It is 50 years since The Beatles-led assault on the US pop charts was dubbed the “British invasion”, and three decades have passed since Colin Welland accepted his screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire with the rallying cry, “The British are coming!”
A group of Britons is once again leading a charge on a corner of US media, but this time they have crossed the Atlantic to colonise the upper echelons of the news business rather than music or films.
The latest member of this club is John Micklethwait, editor of the Economist, who was hired by Michael Bloomberg this week to replace Matt Winkler as the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.
Mr Micklethwait starts in New York early next year, where he will take over from one of journalism’s best-known figures, overseeing 2,500 journalists in a deep-pocketed news operation that is among the largest in the world. It will be a step-change from his role at the Economist, but if he finds himself pining for some British company, he will not have to look very far.
Mark Thompson, the former director-general of the BBC, is a few blocks away in Manhattan at the New York Times headquarters on Eighth Avenue, where he serves as chief executive. Closer still to Bloomberg’s Lexington Avenue offices is the Wall Street Journal, where Gerry Baker, a former Financial Times columnist, is editor.
Mr Baker’s boss, Will Lewis, the chief executive of Dow Jones, is also British, as is Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, and Joanna Coles, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. Andrew Rashbass, the chief executive of Reuters (and a former chief executive of the Economist) is also a Brit. Although he is based in London, he oversees a huge newsroom in Times Square, while other stateside expats include Deborah Turness, the former editor of ITV News, who now heads NBC News.
What explains the cluster of Britons at the top of US-focused media organisations? One factor could be the British newspaper market, where many of these journalists and executives cut their teeth. Despite the challenges facing print titles around the world, the UK newspaper sector remains vibrant. Some 20 daily and Sunday newspapers continue to reach millions of readers in Britain, as they have done for decades. The recent phone-hacking scandal dented confidence in Fleet Street and drew the world’s attention to sloppy standards and practices and, in some cases, criminal behaviour. But competition is still fierce.
UK journalism has in recent years looked beyond its borders for growth. Until now, that has not been as a big a concern for newspapers and television networks based in the US. The Guardian and the Daily Mail each launched web operations tailored for global readers. Now both online titles are challenging the New York Times, CNN and Washington Post as the world’s most viewed news brands. They are also making their presence felt stateside: the Daily Mail’s online celebrity coverage regularly trumps its US tabloid competition, while the Guardian this year won a Pulitzer prize — the highest honour in American journalism — for its coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks.
US-based news operations have belatedly realised that they too must look abroad. Last year, the International Herald Tribune was rebranded by its owner, the New York Times, in one of Mr Thompson’s first moves as chief executive. The paper took the Times’ name as part of a move towards what the company called “a global monobrand”.
More importantly, US news groups also realise that their future depends on a winning online strategy. The companies searching for this digital elixir are betting that UK-born journalists may have the answers they need: at the BBC, Mark Thompson launched the popular iPlayer — a success his board at the New York Times would no doubt love him to replicate. Mr Micklethwait, meanwhile, has won plaudits for the digital initiatives he introduced at the Economist, which is part-owned by the Financial Times Group. Mr Bloomberg said his new hire had done “an exceptional job” leading the magazine into the “digital age”: the magazine has 1.6m print subscribers, including 164,000 digital-only subscribers.
Maybe the trend won’t last and the British news invasion will end as soon as it began. I am not so sure. They may not turn out to be the news equivalent of The Beatles. But if the big US news operations are looking for a coherent digital strategy and international growth, they could clearly do a lot worse than recruit from across the Atlantic.
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