Guardian Reclaims America

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, the storied, handsome British newspaper with a spectacularly successful worldwide Web site, had already tried to build his newspaper a proper home in the United States twice.

Then he hired Michael Tomasky to give it another go last spring. The America project had seemed straightforward when Mr. Rusbridger first started pursuing it in 2002: The Guardian, after all, was enormously popular in the States, its Web site attracting hordes of loyal readers who felt that U.S. newspapers had not worked hard enough during the run-up to the Iraq war. According to the Guardian’s press office, guardian.co.uk drew about 16 million unique visitors during July 2007; of those, fully 5.9 million were from the United States.

Mr. Rusbridger, youthful, politically adept, also a children’s book author and Bach expert (he became editor of the Guardian in 1995), has so far stumbled in his efforts to harness that massive American readership. But after a few false starts, he is primed to do just that later this month with the launch of GuardianAmerica.com, which, under the leadership of Mr. Tomasky, will present U.S. readers with all the Guardian stories they care about and none of the ones they don’t.

According to Mr. Tomasky, the new Web site will give prominent placement to Guardian stories dealing with the presidential campaign, the Middle East and cultural news relevant to American readers—think Ian McEwan.

Articles about local British politics—which might, under some circumstances, take top billing on the Guardian’s primary Web site—will not appear on Guardian America if they do not seem relevant to American readers, Mr. Tomasky said.

Operating out of the Guardian’s D.C. bureau, the new site will also offer original content—about two or three pieces per day—written by a team of American reporters and commentators that Mr. Tomasky is in the process of recruiting.

The Guardian’s celebrated opinion blog “Comment Is Free” will also feature prominently on Guardian America. Mr. Tomasky said the blog will host a lot more pieces about American issues when the new site launches than it has traditionally. To that end, Mr. Tomasky hired Alexander “Sasha” Belenky away from The New Republic last week to commission and edit opinion pieces. (Mr. Belenky currently serves as assistant managing editor for the Web at TNR; he will start at Guardian America later this month.)

With the launch just a few weeks away—an official date has not yet been set—Mr. Tomasky leads a staff of four, including Mr. Belenky and London transplants Richard Adams—Mr. Tomasky’s number two—and Simon Jeffery, who will be in charge of “actually physically building the site every day.”

The Guardian’s six American correspondents—two of them based in D.C., three in New York, and one in L.A., according to Guardian network editor Tom Happold—will continue to answer to their editors across the Atlantic, but they will also be encouraged to contribute original material to the new Web site.

“I’ll file pieces to London as usual and some of those pieces will appear on the Guardian America Web site, probably given a more prominent position than they would on the Web site in London,” said Washington bureau chief Ewen MacAskill, whose byline appears in the paper almost every day. “I will also write pieces specific to Guardian America as well—pieces from the campaign trail, for instance, that are maybe too detailed for the paper.”

Mr. Tomasky, who previously served as the editor of The American Prospect, said he does not expect Guardian America to compete with The New York Times or The Washington Post in terms of breaking news; instead, he wants the site to be a “second read” along the lines of TalkingPointsMemo.com, drawing readers who want an aggressively liberal perspective on political and foreign news that they’ve already read about in other papers.

“Because it’s a newspaper, we’ll be more full-service than blogs are,” Mr. Tomasky said. “We’re doing culture, and when a bridge collapses in Minneapolis we will cover that too, with the understanding that we’re not going to be the first site people go to find details.”

The new site’s lineage traces back to the fall of 2002 when Mr. Rusbridger first decided to put down roots in the U.S. in the form of a weekly glossy magazine.

The Guardian in America, as it was called in prototype, was to be edited by former New Yorker writer and Clinton speechwriter Sidney Blumenthal. Mr. Rusbridger had even secured a group of investors—among them Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner—but a breathless New York Magazine article and 96-page mock-up later, the project was derailed by soaring costs and a distracting newspaper war in London which forced Mr. Rusbridger to focus his attention on a major redesign of the Guardian’s print edition.

The magazine idea was officially put to rest in November 2003, and with that, the Guardian’s stateside expansion fell temporarily by the wayside.

Then, last spring, Mr. Rusbridger decided to try again, this time with a Web site instead of a print edition. He asked Michael Kinsley to head the operation.

Mr. Kinsley agreed to come on board, but after just two months of work—during which very little actually got done, Mr. Kinsley said—he received an offer from Time “so generous it would have been nuts not to take it.”

“Basically we treaded water for a few months and then I bailed,” Mr. Kinsley said.

Mr. Tomasky said it was around Christmas 2006 when he was asked to fill the vacant post. In February, a delegation of three editors from the Guardian, including Mr. Rusbridger, visited him in Washington, and the group met to talk about the site on two consecutive nights at the Jefferson Hotel. In March, Mr. Tomasky flew to London for further discussions, and shortly thereafter accepted the job.

Now, as the site prepares to go live, the only thing left is to see whether Americans actually want their own version of the Guardian or not.

“The preliminary question,” said Mr. Kinsley, “is do Americans go to the Guardian because it’s British? Do people go to the Guardian because they get this little frisson of international sophistication, which they will lose if it’s totally obvious that it’s coming out of Washington? That is a danger but, basically, people read the Guardian because it’s very good.”

“Maybe it won’t work, most stuff on the Internet doesn’t,” added Mr. Kinsley, who founded Slate.com in 1996. “But it’s worth a try.”

Mr. Tomasky, meanwhile, is confident that the new site will not only retain the Guardian’s American audience but grow it.

“Who’s the audience for this? I think it’s the kind of people who started going to the Guardian site in 2002 and 2003 to get a different perspective on Iraq,” Mr. Tomasky said. “They’re probably mostly liberal, they’re probably very well-informed. They probably have a broad range of interests across politics and culture, and they’re probably looking for something—how to put this?—that they feel comfortable with ideologically but that doesn’t just repeat back to them everything they know and everything they think.”

Share this article: