One of the interesting developments stemming from the growth of Web news and the splintering of traditional audiences has been the way the Guardian, Britain’s leading liberal newspaper, has cultivated a readership in the United States. As the Guardian’s bureau chief in Washington, D.C., Ewen MacAskill has lately been writing about the health care debate, Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination, and the estate of Michael Jackson.
On Friday, MacAskill took a little time away from the beat to chat with CJR assistant editor Greg Marx. This is an edited transcript.
Greg Marx: You’re the Guardian’s bureau chief in D.C. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to that job and what your responsibilities are?
Ewen MacAskill: I’ve been with the Guardian for sixteen years. The first four of that I was doing British domestic politics, and then for seven years I was diplomatic editor. Basically, I was a roving foreign correspondent. I did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq, and a whole host of other stories. So when there was a vacancy in Washington about three years ago, the editors thought the combination of politics and foreign affairs made me a suitable candidate for a job, and that’s how I landed it.
GM: Had the U.S. in particular been a topic of interest to you previously?
EM: One of the best things that ever happened to me in journalism was winning the Washington Post Laurence Stern fellowship in 1986. Every year The Washington Post takes a British journalist for three or four months, and they’re expected to do stories the same as every other reporter. It was great for me—the Post let me travel all over the States and I did a whole range of stories, and I got to work in an environment with U.S. journalists. A lot of British foreign correspondents come to the States and they’re outsiders. It was great to be in a newsroom and be friends with American reporters and see how they operated. It was a big influence on me, gave me a real boost of confidence at the time. I’ve still got lots of friends from the Post as a result
GM: So coming back twenty years later, were there real changes in either the political or the journalistic landscape that made an impression on you?
EM: There’s been a big change in the environment in D.C. from those years. In ’86, big chunks of the center of town were a wasteland, a no-go area. It had never really recovered from the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Coming back two and a half years ago, though, it was great. The center of the city had been transformed. It’s just a much nicer place to live now.
Journalistically, as well, it was fantastic coming back. It was almost perfect timing—I came back in time to cover the best U.S. election of my lifetime. It was just a fantastic two years during the run-up to the primaries, the primaries themselves, and the start of Obama’s presidency. It’s just been fantastic.
GM: My impression is that the Guardian is becoming a more widely read news source among Americans, particularly among liberal-leaning Americans. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be, and whether it has anything to do with the traditional differences between American and British media?
EM: Our readership on the Web is something like twenty-five to thirty million, and I would estimate about a third of those are from America, with the rest from either Britain and Europe or Asia and the Middle East. We think it dates back, partly, to our coverage of the second intifada. The Guardian traditionally has good coverage of the Arab world, and we’re particularly strong on giving the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the American papers did, as well, but not to the degree that we did. So I think readers started coming to us because they thought we were more balanced, or we gave more attention to the Palestinian side.