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11 June 2024

Fleet Street is colonising the American newsroom

As US newspapers haemorrhage cash, a British sensibility is their last hope.

By Kara Kennedy

While the US newsroom has been in steady decline for decades, the past year has been particularly rough. In January, 528 journalists were sacked; more than 100 employees were let go from the Los Angeles Times alone. Less than one year after its launch, the Messenger shut down in January “effective immediately”. Vice stopped publishing after a very messy, drawn-out downfall. BuzzFeed closed. The Washington Post lost $77m in one calendar year, which is more than $200,000 a day, capping a period in which half the readership has reportedly fallen away since 2020. Meanwhile, in the UK the news media still sees something virtually unheard of in the US outside of the New York Times and certain television networks: profitability. British outlets are, against all odds, even expanding to the New World. Swarms of new US Daily Mail reporters have recently moved to their swanky Manhattan office. The Independent, the Sun and the Times have beefed up their US operations too. Even fledgling outlets such as GB News have a few US correspondents.

No doubt this is also why individual Brits are being imported to save the American newsroom. By the time the next president of the United States is sworn in after what will be a highly contentious election, the people in charge of major American news outlets will be as follows: CNN chief Mark Thompson, Wall Street Journal editor Emma Tucker, Bloomberg News editor John Micklethwait, Associated Press chief executive Daisy Veerasingham, New York Post editor Keith Poole, Daily Beast executive editor Hugh Dougherty, and Washington Post editor, Robert Winnett. All have been given the same task: save the American news industry. All are British.

American proprietors have realised that whatever the Brits are doing is working, and as a last resort have handed control of their publications to straight-talking Fleet Street hacks.

Why not just find suitable Americans to run the companies, instead of shipping Brits in and sponsoring visas? The truth is that the internal politics of US newsrooms has become so difficult to navigate in recent years that without a complete shake-up, it is likely that nothing will change. From my anecdotal experience, American reporters are cliquey, entitled, unionised and unafraid to speak up when they feel attacked – which is all the time. Many of my editor friends here in the US avoid friendly relationships with staff entirely, in case anything said or done will one day be used against them. There is no newsroom culture here; no quick pint at the pub after work with colleagues. It’s clock in, sop for whatever social justice movement is in vogue that day, clock out, repeat.

This all caught public attention recently when Will Lewis, the British publisher of the Washington Post told his staff at a particularly leaky “all hands” meeting about the seriousness of their predicament, following the shock announcement that executive editor Sally Buzbee would step down, to be replaced in the interim by Matt Murray and, after the presidential election, Winnett. According to reports, the senior national political correspondent Ashley Parker replied, “The most cynical interpretation [of what’s happened] sort of feels like you chose… your buddies to come in and help run the Post, and we now have four white men running three newsrooms.” Another reporter asked whether any women or people of colour were interviewed, which prompted applause from other staff. Lewis chimed back with a harsh reality: “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it any more.”

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Now Lewis is under fire. His decision to replace Buzbee with two of his former colleagues has come under further scrutiny after press reports claimed that he attempted to discourage journalists from publishing articles regarding a long-running phone-hacking lawsuit brought by Prince Harry in which Lewis is named as having been involved – he denies any wrongdoing. The New York Times reported on a tense exchange in May between Lewis and Buzbee related to the Post’s plans for a story about the civil case between the prince and tabloid newspapers where Lewis once worked. Lewis claimed that the paper’s account of their conversation is “inaccurate” and said that he “did not pressure her in any way”. He acknowledged Buzbee had informed him of plans to publish a story but that he was “professional throughout”. The story was eventually published by the Post.

Whatever happened, the sheer mention of phone hacking has sent the US press into a frenzy surrounding “Fleet Street ethics” and what this new swarm of editors will do to the American news cycle. While Post staffers (they insist on calling themselves “Posties”) are reportedly “rattled” by Lewis’s brash words, including his claim that it would be “nuts” not to change a business that lost $77m last year, his tough methods may just work. The Post’s incoming editor Robert Winnett was described as the newspaper’s “last hope” by one staffer I spoke to at Winnet’s current employer, the Telegraph. They added that, “finally, there will be a grown-up running the show.”

Keith Poole doubled the New York Post’s profits in 2022 and brought in a reported 198 million readers compared with 123 million in 2021. Emma Tucker’s time at the WSJ has seen a surge in paid subscribers and a strong profit margin. She is apparently unwavering in her strategy to slim down the newsroom, however, even after staffers stuck post-it notes protesting the move on the glass walls of her office. After that plan didn’t work, they staged an hour-long walkout.

Maybe it is these sorts of self-regarding dramatics – the lunchtime-long protests, the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives, the unions that spend time on solidarity statements for Palestine instead of collective bargaining – that are hurling the American newsroom into decline. Maybe there are simply too many journalists. When 750 staffers from the Washington Post walked out in protest last year over salaries and redundancy packages, editors managed to produce an entire paper without much fuss, from articles to operating printing presses.

But why the British? There are many theories. If there is anything that we do well, it is hard-nosed, scrappy journalism on shrinking budgets. It could be the accent, which Americans think sounds clever whether it is coming out of someone clever or not. Maybe it’s because we are notoriously underpaid, and American bosses know it. Or maybe it’s just a basic difference of workplace cultures. American journalists feel entitled to be insubordinate and unserious, and British ones know there is a job to do, which includes profitability, producing an interesting product, and focusing on the task at hand rather than university-level activism. Because in a British newsroom, if you are told that you are losing millions of pounds and half of your readership, your first reaction won’t be to talk about the gender or racial disparity in the room. It will be to grab your notepad and go and find a story worth publishing.

[See also: Confronting the new Europe]

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