The British Are Coming?

Here's what happened to the Guardian's American invasion
By Georgia Jacobs

airplane.gif ON July 14, 2003, the former New York columnist and media pundit Michael Wolff made international news with his scoop: the Guardian, one of the United Kingdom’s most influential newspapers, was launching a weekly political magazine in the United States, due out in winter, in time for the start of the 2004 presidential campaign. One week later, the rumor mill was churning: Rolling Stone’s famous liberal publisher, Jann Wenner, was a potential partner and Sidney Blumenthal—former Clinton aide and Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, author of the recent memoir “The Clinton Wars” and weekly political columnist for the Guardian—would be the editor in chief. The magazine even had a tentative name: the Guardian in America.

Shortly thereafter, The New York Observer reported that Blumenthal talked up the idea at a cocktail party following a conference on American media coverage of the Iraq war co-sponsored by New York and the Guardian. “I think the Guardian in America would be the most important progressive voice in news and opinion,” Blumenthal had said.

Back at the Guardian’s London headquarters, resumés flooded the mailroom. Editor Alan Rusbridger estimates that 150 respectable American journalists asked him for a job. The Guardian, they all seemed to agree, was just the kind of publication that didn’t exist in the United States—the kind they wanted to work for.

The idea of an American Guardian made sense. First of all, it could be the left-liberal equivalent of The Economist, one of the great Anglo- American publishing success stories. The Economist, owned by Pearson, has been slowly building up its North American circulation from about 58,000 since it was first printed here in 1981. Bucking a marketing trend that saw British magazines buttering up American readers with targeted content, The Economist filled a market gap by being what Richard Lambert, former editor of the Financial Times (also owned by Pearson), calls “an outsider with insider info.” Today, with about 450,000 readers, North America makes up nearly half of The Economist’s 900,000 global circulation. The Financial Times followed a similar strategy when it launched in 1997 with 30,000 subscribers and had to compete with The Wall Street Journal, whose circulation at the time was 1.8 million. The Financial Times survived and thrived by beating The Wall Street Journal on international coverage and today has a circulation of 141,000.

As the intelligentsia’s newspaper of choice and boasting the country’s most loyal readership—many of whom, the joke goes, have been reading it since birth—the Guardian is Britain’s third-largest high-end broadsheet. It sets the standard for coverage not only of politics but also the arts, literature and history. It is also the quintessential independent paper. Operating under the philanthropic Scott Trust set up in 1936 by the Manchester family, the Guardian is known for its dedication to high journalistic standards. That hasn’t stopped the business from growing. The Guardian Media Group now owns a national radio station; daily, weekly and Sunday papers, including the prestigious weekly Observer; a Web site; and a group of classified magazines. A few years ago, rumor had it that Rusbridger wanted to add the New Statesman to the list.

If ever there was an editor capable of taking the Guardian overseas, it is Rusbridger. He is 50—young for a power editor—and his reputation is formidable on Fleet Street, London’s publishing row. Rusbridger is known as the journalist’s journalist, admired for his bold moves and brave stories during his nine years at the helm. (In February, he announced that he wouldn’t follow the circulationboosting lead of his two competitors, The Times and The Independent, and convert the Guardian into a tabloid.) Nor is Rusbridger a stranger to the American publishing world. In 1987, he was the London Daily News bureau chief in Washington, D.C., where he met Blumenthal.

The Guardian also strengthened its ties to America last November when it hired Albert Scardino as executive editor of news and business development. The Savannah-born, 55 year old is a former New York Times press columnist and the publisher of the now defunct Georgia Gazette, a small, opinionated paper that won a Pulitzer in 1984. He is also the husband of Marjorie Scardino, the head of Pearson and ranked number one on Management Today’s 2002 list of “Britain’s Fifty Most Powerful Women,” besting the prime minister’s wife, Cherie Blair. Albert Scardino has, perhaps, picked up a few things from his mate, who is credited with The Economist’s success in the United States.

If the Guardian appeared ready for America, America appeared ready for the Guardian. As Blumenthal said in a phone interview in February, “The atmosphere is perfect.”

When it comes to news, Americans have a reputation for being selfabsorbed. Albert Scardino compares his native country to an old Joan Rivers joke: “We’ve talked enough about America, now let’s talk about you. What do you think of America?” A few fateful hours on the morning of September 11, 2001, changed that attitude.

The terrorist attacks spawned an unprecedented desire in Americans for any and all news. They sought out information in such unlikely places as The London Review of Books, a British literary review first published in 1979 as an insert in The New York Review of Books but is now independent. Publisher Nicholas Spice says his U.S. subscriptions have been buoyant since September 11.

The buildup to the Iraq war and the American media’s soft stance on the Bush Administration had internationally minded multilateralists on edge. “There is an anxiety, particularly in liberal East Coast circles, that the Atlantic is widening too far,” says David Goodhart, publisher of the centrist British journal Prospect. “It makes them feel uneasy when American leaders are slagging off the French and the Germans.” He is trying to seize the moment, hoping to increase Prospect’s U.S. circulation from 1,000 to 7,000 or 8,000. The invasion of Iraq also polarized the United States politically. Small journals of opinion on the left like The Nation, The Progressive and Mother Jones saw their circulations rise.

America’s unrest has also been a boon to the Guardian, which has gained cachet among leftleaning cosmopolites and collegians. The Guardian Weekly has seen a 15 percent rise in circulation in North America, up from 21,000 to 25,000, over the last year. But it was the leap in Internet traffic—from a million users per month before September 11 to more than three million today—that prompted Rusbridger to hop a plane for New York in the fall of 2002.

According to Rusbridger, it was during a casual catch-up with Blumenthal on that trip that the idea to start the Guardian in America was born. “Sidney said, ‘Do you think you’re underestimating the influence and potential of the Guardian in America?’ And that sort of chimed in with an awareness on my side that we were [building] quite a fan club here and wondering if there was anything more we could do about it.” Other friends and business acquaintances told him the same. “There seemed to be a sense that readers weren’t finding what they wanted in the American media,” he says.

Ideas for new projects frequently cross Rusbridger’s desk, but Blumenthal took it beyond the idea stage. He drew up a formal proposal in which he suggested he would be the editor and laid out his ambitions for the publication, and what he thought the balance of news and features, British news, world news as well as American news should be. By spring 2003, the in-house design team had produced two or three prototypes, including one based on Blumenthal’s proposal, and it was his that Rusbridger considered most seriously. A ninety-six-page glossy, the Guardian in America resembled The New York Times Magazine in height and width. “It was beautiful,” Blumenthal says.

The proposed content was a mixed bag of previously run articles from the Guardian and new stories with American perspectives. Sixty percent of the mockup featured pieces from the Guardian’s literary review, as well as the science and comment sections. Rusbridger says it had an Atlantic Monthly feel and cites a recent essay by Martin Amis on Saul Bellow as a good example of an original Guardian essay that might run in the American edition. The remaining 40 percent, he says, would be political commentary and breaking news generated stateside. The initial circulation goal was 100,000.

With a prospectus and prototype in hand, Rusbridger made several trips to New York to meet with specialists in marketing, distribution, printing and packaging. He also met with potential partners and U.S. publishers of magazines with relevant readerships and circulation bases. “We did a lot of serious work,” he says.

And then, to the disappointment of many, including Blumenthal, it didn’t happen. What emerged from two dozen conversations from March to September was a ballpark guess that it would cost $50 million over five years before they reached the projected break-even point. It was called off in November, and on March 9, it was announced that, rather than investing millions in an American Guardian, Wenner would invest $200,000 in Salon.com and that Salon would open a Washington bureau with Blumenthal as senior vice president of editorial development and bureau chief. At the same time, Salon signed deals with the new liberal radio network, Air America, and with the Guardian, to carry their material. Patrick Hurley, senior vice president of business operations at Salon, says it is too early to know what or how much content will be posted from each. “We’re going to work out the details in the coming weeks,” he said. However, he said it has nothing to do with promoting the Guardian.

When Scardino was hired, one of his first tasks was to evaluate the Guardian in America proposal and make a recommendation. He was less than enthusiastic: “For $50 million, we could fly the paper over and pass it out at the airport.” Scardino feared that to survive in the celebrityobsessed U.S. publishing market, the Guardian in America would degenerate into a George-like magazine. He thought they should come up with other ways to move in slowly over the next three or four years—perhaps evolving the Guardian Weekly into a liberal Economist.

Apparently, Wenner also saw it as too steep an investment. He went on about the cost to Felix Dennis, who has himself deftly colonized the U.S. magazine market. “If they want to come to America and mess around with the big boys, by God they better have a great partner and some really great journalists,” Dennis says.

As the owner of Dennis Publishing—which produces more than eighteen magazines in the United Kingdom and four in the United States, including the racy lad-mag Maxim; the pop-culture hot-picks magazine Stuff; music-centric Blender; and his most recent coup, The Week, a whimsical news digest—Dennis should know. Maxim has been an overwhelming success since its 1997 U.S. launch. Its circulation is a hefty 2.5 million. Stuff, which appeared on the U.S. market in 1998, is now at 1.3 million.

Dennis said the Guardian in America is likely to cost twice the initial $50 million estimate. Nine months after The Week’s 2001 launch, the cost of building subscriptions was up to $90 a person and Dennis almost pulled the plug on his favorite magazine. “I’m not Mort Zuckerman, with all due respect,” he says. That number is now down to about $48 a head, after Dennis changed the marketing tack to rely on readers to promote the magazine to friends, family and colleagues. It has worked so far. The Week’s U.S. circulation is up to 200,000 and Dennis expects to break even at 320,000. “We’ll spend quite a bit more before it starts to flow the other way,” he says.

Ultimately, Rusbridger made the decision to put the Guardian project on the back burner. He blames the newspaper wars in the United Kingdom. “Everything is up in the air at the upper end of the newspaper market in this country,” he says. “It’s more important that we concentrate on that than expand in America.”

Blumenthal, the project’s biggest advocate, is reluctant to have more than a cursory talk about it and Wenner simply seems to be over it (he refused several interview requests.)

But speculation still ripples through New York’s media world. A recent phone call from Guardian headquarters asking for market advice had one publisher thinking the new magazine was on its way. When asked who his other potential partners were, Rusbridger declined to reveal them. “We may want to go back to them,” he says. Stories on the wire suggest the Guardian needs to do something big to continue to compete in the market at home and has been madly experimenting with format; launching in the United States catapulted the Financial Times onto a list of the world’s 100 most recognized brands.

A slightly made-over Guardian Weekly is another hint that Rusbridger hasn’t given up long-range plans to publish in the United States. “I guess it’s a sort of little turn in the water to see what kind of appetite there is for a newsstand version of the Guardian,” he says. The new Guardian Weekly is folded in half and has a thick, glossy cover to help it stand up—and stand out—on the crowded racks.

Maybe the British are coming and maybe they aren’t. The editors are vague. Rusbridger says, “The work is there, and we may choose to revisit it.” enddingbat.gif