Will British Editors Be Able To Ressurect Dying US Mainstream Media?

The appointment of British editors like Will Lewis at the Washington Post and Mark Thompson at CNN raises questions about their impact on reviving struggling U.S. mainstream media.

Will British Editors Be Able To Ressurect Dying US Mainstream Media? 1

In a relatively short period, the crisis in American news media has brought about an unanticipated outcome: the invasion of executive news suites by British editors, who, according to analysts, bring a “killer instinct” to news gathering and significantly lower the diversity quotient in news leadership.

British players are making significant inroads into the U.S. media industry, most notably with the appointment of Will Lewis as publisher and CEO of the Washington Post and his latest restructuring plan that includes hiring Fleet Street-bred editor Robert Winnett as executive editor following the election.

These most recent U.K. natives join an increasing number of other recent arrivals, including Mark Thompson, the CEO of CNN, Emma Tucker, the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwait, the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, Joanna Coles, the head of content at The Daily Beast, and Hugh Dougherty, the outlet’s new executive editor.

“In media, everybody is floundering. As legacy media takes continual hits, everybody is looking for the magic ticket that appeals to consumers and advertisers,” Mark Borkowski, a London-based British publicity, image, and crisis consultant, told TheWrap. “It is about the perception of who is successful, and therefore doing something similar is going to lead to similar success.”

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From left to right: CNN CEO Mark Thompson, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-chief Emma Tucker, The Daily Beast Executive Editor Hugh Dougherty (Getty Images)

However, with UK media executives receiving some of the most prominent positions in American journalism, others wonder if these decisions are what America’s democracy requires. “Everybody’s screaming about how we have a crisis in local news,” CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis remarked. “I say we have a crisis in national news too, at this time when fascism is at the door.”

Several British journalists have held senior positions at American media companies in the past, including renowned Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Tina Brown, who oversaw Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and Thompson, who oversaw The New York Times’ successful digital transition in the past.

However, the wave of British people assuming leadership roles in American media organizations coincides with the news business’s recent shift from covering local newspaper readers to a global internet audience. Furthermore, analysts told TheWrap that because of the financial burden on the industry, publishers are looking to British methods of news gathering and media management for solutions. These methods can be perceived as aggressive or even unethical in the United States.

According to Schillings Communications founder George Pascoe-Watson, “British editors have news in their veins” and “their expertise is in understanding that there are now no country barriers to news brands.” “Digital media is borderless.”

Although many of the editors of the more prestigious publications won’t acknowledge it, they are all keeping a watch on the British tabloid Daily Mail Online’s success. After opening a sizable newsroom in New York, the site has developed into the largest English-language news website in the world, with over 225 million unique monthly visitors from around the globe, 75 million of whom are from the United States. Editor Dougherty worked for the New York Post and Daily Mail before joining The Daily Beast.

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Washington Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee will be replaced by Robert Winnett, an editor at The Telegraph. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Particularly in a significant election year, media executives with prior experience on the notoriously competitive and scoop-driven Fleet Street could have a significant impact on the U.S. media environment. According to Borkowski, the mainstream U.S. media perceives British executives as possessing a “killer instinct,” akin to the “attack dogs” of former News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch at publications such as The Sun. While this perception may be advantageous during a challenging financial climate for the business, it could pose a long-term threat.

Media Growth Partners consultant David Clinch told TheWrap that while he doesn’t believe British media leaders would have an impact on editorial coverage, they might change individual newspapers’ leadership philosophies. For some, that might be a “needed ‘fresh eyes’ impetus,” but for others, it might be a “disruptive ‘outsider on top’ issue.”

Clinch contends that the executives selected thus far—such as Thompson, who was selected to run CNN following his success at The New York Times—have, in the end, “proved their chops in ways that make the fact that they’re British, if not irrelevant, then next to irrelevant.”

Jarvis is worried about the increasing power of publishers owned by Rupert Murdoch and the newsroom executives that have been groomed by them. He referred to Murdoch’s publications as “dubious institutions,” including Fox News, the New York Post, as well as several tabloids and newspapers from Australia and Britain.

In the case of the Washington Post, where Executive Editor Sally Buzbee was unceremoniously fired on Sunday, Lewis has appointed American Matt Murray, a former top editor of the WSJ owned by Rupert Murdoch, to head the newsroom temporarily until the 2024 presidential election.

Clinch claims that the U.K. effect on the Post’s coverage “might balance out” due to Murray’s temporary position at the newspaper and his ongoing participation in coverage following the election.

Jarvis is not in agreement. “Will Lewis has a sleight of hand here to have an American in charge of the newsroom until the election,” he said. “But it’s also somebody who comes from Murdoch.”

Following the election, Murray will take over as head of the Post’s ‘third newsroom,’ which Lewis obliquely described as aimed at drawing in non-traditional news consumers via social media and service journalism. Winnett, an editor at The Telegraph currently, will take Murray’s job.

“The fact that the Washington Post is now being run by two people who have been at Murdoch and at the Telegraph… that’s troubling,” Jarvis said.

A similar opinion was tweeted by journalist James Fallows on social media, who said, “Many Americans hear ‘British journalism’ and think ‘Oh, like the BBC.’ More useful to think ‘Oh, like Fox News with a different accent.’”

Then there’s the widely held belief—which is strongly disapproved of in America—that all British media organizations and journalists are trained in checkbook journalism.

Lewis was in charge of The Telegraph’s coverage of the British Parliament members’ expense account issue in 2009. The article was delivered to Winnett on a computer disk by a source, and when other newspapers declined to pay for the material, Lewis consented to buy it for about 110,000 pounds ($140,000). After a Telegraph investigation, it was discovered that taxpayer funds had been utilized for home improvements such as a moat and for the personal mortgage payments of politicians.

Following weeks of headlines, the story stunned the British political elite and resulted in the resignations of the speaker of the House of Commons and numerous ministers. The Metropolitan Police decided that the disclosures were in the public interest, hence there was no inquiry into the file leak.

At the 2010 British Press Awards, Lewis received Journalist of the Year, and the Daily Telegraph was named the U.K. newspaper of the year. He was praised for his bravery in breaking the story when other media outlets had declined.

Lewis joined Rupert Murdoch’s News U.K. empire in 2010; the company is the British arm of News Corp., a U.S.-based news company. He was then assigned to assist in clearing up the fallout from the phone hacking scandal, in which reporters were charged with breaking into government and celebrity cell phones without authorization. Millions of emails were removed from the News’ UK servers during this period. Lewis joined News Corp. in 2011 as an executive member of the Management and Standards Committee, an independent branch that was directed by the board to fully collaborate with any authorities looking into possible misconduct at News International.

Journalist David Folkenflik of NPR detailed how Lewis was charged with approving the removal of millions of emails, using court records in his article. Lewis refuted the claims, saying he was asked in to tidy up a mess rather than delete evidence. In 2023, Lewis stated to the Washington Post, “I did whatever I could to preserve journalistic integrity.” Lewis was knighted in June 2023 for his political and public service.

I don’t really understand the rationale for believing that British media has any secrets.”

Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor at CUNY

Globalization of the media industry

Clinch posted on social media that “there are executives with very relevant experience from across the business model and political spectrum who emerge from that market.” The U.K. news market is the largest English-language news market outside of the U.S.

According to Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the outgoing director of the UK-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, on social media, U.K. journalistic practices may come across as “unabashedly commercial” compared to U.S. media, which could be “appealing to biz leaders who know unpopular cuts and hard decisions galore ahead” as the industry continues to struggle.

The Post revealed in May that it had lost $77 million in the previous year and that its traffic had decreased by half from its peak in 2020. This is hardly surprising given the ongoing difficulties news publishers face in retaining readers. Following Buzbee’s departure this week, Lewis stated in an all-hands staff meeting that it would be “nuts” to carry on with the same business plan that resulted in losses. “We are going to turn this thing around, but let’s not sugarcoat it: it needs turning around,” Lewis said.

Because British editorial and executive talent comes from “brands with more than a century of history, of understanding audiences, staying ahead and adapting to societal change,” Pascoe-Watson is not surprised that American news publishers have drawn toward employing them.

“Understand the importance of impartiality, focus on the story, clarity of message, and putting the reader central to everything,” he added of editors such as Winnett.

However, Jarvis does not believe it will address the media industry’s financial problems. “It’s not as if we would go to Britain to find out how to succeed” in making the news business profitable,” he said.

“The Telegraph is a disaster,” Jarvis said, noting that the publication remains mired in heavy debt after Jeff Zucker and RedBird IMI, and its Abu Dhabi backers, provided a series of loans valued at $1.5 billion to previous owners the Barclay family, who had lost control to its lender, Lloyd’s Banking Group. The title is now back up for sale after the British government effectively blocked the sale to a foreign nation.

“News Corp is a shadow of what it was and it’s run by Murdoch,” Jarvis continued. “The Standard just went out of business and there’s no local newspaper covering London anymore. So I don’t really understand the rationale for believing that British media has any secrets.”

“Neither do we, but neither do they,” Jarvis added.

Although the Washington Post has adopted a British-heavy leadership structure, observers noted that this highlights a lack of diversity in the executive suite, especially in light of the dearth of female leaders at the publication following Buzbee’s departure.

“We lost another top female newsroom leader” at a high-profile publication, Borkowski said, while saying he also approved of the “very personable” Lewis.

“The fact that now the four most powerful people at the Washington Post are all white men is clearly not good,” Jarvis said.

Recently, GreatGameIndia reported that renowned journalist and former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter had his passport seized by U.S. officials. This action raises constitutional concerns and highlights the targeting of administration critics.

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