Embracing Change  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2006

Embracing Change   

British dailies are trying a variety of new approaches in an effort to survive and thrive in a new media landscape. Are there lessons here for U.S. papers?

By Frances Stead Sellers
Frances Stead Sellers (sellersf@washpost.com) is an editor at the Washington Post.     


Things have changed on platform 1 at Cambridge, just as they have at myriad other train stations around Britain. Gone is the trademark bowler hat of the British businessman, along with the pinstripes and the furled black umbrella. Gone, too, are those gray guarantors of quality, the broadsheet newspapers. These days, bareheaded men and women commute into the city clasping collapsible brollies and colorful tabloids that bear the familiar names of the old broadsheets, but are shrunk to fit the modern world, where convenience is king.

Downsizing is the most visible of several high-stakes experiments that Britain's mainstream newspapers are trying in response to a phenomenon that America's print media also know all too well: dropping circulation. According to the British Journalism Review, national circulation of daily papers has decreased by 10.2 percent since 1995, falling by 2.6 percent in 2005 alone.

In London, the need for four mainstream dailies to distinguish themselves among newly reluctant readers has resulted in dramatic changes that make U.S. newspapers look cautious by comparison. Not only have three of the four so-called quality papers reduced their size to a more commuter-friendly format, but radical redesigns and new sections vie for the public's attention; reader-written copy is taking up space on pages formerly reserved for reporters' words; papers offer digital innovations like weekly politics podcasts and news updates on mobile phones; the stature and paychecks of opinion writers have soared; and, in what from a U.S. point of view may be the most controversial move of all, news on one front page has been displaced by opinion and analysis, transforming that newspaper into a "viewspaper."

It all makes for a sort of modern media laboratory in the new newspaper districts like Canary Wharf and Wapping, where the Fleet Street establishment has migrated. And British editors have been looking for inspiration not across the Atlantic to that grand ambition to provide "all the news that's fit to print," but across the channel, where dailies specialize in the analysis of current events. For while there is widespread admiration among serious journalists here for the work of their U.S. counterparts for what Financial Times columnist John Lloyd calls America's "gold standard" of neutral, factual reporting there is far less admiration for the papers in which their work appears. New World newspapers look old-fashioned to Old World eyes. To many British journalists, the design of U.S. papers seems "slabby," their very appeal to fairness "fraudulent," their overall tone "insular" and "self-important," and thus peculiarly ill-suited to absorb and respond to the anarchic, global to-and-fro of the Internet. They seem to betray what Simon Kelner, editor of London's Independent, calls "all the signs of a noncompetitive environment."

And it is competition that has fueled the boldest British innovations. While the Times and the Daily Telegraph are trying to attract readers with the kinds of changes that have become familiar in the States (shorter, more sensational stories and splashier displays), the most provocative new models are those developed by Kelner (who coined the term "viewspaper" to describe his redo of the Independent) and his chief rival for readers, Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian.

It would be easy to dismiss the differences between these two newspapermen as good old class warfare. Kelner, 48, is a no-nonsense northerner, schooled in journalism at Preston Polytechnic, while Rusbridger, 52, read English literature at Cambridge University's Magdalene College, and uses $10 words like "resile."

To a great extent, their contrasting approaches reflect the ownership structures of their respective papers: The financially strapped Independent is one part of the portfolio of Irish businessman and former H.J. Heinz and Co. Chairman Tony O'Reilly; the Guardian, on the other hand, is freed both from the designs of a mogul and from the demands of shareholders by the financial support of the Scott Trust, whose stated mission is "to maintain the journalistic and commercial principles" of one long-standing former editor, C.P. Scott.

So Kelner pursues the ideas he can afford, while Rusbridger can afford to pursue some ideals. But the two men also represent radically different commercial responses to the common threat from instant news. Kelner hopes to survive by refusing to compete with the Internet and instead shifting the Independent's emphasis away from scoops to magazine-style roundups, opinion and analysis. Rusbridger's tactic is to create a flexible media company that can provide news in many formats, one of which remains (for the time being, at least) newsprint. And both men reject the notion that downsizing necessarily means what it symbolically suggests going downmarket.

"Why pay 70p for something you've heard on the radio?" asks Kelner impatiently, referring to the astonishing sum of about $1.20 that British commuters shell out each day for the Independent or the Guardian. "We've got to provide something of value." The added value he promises is attitude. Pages of it. Right from the word go on A1.

Kelner has assembled a coterie of high-profile columnists, such as Middle East expert Robert Fisk and "Bridget Jones" author Helen Fielding, and provides a string of high-concept cover stories usually sweeping themes designed to up the angst of his left-of-center readers. The paper might devote its front to Britain's summer water shortage or to the increase in mental illness among children; it might decry the evils of the gas-guzzling SUV or describe a leaked memo by the U.S. ambassador about the deteriorating situation in Baghdad that first ran in the Washington Post. The stories are often anti-Bush, always antiwar and once in a while, Kelner admits, just a bit flippant.

Like or dislike the Independent's promotion of views over news, it's hard not to admire Kelner's gusto. Just 20 years after its celebrated launch as London's new serious newspaper and with a circulation that now hovers around only 260,000, the Independent comes in fourth out of the mainstream four. But it's ready to run risks and ones that can affect the whole industry. It was Kelner who led the downsizing revolution three years ago, which has now been followed, he says, by dozens of papers worldwide. (He avoids the word "tabloid," preferring to call his mini-Indy a "compact.") He speaks with a marketer's pride of the journalistic epiphany that came to him in the toothpaste aisle of the local supermarket: about how he looked at the flip tops and the screw tops, and the tubes that lie flat and the ones that stand on their caps and the square squeezy bottles that include mouthwash, and realized, "Newspapers were the only consumer products that come in one size only."

In the fall of 2003, Kelner began giving newspaper consumers choice, too, offering them the Independent either as a broadsheet or in a sassy new scaled-down shape and within months 95 percent of the paper's readers were choosing the tabloid. Readership simultaneously rose by about 30 percent, largely poached, Kelner says, from the Guardian. The following spring, Kelner stopped producing the broadsheet altogether, having started a small-paper trend that both the Times and the Guardian followed. (The Daily Telegraph remains a broadsheet, advertising its own grabbier coverage with the slogan "Impact, not compact.")

Its three main competitors may not follow the Independent into becoming viewspapers, but the paper is offering a dramatic experiment in what many media analysts have long suggested newspapers will have to do in order to remain relevant: focus more on comment and analysis, in effect bringing the tools of the weekly newsmagazine to the daily paper.

The result is a publication that people speak of with rare passion. There are those who say they loathe its daily rants, but the Independent has won a following of liberal, educated loyalists who forgive (or don't notice) its skimpy newsgathering and don't care that the paper's Web site is a rudimentary affair. They embrace its political correctness. "Fisk is God," one avid reader told me, apparently without irony. Many of the Independent's disciples say that when they want breaking news, they can find it elsewhere on TV, on the radio, on the Internet.

As for that church/state divide between opinion and news? It's never been as strong in Britain (where papers have traditionally hewed to a political line) as it is in the United States; commentary has always absorbed a greater part of the paper, as has an emphasis on writerliness and humor. And Kelner argues that he can leave it up to readers to figure out where the reportage stops and opinion begins. For example, Fisk whom the Independent acquired from the Times in one of many interpaper raids of prominent columnists is staunchly critical of the Iraq war. "Robert tells it how he sees it," Kelner says. "If readers don't like it, they can vote with their feet."

Editorial stunts such as handing over the reins for the day to Irish rock star Bono (which Kelner did in May) and sharing revenue with charitable causes (like Bono's RED campaign) suggest Kelner will try almost anything to hang on to readers. But he is not trying to keep them by developing the paper's online presence. He can't even say offhand how many people work on the paper's Web site. It's not central to his strategy. "My only job," he says, "is to sell copies of my newspaper."

The Internet is the bull's-eye of Alan Rusbridger's strategy for the Guardian. These days, he is in the business of selling news rather than newspapers, and he is experimenting with doing so not only in print, but online, on podcasts, on mobile phones indeed, on whatever technology looks as if it may ultimately make commercial sense. The paper has a circulation of some 380,000, but its Web site, Guardian Unlimited, which won the international Webby Award for the best newspaper site this year, has more than 13 million unique visitors each month and has begun making a modest but real seven-figure profit.

Rusbridger sees Kelner's viewspaper as reneging on journalism's most fundamental responsibilities. "Anyone can do views," he says. "Anybody can strike postures. Only we can do news." And he has opened a lively debate here about journalistic values in general and about the Guardian's values in particular, which are published in a booklet titled "Living our Values: Social, ethical and environmental audit 2005" that is posted online and displayed in the newspaper's lobby where visitors can't miss it.

If all this sounds self-consciously virtuous (and a trifle hypocritical from a newspaper whose notoriously smart-aleck features section tried to influence the 2004 U.S. presidential election by encouraging independent voters in one swing county to support Democratic hopeful John Kerry), there is no mistaking the business strategy behind it. While he shies away from the term "newspaper of record," Rusbridger explains that his goal for the Guardian is to win readers the old-fashioned way, by providing trustworthy, well-reported news along with smart comment and analysis. And the louder the other dailies shout, he says, the more opportunity there is for the Guardian to distinguish itself by lowering its voice.

He sketches a diagram to illustrate his point. It shows the Guardian's chief competitors the Independent and the Times moving downmarket and further to the political extremes, leaving a space for the Guardian to fill by moving up and to the center, shedding its reputation as the leftist paper "for the muesli-eating, sandal-wearing, public-sector employed set" while remaining "liberal, progressive [and] internationalist." He's committed to coverage that will continue to reflect the paper's traditional left-of-center, environmentally conscious values, but wants to present it in a way that won't alienate conservative readers; he's aiming for a kind of honesty that reflects both sides of a given debate but hinges on readers knowing where the paper is coming from.

Rusbridger follows his sketch with a show of slides on his laptop chosen to demonstrate that the Independent's opinionated covers miss important news stories. And the ease with which he moves from notepad to laptop, from low- to high-tech, acts as a metaphor for the organization he is running. Along with chief executive Carolyn McCall, Rusbridger is trying to create a wired newsroom, a place where journalists move comfortably between paper and cyberspace. McCall wants the Guardian to be "of the Web, not just on the Web," so the company has run classes for employees to learn how to start a blog, how to use a digital camera and what their teenagers are actually doing with their iPods, all aimed at making them feel part of the operation's digital future.

The newspaper itself is elegantly webby in design and content. Even though Rusbridger has pared back the Guardian, you won't hear the word "tabloid" (or even "compact") around the Farringdon Road offices. He has recast "theguardian," as its reduced masthead now reads, as a European-style "Berliner" several inches taller than a traditional tabloid so as to provide the sophistication of the broadsheet in a more modern and convenient format. After investing some 80 million (or about $140 million) in the new German-made presses that the redesign required and less than a year after launching the new Berliner format, Rusbridger in June announced the decision to post news straight to the Web, ending the primacy of the printed paper. "The site has got to break news," says Guardian Unlimited's editor in chief, Emily Bell. That, she emphasizes, is what brings in readers, who can then follow links to other stories and information.

The Guardian is using its experience online as the foundation for new Weblike features in the printed paper as well as on its site. It not only keeps its readers abreast of what's going on in the blog-osphere, it has a regular "Response" column, which "offers those who have been written about in the Guardian an opportunity to reply" at greater length than in a letter; it has a travel guide, "Been There," written by readers for readers; and it runs obituaries of ordinary people written by those who knew them.

But the most important change may be a philosophical one: The Guardian has stopped pretending that it's a hallowed oracle dispensing a leftist truth to passive readers and instead decided to join the conversation, giving readers greater input into the journalistic process. On the comment blog, "Comment is Free," for example, readers are asked to report offensive comments on the site, and there are plans to try software that will allow readers rather than moderators some control over eliminating them.

All of which takes some responsibility for the quality of the product away from journalists the people who supposedly know what they are doing. When I tell Bell that I contributed one of those "Other Lives" columns to the Guardian not long ago and that nobody asked about my background or checked with me that what I wrote was true, she concedes that there are "huge risks" in printing columns by outsiders. But the challenge, she argues, is one of labeling making clear what is written by professional journalists and what is written by others. (And the Jayson Blairs and Janet Cookes of the world are a reminder that reader-written copy has no monopoly on risks.)

Moreover, risks are just what British newspapers are willing to take these days, as readers at the breakfast table and on their morning commutes look for what Kelner calls added value in the morning paper. As Rusbridger says, he's ready to be "a bit brave or foolhardy or something and see what happens."

Quality U.S. papers may never opt for the Independent's provocative mix of news and views; it not only upsets the traditional church/state divide, it flies in the face of the emphasis on solid reporting at which they have excelled. But the Independent's and the Guardian's experimentation prompt questions that U.S. papers would do well to consider. The recent crises of trust that quality papers here have suffered from the coverage of WMD to the debate over the New York Times' June story about the government's tracking of terrorist funding have renewed questions about whether American papers' claims of fairness are a cover for pushing a political agenda. In the wake of such public disillusionment, mightn't there be a place for publications that wear their allegiances more clearly on their mastheads?

We'll soon find out. Encouraged by the growing popularity of its Web site (almost a third of whose 13 million unique monthly users are based in the United States), the Guardian in June announced its intention to become what chief executive McCall calls the "leading global liberal voice." Circulation may be slack in Britain, but, like the Economist, the Financial Times and most recently the Times, the Guardian intends to export its competitive spirit in print across the Atlantic to America, where it believes there may just be a market for its webby, writerly and, yes, liberal approach to the news.

And that's a very good reason for mainstream U.S. papers to consider taking a few more risks.

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