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The Guardian "Unlimited"

By Jackie Bennion

Profile and interviews with a British newspaper that answers to its audience, not to its shareholders

Alan Rusbridger may be one of the most envied newspaper editors in the world. As the editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper, Rusbridger doesn't have to pander to interfering publishers or profit-obsessed investors. His paper is run by a trust and could be a model of the future for the beleaguered newspaper industry in the United States.

The trust was set up by the Scott family in 1936 to keep the family-owned newspaper editorially independent and financially afloat. By putting ownership into a charitable trust, the Scotts could avoid paying crippling inheritance tax to the British government once the last of them died. It also created an interesting new form of press ownership in a Britain that was at the time dominated by wily press barons with big political ambitions.

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  • The Guardian -- Facts at a glance
  • History: Began as The Manchester Guardian in 1821
  • First editor: Charles Prestwich Scott
  • Headquarters: Farringdon Rd, London
  • Owned by: The Scott Trust since 1936
  • Daily circulation: 324,000 (February 2007)
  • Guardian Unlimited launched: January 1999
  • Online visitors: Between 13 and 14 million a month
  • Online advertising revenues: 50 percent increase in 2006
  • Guardian Media Group operating costs: 700.3 million (US$1.35 billion) in 2006
  • Editor's annual salary: 329,000 (US$648,000)
  • News destination: Second largest in the U.K. [Behind BBC News Online]
  • Number of visitors from the United States: Approximately 4 million a month

The cutthroat British newspaper business has never been one to shy away from political affiliations, and over the years, The Guardian has become a cornerstone of the progressive "left." It was also one of the first British newspapers to jump online in 1999. Since then, it has attracted a loyal audience with its liberal no-holds-barred journalism and willingness to open itself up to transparency online. The paper is so adamant about being open to its public that it publishes a report card each year on how it has performed in certain areas, such as the environment, workplace diversity, and editorial rigor, based on information gathered from staff and readers. And all the paper's big-name columnists have suffered the indignities of being thrown into the lion's den of debating their readers online.

In January, I met with Rusbridger and Emily Bell, the editor in chief of Guardian Unlimited, the newspaper's online presence, which now attracts around 14 million visitors a month. In the late afternoon of a typically gloomy English winter day, I sat across from Rusbridger in his dark, cavernous office in London. I asked him what it was like to wake up each morning and run a newspaper without the usual corporate constraints that face many of his counterparts. And in a climate of dwindling circulations and disappearing ad revenues, how does he see his newspaper staying competitive and relevant, with or without the deep pockets of a trust? It's a topic Rusbridger, who has been editing the paper since 1995, enjoys talking about. Last year, he was invited by a number of America's media elite to discuss the pall hanging over the industry. With characteristic dry British humor and a cue from Al Gore, he delivered his own "inconvenient truths" about the market forces eating away at newspapers' profit margins. But rather than being terrified by the future, Rusbridger is fascinated by the constant flux. When I asked him about his own paper's financial obligation to the trustees, he said, somewhat nebulously, that it was to be "profit-seeking" if not "profit-making."

I also spoke to Bell, who came to run The Guardian's online division in 2001, after working for a decade on the business desk of the paper's Sunday edition, The Observer, which has been around since 1791. Bell talked candidly about how they are continually -- not always successfully -- looking for new ways to engage audiences online. These efforts run the gamut from Ricky Gervais podcasts to a travel section entirely written by readers; and there's no sleep lost over "user-generated" profanity on the site. "Swearing is part of our culture," says Bell cheerfully. In any given month, The Guardian's Web site is read by more people in the United States than in the United Kingdom, a trend, she says, that started after 9/11 and has been growing ever since. She talked also about how the Web and audience demands are changing so many facets of journalism, and how The Guardian responds to each new shift.

While many editors may feel like they're being tossed around on a current of red ink with no firm place to land, the impression conveyed by The Guardian is that the future is more about opportunity than fear.

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