online] for general news that has made a go of it in the sense that you get enough people and enough money to make up for the loss of influence," he said. Nevertheless, he also cautioned that "I'm not a Taliban of the free. If the New York Times ended up with hundreds of thousands of subscribers who were all going to pay decent sums of money, of course you'd be idiotic not to respect that and learn from it. So I don't think any of us can be in a completely entrenched position."

And what are The Guardian's plans for the royal wedding on April 28, an event that has other major news outlets gearing up for wall-to-wall coverage?

"Of course we'll cover the day of. We're planning a supplement for the next day and we'll live-blog it," said Rusbridger, noting that he wouldn't be assigning more than a dozen journalists to the story. "But [Prince William] is not even next in line for the throne, so his constitutional significance is pretty tiny at the moment. It will be a nice human story on the day, but we won't go overboard."

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