Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Every now and then the zeitgeist opens it's coat to show you the goods. When you see the wares Mr. Z is plying you say, "of course! I knew you would eventually have some of that!"

Ostensibly this is a long article about niche publishing -- but you know when you read it, it's you more than that. This is a culture clash. The brains against the brauns. It's the revenge of the nerds. And the most beautiful thing is that it is about foreigners using the most American of marketing axioms (charge more b/c the product is more "exclusive" -- it isn't for "everyone" -- HA -- which means EVERYONE who is anyone, will HAVE to have it on their coffee table!) as the weapon of choice to achieve success in the American market. It works for restaurants, it will work in publishing.




By Michael Wolff (New York,

It was a daylong conference about the media’s role in the Iraq war, sponsored by the Guardian newspaper and held in its archive center—a newly refurbished building with café—across the street from the Guardian’s main building on Farringdon Road in London.

Everything about the conference seemed foreign—not just the self-critical nature of the conversation, but the bad air-conditioning and stifling temperature of the room. I tried to imagine such an event in New York or Washington—picking at the fresh scab of how we had covered the war—and what news organization would sponsor it. Of course, the real subject here—which so much of the U.S. media had closed ranks around—was the U.S. itself. That most massive of Bigfoots. Indeed, more and more, the foreign media had a distinct journalistic advantage over the U.S. media: Foreigners could go after the central story and openly dispute the Bush-administration message, whereas U.S. journalists were tied to the party line by a complicated emotional, social, political, and corporate etiquette.

In this respect—as a robust counterpoint to the American media—the Guardian (to which I sometimes contribute) had had a very good war. It became an almost-fashionable read on select U.S. campuses and in certain American liberal circles. Traffic on its Website, which has had a steadily growing American audience, climbed dramatically during the war. The electronic Guardian was the alternative press—if you were looking for one.

Still, when, during a coffee break, Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, said to me, in a most offhanded way, “We’re coming to America,” I assumed he was talking about a personal visit.

“Well, let’s definitely get together,” I politely said.

“No,” he said. “We’re bringing the Guardian to America. We’re going to publish an American version.”

It struck me first that—even given the Guardian’s campus chic-ness—the U.S. has never been less receptive to the European point of view than it is now. By any measure, to be successful in the U.S. news business is to be staunch, patriotic, defensive. It’s Fox or bust. And it struck me even more forcefully that beyond the difficulties of liberalness, the prospects for literate media—the Guardian being a writer’s paper—were, as everybody knew, nil.

Then, during the next break in the conference, Rusbridger took me across the street to his office and showed me the prototype for the new American Guardian. Its tentative form is as a weekly magazine, quite unlike any other weekly magazine that has been started in the U.S. in the past generation. Not only is it about politics (Rusbridger is looking to launch in the winter to cover the presidential-primary season), but the magazine—meant to be 60 percent derived from the Guardian itself, with the rest to come from American contributors—has a great deal of text unbroken by design elements. This is almost an extreme notion. Quite the antithesis of what virtually every publishing professional would tell you is the key to popular and profitable publishing—having less to read, not more. Even with the Guardian’s signature sans-serif face, it looks like an old-fashioned magazine. Polemical. Written. Excessive. Contentious. Even long-winded.

This was either radically wrongheaded, or so forcefully and stylishly counterintuitive—and unexpected—that I found myself thinking, light-headedly, that it might define a turnaround in American publishing.

Bear with me. There is something here.

First, it’s important to understand the anomalous nature of the Guardian itself.

There may not be anything else quite like it in commercial publishing anywhere. The Guardian is the fruit of a legal trust whose sole purpose is the perpetuation of the Guardian. In other words, the trust—the Scott Trust, created in 1936 by the Manchester family that controlled the paper—eliminates the exact thing that has most bedeviled media companies: the demands of impatient shareholders and the ambitions of would-be mogul CEOs.

The Guardian, because of this flukish independence, occupies for well-bred left-wing Brits something like the position that the New York Times once held for Upper West Side liberals (or that Fox now holds for red-state anti-liberals): You cannot be who you are without it.

Young people even read it.

What’s more, under Rusbridger, it has become, along with the Daily Mail (with its lock on middle England) and the BBC’s morning news show, The Today Programme, among the most influential media voices in the UK.

The sudden turn in popular opinion against Tony Blair for the Iraq war and the anger at his government’s WMD misrepresentations—a development that George Bush has yet to face—have been led by the Guardian.

It is also the paper everybody wants to work for.

Rusbridger is a large, rumpled, Harry Potter–esque 49-year-old. He’s a Cambridge-educated, well-married, Establishment figure running an anti-Establishment newspaper. He’s dry, slightly mocking (he came to prominence in his early thirties writing a daily-diary column that, in classic English diary form, skewered the rich and pompous), and full of long silences. What’s more, despite the long pages of type, he’s a packaging genius.

“G2,” which he created when he was the Guardian’s features editor (Peter Preston, a Fleet Street eminence, was then the paper’s editor-in-chief), is a daily inside-the-paper tabloid section. But instead of this representing the tabloidizing of the Guardian, Rusbridger gentrified the tabloid. While the American evolutionary step has been to forsake hard news for soft—for instance, the Times’s and the Journal’s ever-expanding leisure, consumer, and service sections—the Guardian in “G2” has morphed headline news into a daily bath of stylish opinion, context, and narrative. It’s high-concept news. It’s story-behind-the-story news—which is, of course, the real story. It is not unlike the kind of magazine journalism that flourished in the U.S. a generation ago—before cableization and tabloidization and consolidation.

This is the marketing point: Unlike American packaging genius, which is about packaging down (resulting in the deterioration of taste as well as attention spans), Rusbridger packages up.

While I was standing in Rusbridger’s office and leafing through the prototype, thinking that this was novel and exotic—quixotic, even—and quite a profound misunderstanding of the American market, it suddenly occurred to me that I was overlooking the obvious. The Brit niche.

Against the background of the rise of Fox, the deification of tabloid queen Bonnie Fuller, and of the general decline of quality U.S. publishing, there’s been something of an exceptional, and profitable, highbrow British invasion. Arguably the two most successful print publications to be introduced during the past decade in the U.S. market are The Economist and the Financial Times. (The third is Maxim, also English in lineage, and a different packaging story.)

Both The Economist and the FT succeeded by pursuing the opposite strategy of almost every other U.S. publication: offering too much, rather than too little, information—and charging plenty for it.

the rest of the article is here....


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