LONDON - There's a new kid on the block when it comes to breaking big time stories about possible U.S. government abuses — and this time it's a British-based paper that's come up with the goods.
The Guardian newspaper, which started publishing in the English city of Manchester in 1821 and is now based in London, has in the last two days established a major presence in Washington by uncovering the vast scope of secret surveillance operations carried out by U.S. officials.
The revelations have put President Barack Obama and his national security team on the defensive with reports of government snooping on a comprehensive scale. Its coverage expanded to Britain on Friday with an exclusive report that the U.K.'s electronic surveillance agency has had access to data collected by the Americans.
The scoops have brought the company's website a megavoltage spike in traffic — company figures show a 20 per cent increase in Internet visits, with Thursday reported as the company's busiest day for U.S. traffic ever.
The company has been moving into the U.S. market in a determined way in recent years — with 57 employees in place — but hasn't had a major impact on the national debate until now.
Roy Greenslade, a media commentator who blogs in the Guardian, said the paper's surveillance stories have established it as a serious player on the U.S. scene.
"It will add to its credibility in the sense that it is doing something that traditional mainstream outlets in the States failed to do," he said. "So it beats the might of American journalism in its own back yard. And it's sent up traffic in a massive way."
He said the newspaper has been "slowly and surely" building a following in the U.S. It's also launched a new digital edition in Australia and hired journalists there.
Along with some U.S. papers, it published many of the secret WikiLeaks cables dealing with U.S. military and diplomatic affairs despite U.S. officials' claims that doing so would put lives at risk.
Unlike some other major rivals, the Guardian doesn't charge for Internet access — a factor that swells its page views but does little to help its troubled bottom line.
Chief editor Alan Rusbridger told a conference in April that the Guardian's U.S. web traffic grew roughly 37 per cent last year and now accounts for about one-third of the paper's global audience, estimated by the paper at 40 million readers.
The paper has been owned by the Scott Trust since 1936, but experts warn that the funds are running low and that the paper is running at a substantial loss. The print circulation has fallen sharply, dropping from more than 353,000 in May 2008 to just over 192,000 in May.
Steven Barnett, a communications professor at the University of Westminster, cautions that it is not clear the paper will be able to capitalize financially on its growing reputation.
"They're clearly trying to establish themselves as a world leader in authoritative investigative journalism," he said. "But if you are delivering it for free, how do you ensure you derive some proper revenue from their expansion? That's been a problem for months and years."
He said the "pennies" from Internet advertising do not offset the many dollars being lost as more lucrative print advertising fades, making it harder for the paper to capitalize.