News junkies targets of latest British invasion

June 06, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

That once-venerable bastion of British journalism, The Times of London, has decided to grace the rebellious colonies with a daily U.S. edition, starting today.

The 218-year-old Times, whose traditional luster appears to have faded somewhat since its purchase in 1981 by tabloid king Rupert Murdoch, will be sold initially in just two states, New York and New Jersey, although anyone will be able to order a subscription.

The Times' exploratory move into the U.S. newspaper market comes a few days after the British Broadcasting Corp.'s introduction of a 24-hour news channel that seeks to compete against CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. In addition, The Economist, a British weekly newsmagazine, is evaluating the results of a test-marketing effort in Baltimore that sought to increase the publication's presence in the area as a possible precursor for similar efforts elsewhere in the United States.

Observers of the journalism industry noted with curiosity the sudden appeal of the United States for British media outlets, particularly at a time when U.S. newspapers generally are struggling with falling circulation and advertising revenues.

"It's really puzzling," said Bonnie Brownlee, associate dean of the Indiana University School of Journalism. "This is some novelty pipe dream by British news organizations that are hoping to sell in the United States. It's hard to see how they're going to make any money. The BBC is one thing - there's hope for them. But the Times? Who wants it? It's not what it used to be. It's a Murdoch paper! And it's so weird reading it as a tabloid."

But others saw opportunity for the Times and The Economist - as well as for The Guardian, a British paper that brought out a weekly edition in the United States in 2003, and The Financial Times, which launched a U.S. edition in 1997 - in an American media marketplace dominated by staff cutbacks and retrenchment.

Many Americans view home-grown news sources, whether newspapers or television networks, as being biased, said Paul Rossi, publisher of The Economist for North America. In such a vacuum, British periodicals with solid reputations can find a ready niche.

"I think there's an increasing demand in the U.S. for an outsider's view," said Rossi, whose magazine saw a 30 percent sales increase in its Baltimore test marketing program, which began in late February and lasted six weeks. "Since 9/11, especially, people are seeing the connections between things happening in the U.S. and the world outside. They're recognizing this need for a global view."

Rossi said U.S. newspapers, newsmagazines and TV news divisions, pinched for cash, have cut back on foreign correspondents, leaving media outlets from overseas to pick up the slack.

Robert Thomson, The Times' editor, said in a statement last week that he had been encouraged by "a large increase in our Times Online readership in the U.S.," and that the appearance of the newspaper "on the streets of New York," with a print run of almost 10,000 copies at $1 each, marks a new stage in the paper's expansion. The 64-page U.S. edition is being printed and distributed by The New York Post, which, along with the Fox News Channel, is also owned by Murdoch.

The United States has always been a place where English reporters and editors could find work, primarily in the tabloids or, if you were Tina Brown, at The New Yorker, whose editor she became. And Britons with the right accent can often be heard on the radio here.

And yet Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, noted that the British media do not have a monopoly on truth or ethical journalism.

"British newspapers are exuberant, interesting and engaging, but they're sure as hell not any more trustworthy," he said. "It's ironic to think that people could take refuge in the things that the American press is being beaten up over - bias, partial accounts, heavily interpretive stories, which are the signatures of British journalism. They're masters at this stuff."

Even The Economist is not infallible, Wasserman said. "In my mind, you can't compare it to Time or Newsweek for straight reporting," he said. "Its tone is intelligent and its interests more wide-ranging, but in terms of rolling up your sleeves and getting to the bottom of stories, forget it."

In any event, Wasserman said, the British and their like-minded cohorts, the Australians, have long influenced American journalism, and not necessarily for the better. "The celebrity press is thick with Brits and Australians - they're very comfortable in that environment," Wasserman said, referring to sensationalist tabloid publications such as the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News, both staffed in large part by British and Australian journalists, and The New York Post, whose editor, Col Allan, is an Australian.

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