Mid-Atlantic swells

6 Aug

America: we’re coming. Here in the hard-pressed newsrooms of Britain, there’s a growing sense that you, as so often in history, represent something of an opportunity. Looking up from yet another set of distressing financial results – certainly in the Tribune’s case – we see, across the ocean, a glittering land of huge national online advertising budgets but, as yet, few genuine national news websites, and we think: lots of space over there; it’s just like the Old West. We see a country being dragged unwillingly, thanks to Fox, away from its carefully impartial regional media monopolies and towards a national, partisan, relentless slanging match and we think: you know, that’s starting to look a bit like Fleet Street.

So: we’re coming. Perhaps not all of us at the moment, but the Daily Mail and the Guardian have already queued up at Ellis Island and are settling in to digs off Broadway or on the west coast. Not to produce a print newspaper, of course; that would be too expensive. And not with a digital paywall either: we really are yearning to be free. But we have a strong idea about what we want to do in – or to – the American news market.

The Mail’s message to America, judging from the extensively tweaked US site, is less spittle-flecked outrage and more celebs and gossip – get ’em here. UsWeekly’s cute, but it’s all yoga mats and baby-joggers in Central Park: you never get the real juice. And TMZ’s a bit too sleazy for comfortable reading at work, right? So read us: we’ve got the red carpet fashions, but with a bit of acid style criticism thrown in; we’ve got the scandal, but we sound shocked about it.  Whereas the Guardian’s pitch is clearly this: there’s no need to hastily remodel MSNBC as a rebuttal-and-prebuttal guard dog to fend off the conservatives – we’ve been doing that since 1821. There’s no need for the Gray Lady to butch up and learn how to rabbit-punch like the talk-radio hosts. We’ve got this. You may not have dealt with much street-gang demagoguery, but we face off with Associated and the Daily Telegraph every day. (Oh, and by the way? Your national security apparatus is spying on you.)

And it’s going well – spectacularly well in the case of the Mail, which is clocking up way over 100m browsers a month these days. But there is a slight problem.

News websites are large, multifoliate and deep. It’s relatively easy to set up a front page that’s branded and URL-specific for the US. But what about the dozens of section fronts and sub-fronts one level further down on the site – business, media, sport, travel, environment, politics?  How much time and money do you have to re-curate all of them for each specific national market? Come to think of it, do you even have enough country-specific news items to put on them all?

The answer, certainly at the moment, is no. The main news stories on the Guardian’s US site, for example, are substantially different to the UK homepage, but over on the right hand column, where the features and sport are, the US site looked like this last weekend:

Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 16.56.43

Right, so that’s NSA, NSA and … day three of the Ashes. (You can imagine the consternation in parts of the Midwest: they had to go in to a third day? What, did it rain?) It looks a bit incongruous. But really, what else is there to do – run a piece of half-baked wire copy on the Yankees as the lead? An extensive US sports reporting infrastructure isn’t in place yet. The over-by-over report is one of the Guardian’s signature products. For better or worse with regard to the US market, it’s what time and money has been spent to create. It is that most coveted property of news organisations everywhere: original content. So up it goes in the top slot under “Sports” (not “Sport” – that would be British!).

And at the Mail, there’s the same problem. The big banner leads swop over nicely from the UK to the US editions, but the long run of  fashion and celebrity items down the side – the Sidebar of Shame – clearly takes so much effort to refresh that not everything changes completely between editions, with the result that the gossip’s getting a distinctly mid-Atlantic feel these days.

This is a snippet from the UK edition on Sunday:

Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 17.08.18

and it contains one famous British footballer and three US reality stars from shows that either aren’t shown or are currently barely visible in Britain (from top to bottom: Basketball Wives, Dancing With The Stars and Real Housewives of New Jersey). To be fair, Derek Hough did briefly go out with our own Cheryl Cole, and Real Housewives was on an actual terrestrial TV channel – Channel 4 – at one stage. But you suspect it’s the US agenda that had Teresa and Derek appearing on the UK front page last weekend.

Meanwhile, at the same time on the US sidebar, we find this:

Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 17.14.45

Kinky heels, muffin tops, family feuds – check, check, check (at least no one “looks worse for wear in an inappropriately low-cut dress” today). And you can’t argue with seeing Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Alba and – at a pinch – Lily Collins in the American edition. But wait: is that Pixie Lott, sparky and popular British songstress, attending a wedding in Essex? Does anyone in America have the faintest idea who she is?

And the problems usually only multiply after the front page. As we see above, the item on Jessica Alba makes reference to her US dress size: 2. But if you click on the link, you get taken to an article written, launched and sized in the UK, and you see this:

Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 18.24.35

Again, what can you do?* Leave it as “size 6” in the US teaser? Every US reader will think: no way she’s suddenly that big. Change the UK article to US sizing? No one in Britain will believe anyone could be that small. Publish two completely separate articles under separate URLs, one edited in the US, the other in the UK? There’s hardly the time and resource to recheck every article from the other bureau for possible mid-Atlantic confusions, and even when you find them, they’re often awkward to fix. Anyway, it would hopelessly split your hits on Google. And even if you could solve the language problem, you still haven’t resolved the larger conflict between the two different news agendas – and won’t be able to for years, until you can afford a full US-based reporting operation running in parallel with the British one.

But there is a radical  and much cheaper option, if you’re prepared to think big enough. You can simply act as though it were perfectly normal to keep New Jersey informed about chirpy London girl groups and Wiltshire up-to-date on the love lives of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Don’t worry too much about cultural relevance; just broaden the readers’ palettes. They’ll like it, or they’ll learn to. It might be too much to hope that America will join the debate over whether Jonathan Trott is worth his place at number three in the Test team. But if you can encourage readers to think that what happens on Real Housewives Of The O.C. or I’m From Essex, Get Me Out Of Here is worth reading whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, then you won’t have to change the site so much – because you’ll have succeeded in changing the news.

* Given that you’ve decided that it’s appropriate to be writing about this at all, that is.

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7 Responses to “Mid-Atlantic swells”

  1. Jeff August 9, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

    Peter Preston’s 51st State?

    Regarding the size 2/6 issue, this is potentially something the content management/delivery system should be doing – looking at the URL (or other parameters) being used and inserting the correct content dynamically. It’s the equivalent of having a multi-lingual website, albeit in a low-key way. Still needs effort putting in but at least you don’t “split your hits”.

    • edlatham August 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

      Ooh, can they do that? Are they clever enough to detect that you’re talking about, say, dress sizes instead of shoe sizes, or does the editor need to insert a field manually into the copy?

      • Jeff August 11, 2013 at 11:06 am #

        Unfortunately you’d be setting it up manually. You’d do something along the lines of indicating that the article is in English (en) and then tagging the variant pieces of copy as ‘en-GB’ (“size 6”) and ‘en-US’ (“size 2”). Corresponding region-identifying parameters are then sent by the user’s browser that the CMS can use to choose appropriately. The user parameters could be derived from their overall system settings or expressed via a cookie or URL parameter when the user has explicitly chosen to look at the UK or US version of the site.

        In the web world there are pretty well-understood standards and working practices that solve this issue, but of course as in other areas as a newspaper you’re starting from somewhere else!

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