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19 October 2021

Can the New York Times succeed in London?

As it rapidly expands its British newsroom, the US newspaper now rivals smaller UK national titles.

By Ian Burrell

We still don’t know whether an American news title can ever be more than a supplementary purchase for UK consumers or consistently dictate the British news agenda.

But the New York Times thinks it can, and is increasing its already hefty presence in the UK by recruiting more “live” news, graphics and visual editors. It is also determined to make its burgeoning London newsroom reflective of Britain’s diversity.

When Aina Khan joined the paper this summer she recalled with emotion the career challenges she has faced. “If like me you are from a working-class background, it is financially and emotionally impossible to survive in this industry,” the young British journalist of Pakistani heritage tweeted in a thread that recalled how she would commute by coach from Bradford to London for unpaid work experience at other news organisations.

“Being a hijab-wearing brown woman was also alienating in some newsrooms,” she added, in an admonition of the UK media’s struggles to diversify. Now Khan is working for the NYT, reporting on the UK’s lorry driver shortage and the Covid-19 crisis, while also profiling the multi-instrumentalist Sona Jobarteh and describing for a global readership the fondness of British youth for Nando’s.

Her hiring as the NYT’s first international fellow is part of a rapid expansion of the paper’s British newsroom, which now comprises 70 editorial staff and rivals smaller UK national titles in scale. It is a signal that the “Gray Lady” of American publishing, which has amassed 900,000 overseas subscribers with aggressive marketing, is not content with simply reporting the UK through the distanced perspective of a silver-haired foreign correspondent addressing the folks back home.

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“We are building our staff in the UK to write about the UK from the perspective of people who are here,” says Jim Yardley, the NYT’s Europe editor. “We are very eager and proud to bring as many different voices and types of reporter as we can and we think it’s really bearing fruit.”

But the expansion, underwritten by revenues that flow from a still-growing subscriber base of over eight million, will not excite the paper’s UK media rivals, especially those that have slated the NYT for its alleged sneering and unfair portrayal of post-Brexit Britain. Its UK coverage has been derided as “delusional” (Telegraph), “unrelentingly negative” (Spectator) and “a dystopian caricature” (Times). 

Yardley rebuts these criticisms. “We are extremely proud of the groundbreaking reporting that we’ve done in the United Kingdom. Our work is deeply reported, intended to serve the public and hold the government to account. Our duty is to our readers.”

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The depth of the NYT’s British reporting is reflected in its investigations, notably Jane Bradley and Amanda Taub’s revelations on the UK government’s failure to prepare for a surge of domestic violence during Covid lockdowns. Their reporting was nominated for the Orwell Prize for Journalism. Bradley, the paper’s UK investigative correspondent, worked on an agenda-setting exposé of “waste, negligence and cronyism” in the distribution of Covid contracts by Boris Johnson’s administration.

Another new recruit is Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, former editor-in-chief of gal-dem.com, a UK media company created to “tell stories of people of colour from marginalised genders”. As a senior staff editor she has a broad reporting role. Khan and Brinkhurst-Cuff combined to produce a well-read piece on black-owned hair salons and the potential economic impact of new industry standards aimed at encouraging mainstream hairdressers to train to cut Afro hair. 

The NYT recently extended its London footprint to an additional building in Bloomsbury. From here it oversees coverage of all of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. For a large part of the day, London is the hub for the paper’s international coverage, which hands over to New York at around 3pm UK time and then resumes control at 9am, when it takes over from Seoul.

The NYT’s “Live Briefing” on coronavirus, which began on 23 January 2020, is the longest-running continuous coverage of a single story ever known. These briefings, mobile-focused and giving updates on major themes that defy the news cycle, are at the forefront of the NYT offering. It has another briefing on extreme weather, reporting forest fires in Greece and flash floods in England.

For COP26 next month, the NYT is creating a Climate Hub in Glasgow, a complex filled with 197 living trees (each representing a different country) and hosting debates and panel events featuring staff journalists, scientists and global influencers.

As it pushes its 50p-a-week subscription offer in pursuit of its target of 10 million subscribers by the end of 2025, the NYT long ago ceased to be merely a view from Manhattan. To the chagrin of some UK rivals, it now wants to feel much closer to home.

[See also: Why Boris Johnson can’t blame the media for the UK’s fuel crisis]