British Invasion: Betsy Reed wants investigative journalism to build The Guardian's US brand

Betsy Reed wants investigative journalism to build The Guardian’s US brand
The Media Leader Interview

In the final part of a series on UK newsbrands in the US, The Guardian‘s US editor-in-chief explains why she wants to expand the outlet’s investigative footprint.


Whereas British newsbrands The Sun and the Mirror have only recently launched or are soon to launch in the US, The Guardian‘s foray into the American market has been underway for quite some time.

The Guardian‘s first US product stumbled out of the gates: Guardian America was a short-lived project, lasting from 2007-2009. The second iteration, launched in September 2011, however, has become part of the American news diet. Following recent changes, including the appointment of American editor-in-chief Betsy Reed, the newsroom has a vision for how to expand its footprint.

“For The Guardian, the challenge has been finding a way to make a mark and have a distinctive editorial voice in the US and break through to an American audience and a British audience, too,” Reed tells The Media Leader. “I think we have figured it out, but it’s taken some time to get there.”

‘Cover the US for the world and the world for the US’

Reed, who replaced Irish journalist John Mulholland last July as editor-in-chief, is an industry veteran, having worked as editor of The Nation for 16 years and editor of The Intercept for eight. She tells The Media Leader, though, that her first publishing gig, a “Devil Wears Prada job” as an assistant at Condé Nast Traveller is “still in my head in some ways,” as it helped her understand not only how the media business works, but also the importance of visual journalism. Her later work for The Nation and Intercept further provided experience in breaking political news for a progressive audience.

While the Guardian US’s mission is to “cover the US for the world and the world for the US”, Reed’s main goal for The Guardian‘s US editorial strategy is to expand the digital publication’s investigative approach, doing so in a way that appeals broadly to both Americans and their local communities, as well as globally.

“There are definitely local stories that we believe can be reported in such a way that their universal human significance is clear to a much broader audience”, says Reed.

One example of original and high-impact reporting conducted in the past year was an investigation into the high degree of lead in Chicago tap water, a story that, though local, has implications for the ongoing concerns about lead exposure across America.

The need to both report for a still-developing US audience and satisfy British and international readers is the “central challenge” of the Guardian US‘s editorial strategy, according to Reed, which has led to creative newsroom policy.

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“When we’re covering what’s going on in Washington, we’ll do a live blog serving the global audience that wants up-to-the-minute details of what’s happening—what does it mean? […] But what I think is a very positive result of that is that sometimes when we do these kinds of explainers and we take this broad view of what’s going on in US politics, we actually get a lot of American readers, too, who maybe aren’t being served by other media.”

Exploring new editorial products

On differences between the US and UK brands, Reed admits that though they share a similar approach to “vigorous, independent, grounded in progressive values journalism”, the UK brand is a “major institution, and it’s a primary news source for people and it’s extremely well-established and known.”

Guardian US, on the other hand, is “still kind of an upstart, an outsider” according to Reed, and is still looking to expand its readership to broader audiences.

Beyond doing so through more investigative, locally-interested reporting, Guardian US announced late last year an expansion for its news desk capacity. According to Reed, the team is creating a digital editing staff to do homepage editing, adding live news bloggers and a general assignment news reporter to bolster the publication’s presence and traffic.

But they need to do more, says Reed. “It’s my feeling that the breaking news function is critical for our role in The Guardian globally, but it doesn’t by itself address the challenge of trying to engage in a more distinctive manner with American readers.”

Reed tells The Media Leader the Guardian US is currently in the “early stages” of exploring new editorial products. New additions may include new newsletters and audio products, though Reed stresses that the team has not yet made any commitments.

A three-pronged commercial strategy

Commercially, Reed describes having “remarkable success” in the US in the last few years. The publication uses a three-pronged approach for generating revenue that includes advertising, reader donations, and philanthropic support.

The latter was established in 2016 with the goal of raising money from individuals and organisations including think tanks and corporate foundations to support reporting on donor-chosen issues, such as climate change. One story that was the beneficiary of such philanthropy: the Chicago toxic lead tap water report.

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For the investigative-minded Reed, such reporting is not only supported by philanthropic funding, but translates to stronger loyalty among American audiences.

“For the philanthropy purposes and for our overall brand awareness and our mission to serve society and democracy and to increase reader engagement—investigations are important to all those things.”

‘A more independent, slightly outsider view’

On the issue of trust, The Guardian‘s British branding gives it a unique proposition as an outsider. For example, according to Reed, the publication’s international status grants its political reporting a “different cast”. She says: “It’s a more independent, slightly outsider view which I think that people both in the US and globally appreciate.”

Reed describes that The Guardian is distinctive in that it is “much less dependent” on social media, and Twitter and Facebook in particular, than other outlets. That has in part allowed the publication to retain its status as a progressive, trusted source of news even as those platforms come under increasing scrutiny by regulators and the public.

Though Reed concedes that there is a lot of value in reaching people across various social media platforms—The Guardian regularly sees readership spikes from Reddit, for example—she says there is something extra valuable in attracting users to the homepage “to build The Guardian into a destination for people in the US”. Guardian US currently receives around 60 million unique homepage users, a number which Reed wants to grow, and estimates that it reaches 250 million monthly individuals via social media platforms.

In general, one challenge of being an “outsider publication”, as Reed describes, is that it may limit opportunities for access journalism. Though such reporting is not The Guardian‘s model, Reed nevertheless notes that competitor outlets do often take deals for “beat-sweetener” stories in return for access to key scoops. That can have an eroding effect on trust in media more broadly if outlets employ implied this-for-that tactics.

Though Reed was able to lead a team at The Intercept that regularly obtained scoops without needing to resort to such tactics, she nevertheless says the ethical implications of access journalism are a bit greyer than they perhaps get credit for.

“I do tend to want to be careful to not dismiss access journalism as completely hopelessly compromised, because I think it’s a nuanced question and in practice there isn’t really a bold line between what is access journalism and what is independent. Because you do want reporters to work at a beat and when you’re working at a beat you’re getting to know people and you’re developing relationships with sources.”

As some outlets pursue access, Reed hopes that by seeking to expose corruption, Guardian US can better inspire trust among its readership. Calling it a “perfect opportunity” for the publication, she expects her team to zero-in on the misconduct within policymaking and regulatory structures in Washington and understand and communicate why they’re failing. The goal: “get at the rot of that through reporting on corporate influence.”

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