The NSA Snooping Scoop: Behind the Guardian‘s Risky Plans for Global Expansion

It was a very American story — but a very British scoop.

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Guardian editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, arrives to attend the publication of the Leveson Report into press ethics in central London on November 29, 2012.

It was a very American story — but a very British scoop. On June 5 Britain’s Guardian newspaper broke the news that the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) are gathering the cell phone data of millions of Americans. According to a top secret federal court order, telecoms company Verizon is obliged, on an “ongoing, daily basis,” to send the NSA information about all telephone calls made on the firm’s network both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

The Guardian’s scoop was a feather in the cap of a venerated British newspaper and a reminder of its ambitious strategy to become a global news brand. The paper has American and Australian digital editions; one-third of its readers are in the U.S., with traffic there up 37% last year, said the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger at the paidContent Live conference in New York in April. The paper has a total of 57 employees based in the U.S., 29 of whom are editorial staff.

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Rusbridger said the paper’s expansion into the United States is going as planned. Quoting data supplied by Internet analytics company comScore, Rusbridger said that the Guardian’s global audience is about 40 million readers monthly.

But in Britain the Guardian is struggling – the circulation of its print edition has more than halved in the last ten years. The paper is owned by the Scott Trust, which was founded in 1936 “to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity.” Although it became a limited company in 2008 all shares are still held by the trustees, and so it doesn’t have the same shareholder obligations that most newspapers have. But last year chief executive of Guardian Media Group Andrew Miller warned that that the Scott Trust’s funds would last only another “three to five years.”

For Juan Señor, a former journalist and partner at a firm that advises struggling newspapers, the Guardian’s “open journalism” business model—at April’s conference, Rusbridger said the paper had no plans to set up a paywall—is not a sustainable one, and that overseas expansion is not the answer. “They are going for global dominance. This is part of a vanity trip for the powers that be there, that want to become the leading English-language source of news,” he says. “Can they achieve that? Yes, of course. But the future of the newspaper business is not to give it out for free. Free is very expensive, and free is not sustainable.” Señor says that the Guardian‘s record of breaking exclusive stories (most notably the U.K. phone hacking scandal) is not evidence that its business model is working. “At the end of the day, it is not paying for itself,” he says. “It is going to lead to bankruptcy. How can I describe it? It is an army fighting a war, and it is winning, but it is running out of ammunition.”

(MORE: Verizon, Telephony Metadata, the National Security Agency and You)

But, says journalist and media commentator Charlie Beckett, the Guardian‘s circulation figures show that global expansion is necessary. “They have no choice. I don’t think they’re going to make enough money in Britain. They need to have alternative sources,” he says. “And they are an early mover—they got there before the Daily Telegraph and the Times—and they’ve got something distinctive to sell; everyone knows what a Guardian reader is, in our heads – a kind of muesli-crunching cynic.”

The NSA story is a classic Guardian story – it is investigative, counter-establishment and global. And Beckett says that one danger in moving into the U.S. lies in losing its quirky British identity: “The more American they become, the less distinctive they might become.”

According to George Brock, who is Professor and Head of Journalism at City University London, news impact, as important and valuable as that is in itself, is no guarantee of being able to succeed in the long run. “The U.S. is a very large news market. And to succeed in it you’ve either got to be, broadly speaking, a very powerful and effective niche player, or you’ve got to have very large scale. I think the fairest way to put it is it’s not yet clear which of those routes the Guardian is pursuing.”

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