Guardian column: The British invasion

What the British invaders are really after in the US

Jeff Jarvis
Monday July 3, 2006
The Guardian

First, the Pilgrims. Then the Beatles. Now the Times, the Guardian, and the BBC. The latest British invasion of America is under way and it appears the timing and target for colonisation are right. You’ve already seen the ships headed west: the Times is now publishing a print edition in New York. The Guardian has hired a chief for its US efforts while plotting online and print assaults. And the BBC has pushed its international news channel, BBC World, on to cable systems in America. But, of course, the real object here is not victory in old media. It is the internet. That is the sea that enables you to navigate and conquer the globe today.

So here’s my perspective from the landing zone. I’ve been picking up the Times of London on New York newsstands and I like to think that carrying it makes me the classiest guy on the E train (we still believe anything said in a British accent is smarter than the same thing said in our own). It also makes me wish that our Times here would learn a lesson from the former British broadsheets – and their readers – and convert to subway-friendly tabloid format. I’m enjoying reading the Times’ good writing. But it also feels out of sync in a few critical ways: first, of course, the news is five time zones staler than our local brands’. But what is more striking is that the ads inside your Times are for couches and computers and flights to New York – all in pounds sterling.

News Corp isn’t trying to sell print advertising here. So even at $1 a copy, there’s surely no profit in this. But that’s probably not the goal. Putting the Times on newsstands gives the brand presence here and exploits Rupert Murdoch’s advantage over his fellow colonisers – he owns the New York Post and its presses. So the print product is, I suspect, merely a vehicle to market the online product, where the real money will be. I think this is a harbinger of things to come for many media companies; old media will live to drive people to new media and print becomes what we like to call “value added” (read: “worth less”). And the strategy is working on me: I’m going to more often. Rupert has my mindshare.

At the same time, dangling high up in my cable’s lineup – at No 104 out of 255 – I find BBC World, which joins a half-dozen more all-news channels, the smallest of which is much smaller than some blogs. Why join the fray? Richard Sambrook, director of global news, says the US is its last frontier and it aims to extend its advertising reach and also attract US marketers. It also brings a different voice – that accent – to the sameness of US news. “Breadth and range will, we hope, be what sets us apart,” says Sambrook.

Then there’s the Guardian, which recruited editor/pundit Michael Kinsley to lead its American charge and is reported to be hunting for printing sites. The Guardian’s primary landing craft will be its opinion site, Comment is Free. (Full disclosure: I’ve given the paper my advice on how to make CiF more compelling for my countrymen.)

I believe opinion is a potent weapon for UK media because for decades, American newspapers and networks have deluded themselves (and their audiences) into believing that they are objective and opinion-free, while British broadsheets have skilfully created great journalism with perspective. The reason that political blogs have exploded here is that readers are dying to hear that perspective and also to get a new point of view on our own politics to balance all the bombast on talk radio and cable news. This is also why British news brands have taken hold here and now have a platform for growth.

The other great advantage for the invaders is that American news media are staggering from plummeting circulation, depressed ad revenue, declining trust, and a lack of invention and daring. So kick us while we’re down, will you? Now, of course, British news organisations are facing similar pressure in sales and ad revenue. But that is why they must find ways to expand. And America provides a proven opportunity for growth since they already get healthy proportions of audience here. Getting bigger here, with more loyal audience, will justify selling major advertising, perhaps from global advertisers, and that could generate substantial revenue.

But there are risks. As we Americans have to relearn too often, it’s not easy to export your worldview into another culture. Serving us self-centred Yanks with more local reporting could be more expensive than anticipated. And that effort might draw resources and focus away from serving the audience at home. Or then again, the UK could end up with the truly global news brands of tomorrow.