Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Guardian: Halfway between the New York Times and Buzzfeed (updated)

My title is how Nicky Woolf describes the efforts of The Guardian to position itself in the on-line news market. Its interesting reading in light of the company's embrace of the sensationalist reporting by Glenn Greenwald on the Snowden revelations and their bizarre attempts to make their star "advocacy journalist" the focus of the story.

In a word, its all about linkbait. Here's how Janine Gibson, Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian US, responded to the description in my title:
Gibson says this is by design. "We want to build a different kind of newsroom [for the American operation]," she says. "That means being really great at live, real-time stuff, which was where we started, because it's a great place to grow quickly."
I personally watched this transition take place. As I have noted before, I used to hang out a bit on The Guardian website when Michael Tomasky's blogging was their main nod to the US market. He left there in May 2011 (lately I've been thinking there was a much bigger story about that than Tomasky told the "regulars" at the time) and there was major anticipation about who The Guardian would pick to replace him.

In September of that year the announcement was finally made. The big news was that they had chosen Ana Marie Cox as their lead blogger on U.S. politics. It was obvious from the start that their hopes had been placed on getting her 1.3 million twitter followers to beef up their ranks. I'm guessing that proved a disaster because - in Cox's own words - she isn't really "into" blogging.
I probably should just blog but I find the 140-character limit of Twitter reassuringly confining.
Less than a year later, in August 2012, The Guardian brought on Glenn Greenwald. The followers he'd built up for years of writing at Salon turned out to be more loyal than Cox's twitter groupies. They took over the comment section of his posts and pretty much ran off anyone who didn't salute their "dear leader" with enough gumption. And then along came Edward Snowden. The rest - as they say - is history.

According to Woolf, providing linkbait as fodder has paid off for The Guardian.
Of the three English-language newspaper websites with the highest readerships, two are British.

The number one spot has been occupied since last January by the Mail Online, an industrial-sized feedbag of celebrity titillation and gossip, with a ComScore rating of 50.2 million monthly unique visitors worldwide for May. Currently in at number two is The New York Times, with 46.2 million. Snapping at its heels is The Guardian: it had 40.9 million last month.

That was before Edward Snowden arrived on the scene.
Trouble is, links don't necessarily mean money and The Guardian is bleeding to the tune of $149,000 a day. Even though - as Woolf points out - the publication is backed by a lucrative trust, it would only cover them for 3-5 years. Jaun Senor, a visiting fellow in news media at Oxford University, put it this way.
“We are very concerned,” SeƱor tells me on the phone from Los Angeles, “that everybody looks at the Guardian’s success in terms of volume of traffic. That is not a measure of success, because you might as well get into pornography. They’ve played the volume game all along.
Ouch! That one hurt.

The truth is that no newspapers have figured out how to survive in this new internet age. While they work on that it behooves us to understand what it is they're doing to try to make a go of it. I know that The Guardian has a history of being a respected publication. At least in terms of its U.S. presence, it seems to be willing to throw that all away in the interests of linkbait.

UPDATE: On a whole different subject, Tom Nichols has written a fascinating piece titled Generation Snowden, Part I. It it, he talks about the vulnerability that this generation of privileged young people has to linkbait.
What students learn in college now is theory, not history or practice.

Now add to this a high level of technological ability (fueled by the affluence that lets every kid have electronics that teens of earlier years could not imagine), and you have the powerful intersection of a love for technology and a complete ignorance about politics that creates the “techno-utopianism” John mentioned.

And so they lunge to the internet in search of more material, without guidance or knowledge to help them. They wander the halls of internet myths, urban legends, half-truths, paranoid theories, and the usual detritus that accumulates when human beings approach learning like it’s a buffet table to be ravaged at will, with no order or measure.
Exhibit A for that theory.


  1. I used to read the Guardian when I was in college - back then it was the Manchester Guardian- and I enjoyed it very much. It seems to have come a long way down hill.

  2. The Guardian is in fact good at instant commentary. I think they developed this in the Sports department, where people without access to British broadcasting show interest in running commentary on football, cricket, tennis, etc. The Guardian has for a couple of years had valuable political commentary of that kind, at the Republican and Democratic conventions, as well as during revolutions, etc. What is less there now is informed, thought-out reflection.

    On recent events: If I had to guess, I'd say that the newspaper underestimated Greenwald's personal energy and talent for self-promotion; they may not be entirely happy in private. Let's wait and see how the paper/website goes in the next couple of years.