The Brits Invade US Newsrooms With a ‘Killer Instinct’ and Fleet Street Ethics

Available to WrapPRO members

Robert Winnett, the soon-to-be executive editor of the Washington Post, is the latest British journalist to be put in charge of a U.S. news outlet.

British news media invasion
(Clockwise from left) Former News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, Washington Post CEO Will Lewis, Post upcoming Executive Editor Robert Winnett, CNN CEO Mark Thompson and Emma Tucker, the editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal. (Chris Smith/TheWrap)

The crisis in American news media has led to an unexpected result in a very short time: The invasion of executive news suites by British editors, who experts say bring a “killer instinct” to news gathering, while notably downgrading the diversity quotient in news leadership.

Most recently with the appointment of Will Lewis as the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post — and his latest restructuring plan, featuring the appointment of Fleet Street-bred editor Robert Winnett as executive editor after the election — British players are gaining a significant foothold in the U.S. media industry. 

These latest U.K. natives arrive just months after a growing list of others — CNN’s CEO Mark Thompson, The Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker, Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, The Daily Beast’s content chief Joanna Coles and the outlet’s new executive editor Hugh Dougherty.

“In media, everybody is floundering. As legacy media takes continual hits, everybody is looking for the magic ticket that appeals to consumers and advertisers,” said 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.”

CNN CEO Mark Thompson, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-chief Emma Tucker, The Daily Beast Executive Editor Hugh Dougherty
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)

But, as UK media execs are being handed some of the biggest jobs in U.S. journalism, some question whether the choices are what America’s democracy needs. “Everybody’s screaming about how we have a crisis in local news,” said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at CUNY. “I say we have a crisis in national news too, at this time when fascism is at the door.” 

British journalists have headed U.S. media organizations before, notably top editors like Tina Brown, who led Vanity Fair and The New Yorker; Anna Wintour, the legendary editor of Vogue; and Thompson, who previously led The New York Times through a successful digital transformation.

But the slew of Brits taking over top positions at U.S. media companies comes as the news media in recent years has pivoted from serving local newspaper readers to worldwide digital audiences. And the financial strain on the industry is leading publishers to seek answers in British approaches to media management and news gathering, which can come off in the U.S. as aggressive or even unethical, analysts told TheWrap. 

British editors “have news in their veins” and “their expertise is in understanding that there are now no country barriers to news brands,” George Pascoe-Watson, founding partner of Schillings Communications, told TheWrap.  “Digital media means no borders.”

Many editors of the loftier titles won’t admit it, but they all have an eye on the success of the British tabloid Daily Mail Online which, after establishing a large newsroom in New York, has grown to be the world’s largest English-language news website reaching over 225 million unique monthly visitors globally — 75 million of those coming from the United States. Dougherty, now at The Daily Beast, was formerly an editor at the New York Post and Daily Mail.

Sally Buzbee
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)

Media executives with experience on notoriously cut-throat and scoop-driven Fleet Street could have resonant impacts on the U.S. media landscape, particularly during a consequential election year. The mainstream U.S. media views British executives as having a “killer instinct,” like former News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch’s “attack dogs” at publications like The Sun, which might be preferable in a tough financial environment for the industry, but a potential long-term concern, Borkowski said.

David Clinch, a consultant at Media Growth Partners, told TheWrap that he doesn’t think British media leaders will impact editorial coverage, but it could shake up the leadership style at individual publications. That could either be a “needed ‘fresh eyes’ impetus” for some, or a “disruptive ‘outsider on top’ issue for others.”

But ultimately, Clinch argues the leaders chosen thus far – namely Thompson as the pick for CNN CEO after his success at The New York Times – have “proven their chops in ways that make the fact that they’re British if not irrelevant, then next to irrelevant.”

For his part, Jarvis is concerned about the growing influence of Murdoch-owned publishers and the newsroom leaders trained within them. He called Murdoch outlets — which include Fox News, New York Post, and a host of British and Australian newspapers and tabloids — “dubious institutions.”

In the case of the Washington Post, which abruptly ousted Executive Editor Sally Buzbee on Sunday, Lewis has tapped Matt Murray, an American and former editor-in-chief of the Murdoch-owned WSJ, to lead the newsroom on an interim basis through the 2024 presidential election. 

Clinch says that Murray’s interim role at the newspaper and his continued involvement in coverage after the election “might balance out” the U.K. influence on the Post’s coverage. 

Jarvis disagrees. “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.” 

After the election, Murray will transition into running a so-called “third newsroom” at the Post, which Lewis vaguely outlined as focused on attracting nontraditional news consumers through service journalism and social media content. Murray will be replaced by Winnett, who currently serves as an editor at The Telegraph. 

“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.

Journalist James Fallows expressed a similar sentiment on social media, tweeting, “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 assumption that all British media outlets or journalists are steeped in checkbook journalism, which is heavily frowned upon in America. 

At The Telegraph, Lewis oversaw the 2009 coverage of the scandal involving expense accounts of members of the British Parliament. A source brought the story to Winnett on a computer disk, and then Lewis agreed to purchase it for around 110,000 pounds ($140,000) — after other newspapers refused to pay for the information. The Telegraph’s investigation revealed that taxpayer money had been used for politicians’ personal mortgage payments and home upgrades, like a moat.

The story rocked the U.K. political establishment and led to weeks of headlines, and then the resignations of several ministers plus the speaker of the House of Commons. There was no investigation into the leaking of the files because the Metropolitan Police deemed the revelations were in the public interest. 

The Daily Telegraph was named the U.K. newspaper of the year and Lewis won journalist of the year at the 2010 British Press Awards, earning praise for his courage to run the story when other outlets had declined.

In 2010, Lewis joined Murdoch’s News U.K. empire — the British subsidiary of U.S.-based News Corp. — when he was then tasked with helping to clean up the mess of the phone hacking scandal, in which journalists were accused of illegally hacking into the cell phones of celebrities and government officials. Around this time, millions of emails were deleted from the News’ U.K. servers. In 2011 Lewis took a role as an executive member of the Management and Standards Committee, an independent division of News Corp. mandated by the board to cooperate fully with all authorities investigating wrongdoing at News International. 

Citing court documents, NPR journalist David Folkenflik reported how Lewis was accused of authorizing the deletion of millions of emails. Lewis denied the allegations and has said that he was called in to clear up a mess, not to destroy evidence. “I did whatever I could to preserve journalistic integrity,” Lewis told the Washington Post in 2023. In June 2023 Lewis received a knighthood for 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

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

U.K. journalistic practices may come across as “unabashedly commercial” compared to the 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, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the outgoing director of the UK-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, noted on social media.

In May, the Post announced it lost $77 million in the past year and its traffic has dropped by half since its 2020 high, as news publishers across the industry continue to struggle with reader retention. In an all-hands staff meeting after Buzbee’s exit this week, Lewis said it would be “nuts” to continue to operate the same business model that contributed to the losses. “We are going to turn this thing around, but let’s not sugarcoat it: it needs turning around,” Lewis said. 

Pascoe-Watson is not surprised U.S. news publishers have gravitated toward hiring British editorial and executive talent because they hail from “brands with more than a century of history, of understanding audiences, staying ahead and adapting to societal change.”

Editors like Winnett, he said, “understand the importance of impartiality, focus on the story, clarity of message and putting the reader central to everything.” 

But Jarvis doesn’t think that’s the solution to the financial challenges of the media industry. “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. 

While implementing a British-heavy leadership at the Washington Post is notable, analysts said it underscores a lack of diversity within the executive suite, particularly a paucity of female leaders at the newspaper after Buzbee’s exit.

“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. 

Comments

5 responses to “The Brits Invade US Newsrooms With a ‘Killer Instinct’ and Fleet Street Ethics”

  1. Lonnie Avatar
    Lonnie

    Other than Stuart Varney, I change the channel if someone from other than the US is the news anchor.

  2. bevus Avatar
    bevus

    WE do not need Brits, canadians, aussies telling us how to run our country, they cannot run theirs, most if not all are more bigotted, racist and eltitis than ours. They are giant hypocrits.

  3. John Avatar
    John

    Nothing will change until you drive out all of the woke and DEI hires. And that won’t happen so enjoy your slide into bankruptcy.

  4. Larry Weber Avatar
    Larry Weber

    It is disgusting to see Jarvis trying to defend the performance of those he trained. He and his academicians are a major source of the problem. [I use the term “academicians” as their record has shown them not to be “scholars”.] One thought for those fretting about diversity: “Ride that horse all the way to the bankruptcy court”.

  5. Charles P. Avatar
    Charles P.

    As an U.S. American, I’ve always said we have an infatuation with our British cousins’ accents. I’ve also said a person from the U.K. could come here, kill someone, and then start talking and we would say, “Oh, they have a British accent, so it couldn’t have been on purpose.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.