How The Guardian Broke the Snowden Story

Kale salad. Back home, The Guardian, which is headquartered in London's fashionable and liberal N1 postcode, has a reputation for catering to a hip, urban, liberal crowd -- and is often mocked for being left-wing, stiffly politically-correct and, on occasion, for having an obsession with health foods. A Buzzfeed UK article this year claims to have spotted the "most Guardian opening sentence of all time", which read:

At 10 to five one Saturday afternoon last year, I was walking up the Hornsey Road in London with a tin of rhubarb from Tesco, checking the football results on my iPhone after a lovely day at Kew Gardens. The phone replaced the BlackBerry I'd destroyed a month earlier by running into the sea to save my daughter from drowning.

But The Guardian also has a reputation for solid investigative journalism. The NSA story isn't their first rodeo. They were one of three publications to work closely with WikiLeaks to process the mountains of data leaed by Bradley Manning in 2010. When Rupert Murdoch's vast tabloid the News of the World was finally caught phone-hacking, it was The Guardian that brought it down, doggedly fighting for the story for two years against a storm of legal threats and denials from News International. Before that, the paper was known for having faced down a storm of litigation to prove that the former MP Jonathan Aitken had lied before a court, giving them probably their best-known front page, featuring the headline "He Lied and Lied and Lied".

I ask Gibson what's coming up for Guardian US, when the Snowden dust finally settles. "We will add commentators, we will add reporting, we will add verticals, we will continue to grow, and we'll work with commercial partners and do tech and business and all the things that we want to be," she says. The publication is doubling down on its investigative presence in the States as well: Investigative journalist Paul Lewis is joining the paper's Washington bureau from the London office this month, and Nick Davies, the reporter whose two years of digging brought about the phone-hacking scandal, is joining the New York team later in the year.

For nearly any other publication, there would be a big question looming over such expansion: cost. How can The Guardian afford this kind of aggressive investment when other papers are being forced to scale back? Here The Guardian admittedly has some help: The paper enjoys the financial cushion of a large trust, which was set up in 1936 to carefully invest the fortune of the paper's most famous editor CP Scott. In its current form, the Scott Trust Limited is now the sole stakeholder in Guardian Media Group, so the paper has no shareholders nor a Rupert Murdoch-like proprietor; instead, any profits from the assets held by the group are used to maintain -- and propagate -- the newspaper operation. In essence, it is a journalistic perpetual-motion machine, one with exceptionally fortunate investment properties which managed to lose relatively little of their value during the financial crisis.

This is the financial grounding which enables the publication's experimentation. They have a very successful dating site in the UK -- Guardian Soulmates. They were ahead of the website curve, and have experimented very successfully with tablet and mobile apps.

Some of the experiments have yielded surprising conclusions about the new media landscape.

"All the things you believed to be true, are not really true," Gibson says. "'You shouldn't really launch a story on a Sunday afternoon, that's a dead zone!' - no it's not. Sunday afternoon's actually a brilliant time to launch a story. And actually, Friday night: perfectly good time to launch a story as well. Shouldn't be - a Friday night drop suggests it goes into a lull of the weekend -- but it's the internet, and people have smartphones, and people are going out to meet each other and tell each other things, and say 'did you see this'. The whole world has changed."

She grins happily. "Everything you think you know, you don't know any more."

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Nicky Woolf is a New York-based writer for British GQ and The New Statesman.

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