Suddenly, Horace Greeley is looking very smart.
The U.S. author, who died more than 140 years ago, is famous for advising American pioneers to "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country."
For the past week, a British newspaper has dominated the news cycle with a series of blockbuster stories about U.S. government surveillance. The scoops only came about because The Guardian, founded in Manchester in 1821 and now based out of London, went west and launched a beefy U.S. operation in 2011.
The paper joins a select group of other mainstream news organizations that are swimming against the economic tidal waves affecting the industry, using digital platforms to expand into new geographic borders in hopes of scooping up readers and advertisers outside of their home territories. But while reaching across borders makes sense for some, it could also prove seductively perilous.
The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The New York Times have all been searching for ways to find and cash in on new readers around the globe. This weekend, a small band of Times writers will jet in to downtown Toronto for a series of onstage interviews with high-profile artists involved in the Luminato Festival. The initiative represents the first time the paper has extended its Times Talks franchise into Canada, where the paper has about 17,000 print readers for its well-liked Sunday edition.
The Wall Street Journal, which has always had a global focus, is learning how to better target readers in individual countries. Last summer, it launched its Canada Real Time blog to provide readers a centralized home for its Canadian-oriented content. Since then, it says traffic to The Journal's landing page for Canada has gone up about 86 per cent.
"We feel like we're really hitting our stride, getting a lot of readers, but also being impactful," said Chip Cummins, the Journal's Canada bureau chief, in an interview this week. "We've been quoted in Parliament, a lot of people read us, we've become, I think, required reading, certainly in the Toronto financial markets. For us, that's more important than getting a ton of new page views every day." That also leads to more digital subscriptions, which help the paper serve readers in remote areas, such as oil workers in northern Alberta.
The Guardian's current push isn't the first time it has jumped across the pond. In 2007, it hired the respected editor Michael Tomasky to lead a small Guardian America team, then retreated from that strategy two years later when the recession hit. But the paper's global profile exploded after it co-operated with Julian Assange in 2010 to publish some of the Wikileaks material. So even as its print circulation circled the drain – it is now down about 50 per cent from 10 years ago to less than 200,000 – its Web traffic steadily rose. In June, 2012, the paper said data from the Web ranking service comScore pegged it as "the world's third most-read newspaper website," with 30.4-million readers that month.
The Guardian's U.S. operation, which publishes digitally, includes dozens of editorial employees, many of whom had already established themselves as brand names. Glenn Greenwald, the columnist who broke the surveillance story, is a veteran of Salon.com; another columnist, Ana Marie Cox, was the founder of the D.C. politics blog Wonkette; last month, the paper hired Spencer Ackerman, an enterprising reporter formerly with The New Republic and Wired.com, as its U.S. national security editor.
But while the National Security Agency scoop has been big news in the U.S., it is hard to tell how much the Guardian's core readership in Britain cares about the issue. (The Guardian did not respond to a request for an interview.)
There's an inherent challenge in trying to aggregate a global readership around issues that are hot buttons in only one territory.
It makes sense that the news organizations focused on investors can speak to readers around the world: money can cross borders and markets in a millisecond. But citizens – and their votes – are much slower to move.
"Our market is coherent internationally," noted Rob Grimshaw, the managing director of FT.com, which now claims more digital subscribers in Brazil than in Germany. "We're dealing with an audience of people who have an international perspective. Wherever they are in the world, their interests are in line, they want to know what's happening in China, they want to know what's happening in Brazil, they want to hear about the financial and economic story globally."
The Guardian's scoop has led to a flurry of activity by news organizations across North America, including here in Canada, where our government has been running its own surveillance program. It's good news for democracy. But with The Guardian's parent company continuing to lose money, it's not clear yet whether the decision to go west is going to be good for The Guardian.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column said that FT.com now claims a larger readership in Brazil than in Germany. In fact, it now claims more digital subscribers in Brazil than in Germany. This version has been corrected.