Over the last week, the Guardian has put out a series of articles about the US National Security Agency, its ‘PRISM’ programme, and a whistleblower called Edward Snowden.

In the ‘old’ newspaper world, The Guardian would have done that by splashing it on the front page, backed up with other related articles deeper into the paper.

In the ‘new’ digital world, the story is still splashed across the front page, but things get a little more complicated online. Extra complexity, but a mass of extra opportunity along with it.

This post breaks down some of the elements of the ‘Content Strategy’ behind this. The second part of this series will look at the digital marketing tactics  used within this.

1. The overall objectives

Before looking at tactics, it’s worth thinking of the overall objectives here both for The Guardian and for the journalists (and the rest of the team) working on the ‘story’. Here’s my take. If yours differs from this, please do leave a comment with info.

1.1 Objectives of the newspaper:

As a newspaper, their overall objectives here are:

  1. Telling & producing great stories.
  2. Influencing thought & policy.
  3. Traffic.
  4. Money. (short-term & long-term revenue)
  5. Building prominence of their journalists.

1.2 Objectives of the journalists:

The individual journalists involved here have the following objectives:

  1. Tell a great story.
  2. Altruism: Their personal belief that spreading this information is the right thing to do.
  3. Career & their personal profiles.
  4. Traffic to the website & other content.
  5. Money (for them, and the contribution of the money from the story back to their organisation).

2. The content strategy

‘Content strategy‘ is a broad, nebulous term that means different things to different people. In the case here, instead of looking at the overall strategy, we’ll simply look at some of the strategic decisions made around content, and the way The Guardian has structured this story using digital content to best meet its overall objectives.

For this, we’ll take a quick look at some of the decision making in terms of people, formats, categories, and scheduling.

First though – of key importance – it’s vital to note that this is centrally a USA story. The Guardian has historically been a UK newspaper. The potential online audience of a news organisation is now global, with little to no extra distribution cost.

I don’t know the international breakdown of visits for The Guardian, but here’s a chart I put together breaking down the Daily Mail’s audience by country, which may be roughly similar:

Daily Mail Countries

The Guardian recognised the international opportunity, and set up a US office a couple of years ago. I remember the mighty Chris Moran, its SEO editor, disappearing over there as it set up a US presence, and it was something the paper obviously took seriously.

The work there, and the people the paper has managed to hire, have been so good that a ‘UK’ organisation (in the eyes of their competitors) has managed to break and hold the biggest story of the year in the USA. Quite an achievement.

It’s well known that The Guardian loses money. Opening up the existing product to new markets, and turning themselves into a global news organisation is a massive objective in reducing those losses.


A key part of the Guardian’s overall ‘content strategy’ (the key part in the case of this story) was to hire people, create process, and nurture content in a different geography.

2.1 Content and people

First of all, this overall story has come about as a result of The Guardian’s people. The creation & spread of it is down to them.

There is obviously a huge amount of process behind that, but The Guardian has managed to hire and keep some interesting journalists – for example Glenn Greenwald, a civil rights lawyer turned journalist formerly of Salon.com (importantly, an online ‘pureplay’ news site), and James Ball, formerly of Wikileaks (importantly, someone who’s technical).

In addition to that, it has ‘pulled in’ people on this story. The interview with Edward Snowden was filmed by Laura Poitras, an oscar nominated documentary filmmaker who’s made a series of documentaries on post-9/11 USA.

We don’t know (yet) why ‘the whistleblower’ chose to go to The Guardian, or how the paper came across him, but there is little doubt that will be down to their people.

Summary: The Guardian has made some very clever hiring decisions, central to its ability to create & gather excellent content; alongside that, its happy to bring people in.

2.2 Content and formats:

The content put out around this story has been a real mixture of formats:

  • Straight text articles. Most fairly long, but a few very short too.
  • Videos. As mentioned, they’ve got a documentary filmmaker working on this specifically.
  • Images. Some of the slides, and some very tangentially related, eg. for a jokey ‘NSA surveillance as told through classic children’s books’ gallery.
  • Content posted directly to social networks (mostly Twitter) by their corporate accounts, and also by journalists directly.
  • Live blogs. (for example this, from Tom McCarthy, which you’ll see embeds images, tweets & quotes, as well as commentary)
  • Tweets/social updates.
  • Comments. (very popular with The Guardian’s audience, and they tend to err on the side of leaving comments ‘open’, whereas other sites often close on anything with any legal implication).

All of that has to be created, subbed, probably checked by legal in lots of cases, posted, and promoted.


Produce in multiple formats. Centre around straight articles, but surround with multimedia, and content on (and between) social platforms.

2.3 Categories of content:

The primary content here has been (very) ‘hard news’. A series of articles with actual hard information that was not available to the public prior to their reporting. Surrounding that are softer pieces, features, Q&As, and even some ‘list posts’.

Some of the numerous extras include:

  • Background pieces about the ‘Subject’ – for example a straight Q&A with the whistleblower, a profile on the company he worked for.
  • Background pieces about the story itself. eg this ‘How does PRISM work?‘ piece by Charles Arthur.
  • Editorial & opinion – for example this piece on how the information brought to light affects British citizens.
  • ‘Home’ news, tying the story back to the UK (ie. stuff for The Guardian’s existing audience).
  • Frivolous, jokey articles like the aforementioned ‘surveillance as told through classic children’s books’. (this both breaks up the relentless heaviness of the articles, means ‘the story’ is accessible to different audiences, and means The Guardian pick up traffic for that, as that kind of content is inevitable anyway, and why leave all of that potential traffic to others?)
  • Content related to the broader people, and organisations surrounding this: Google, Facebook, Obama, Hague.
  • Content spread across their own internal categories: News, Comment, Business, Tech.

As just two examples, take a look at the ‘Tech’ section & you’ll see it’s a mixture of directly related articles, loosely related articles, and ‘business as usual’ content:

Guardian Tech

Contrast that with the ‘Culture’ section, an area onto which this story doesn’t really overlap, and you’ll see you would not even know the story existed:

Guardian Culture

And elsewhere on the site, the aforementioned jokey “NSA surveillance as told through classic children’s books”.

This is a bit of a mish-mash of a gallery post, a buzzfeedesque idea, and an attempt to tie in social media (note that it’s collected from a hashtag ‘#NSAKidsBooks’):

NSA Kids Books


In its essence, this is a single story. ‘Digital’ means it actually have unlimited column inches to dedicate to it. The paper has neatly broken it down and spread it across different formats & sections.

In doing so its has been careful to take into account different audiences, to break up the ‘hard’ stuff with background and softer pieces, and to broaden it out a bit to take into account social media.

As a side-note: It’s worth thinking about this also from the point of view of the ‘inverted pyramid’, the basic journalistic principle of writing the key ‘who, where, what, when, how’ information in the opening paragraphs, expanding on that with the most important info in the body, and then leading out into more granular extras toward the end.

In this case they’ve done that by atomising parts of it into individual articles. The unlimited shelf space of digital news means it can dedicate full articles to (for example) a factsheet on the central whistleblower’s employer, whereas previously it may only make passing mention to that further into an article, if at all.

2.4 Content scheduling:

The scheduling is the big, clever decision really here. The Guardian, it appears, got all of its information from one source. Based on that, it could (if it had wanted to) put all of the information out in one go.

That’s what would happen traditionally. Following that, day by day, updates would be written based on trailing events.

In this case, it have not done that. Here’s Emily Bell of Columbia Journalism School talking about that:

Emily Bell

In this case, te paper has(essentially) exclusive access to the person who holds the entire story. There is very little chance of any other news outlet managing to speak directly to him. The Guardian can therefore completely control the pace of this story. The only party who can really interrupt that flow is the US government itself.

It is therefore dictating the pace at which information is released, and at which the US government and other organisations must respond. As those organisations respond, the paper can then cover the reaction (and can of course resource for this, as they know roughly when it will happen).

This plays out for the audience as a bit of a soap opera (or more accurately a thriller). The key players are Barack Obama (who, against The Guardian’s political leaning, this probably damages the most), CEOs of international companies, the whistleblower himself, and The Guardian’s own semi-celebrity journalists.

Here’s a tweet from the reporter at the centre of the case which firstly removes any remaining doubt that there’s a pre-planned schedule behind this.

Save Yourself

And here are two tweets confirming the plan to nudge the central actors in the story in a way that further builds it:

In Public

From a practical point of view, that means the Guardian probably has a central grid of ‘tranches’ of information (or perhaps ‘acts’ or events), each consisting of key content, additional pre-planned ‘background’ content, expected response coverage, plus the ability to add around that any ad-hoc extras as they emerge.


The Guardian got a great story. The fact that it got it in the first place was due to a strategic ‘content’ decision, and the fact that the story has been as high-profile & successful as it has so far was also due to a series of content decisions.

  • At a ‘Macro’ level, part of the reason it got the story in the first place was a very strong decision to create US-centric content, and to place a team there. Some of the key hiring decisions have been specifically around ‘tech’ & ‘digital’ savvy people, and as a result the paper was really well placed for this particular story.
  • At a ‘Micro’ level, the coverage spans a range of formats, split both by media type, and by content category. This works in that it allows the paper to appeal to different audiences, reduces ‘arc fatigue’ on the overall story, and means the audience can choose which parts to consume, which to share, etc.
  • Again at a ‘Micro’ level, the key, big decision was to release the story in a series of pre-planned tranches. This both brings extra traffic & publicity as a ‘drip marketing’ campaign would, and means that the story itself builds as other organisations respond to it.

Next: The second half of this case study looks at the way the Guardian has marketed this. Check back to read about the digital marketing tactics they’ve used to support this story.