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So What Do You Do, Caroline Little, CEO of Guardian News & Media North America?

The WaPo alum and Guardian brand champion speaks out on tactics that can save struggling media companies

- November 11, 2009
Condé Nast may have just launched a dating site,, to generate a new stream of revenue, but U.K. company Guardian News & Media is already way ahead of them. Just ask GNM's North America CEO Caroline Little.

Little has been in digital media since its early beginnings, and she's steadfast in her belief that media companies like Condé and GNM can't simply replace what they've lost from print advertisements with online ads. Instead, firms should be seeking additional revenue streams, like GNM's local dating service in the U.K., Soulmates, which Little says does "quite well" for the British company. "You could try that in local markets," Little advised. "Travel is another area. I think there are opportunities for other services."

Little was not always destined to be a digital media leader. She started her career as a lawyer, but joined the Washington Post Co. in 1997 and eventually rose through the ranks to CEO, where she led the Web sites of The Washington Post, Newsweek, Slate and The Root. She left the Post last year, as the company worked to combine its print and online divisions.

"I had been there for four years, and I completely supported the effort toward moving print and online together because they were getting more Balkanized and it didn't really make sense," she said. "But I knew I didn't want to stay and do it."

Now she's leading the Guardian's North American sales efforts, and since the paper doesn't publish a printed version stateside, Little has been focused on selling ads on to U.S. marketers. But she's always on the lookout for creative sources of additional revenue. Is there a stateside dating site rivaling Condé's in her future?

Name: Caroline Little
Position: CEO, North America, Guardian News & Media
Resume: Started career as an attorney working for Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. Joined US News & World Report as deputy general counsel, then moved to the Washington Post Co. as general counsel of the Internet division, moving up the ranks to COO and then CEO. Left Washington Post in June 2008, before joining the Guardian as a consultant in August 2008.
Birthdate: December 30, 1959
Education: "I went to Grinnell College for two years, then transferred to Wesleyan University, where I earned a B.A. in English. And then I went to New York University Law School."
Hometown: Chevy Chase, Md.
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday New York Times: Business section
Favorite TV show: Lost
Guilty pleasure: People magazine
Last book read: Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic

What are some of the Guardian's goals in the U.S. and what role does it play in the U.S. market?
The Guardian has about a third of its unique visitors coming from the U.S. That's 60 percent of readers who have never had any connection to the printed paper because they can't get it here and they're not ex-pats. What I'm trying to do is help grow that audience and -- I hate the word but -- monetize that audience, because we've never had a direct sales force here. So Hannah [Diddams] came over as head of sales, we've hired two more people, and we're working on introducing the Guardian. Right now we're pretty much focused in New York because so many of the agencies are here.

"We're never going to be The New York Times or The Washington Post in the U.S., but we don't aim to be. I think we have a definite point of view, kind of like Slate has a definite point of view."

What I love about the Guardian, and the reason I got to know the Guardian, and the reason I'm so happy to be here, is that I found their Web presence to be really innovative. They've had open apps for a long time, and they push the envelope a lot more than other newspaper Web sites. The reason I want people to go to the Guardian is just to get a different viewpoint on the U.S. There's a lot of international news. A lot of news sources are somewhat biased, but the Guardian is a trust; it's not owned by anyone, and it's very fair in terms of its coverage. If it has a point of view, it's very straightforward and usually focused on the environment. They are very focused on sustainability, which is great. It's innovative, it's international, it's intelligent. And I think we also have really great cultural coverage, coverage of the London band scene, book reviews, music, dance, theater. I think we have an interesting mix. We're never going to be The New York Times or The Washington Post in the U.S., but we don't aim to be. I think we have a definite point of view, kind of like Slate has a definite point of view.

There were rumors recently that GNM might be looking to sell ContentNext Media. Is there any truth to that?
It's just a rumor; we are not for sale. I have a feeling the rumor is coming out of London. As the industry struggles, GNM, like every media company, is looking for ways to make money. One reporter misquoted me, but I said, "If I was in charge, I would be looking for other ways to make money, too."

It seemed like a bit of a scandal last year when Katharine Weymouth was named CEO and publisher at The Washington Post and you left shortly after. What happened?
It was a scandal. I mean, it was played out to be a scandal. Katharine was appointed CEO and publisher in January, and we talked about merging print and online. I had worked so hard to get it to where it needed to be, and I had just decided to go. So I told them in January or February that I was going to leave, and then I announced it in April. It was really hard leaving because I had so many friends there and it was such a big part of my life, but I had to leave. I felt like I would just become a grumpy person. It was totally the right thing to do. The last year I was there, it was very difficult trying to marshal the three brands and keep them together because there was a real push for each publication --, and Slate -- to run their own entities. And I actually did not agree with that. I thought we should keep the sales teams together -- and they have kept the sales teams together -- but sort of economize on the back end. The print wants their own Internet presence, which I totally get, and it was a battle I wasn't going to win, nor was I willing to fight for it any more.

I said I was going to leave by June 1. I went to France for six weeks with my dog, and my kids came and my husband came, and it was so much fun. And I was talking to the Guardian, and they asked me to consult. So I came and consulted from August through the end of last year, sort of giving them strategies that they could use. And then they asked me to come do this.

"Paying for content is just one revenue stream. I don't think it's going to be the silver bullet."

You have been in digital media since its inception. How did you get into it?
When something's new there's a lot of opportunities. And when I came to the Post, a lot of people would ask me, "You're a lawyer, how did you end up being COO?" One, being a lawyer, you learn how the whole company works. And two, we were really skinny on business people. So after doing a lot of deals, you sort of get to know the lay of the land. It was really new, but there were a lot of opportunities.

Since then you've been in a position to see it grow up. What do you see as the future of digital media?
I think it's a really bright future. I think everybody's trying to figure out how not to be so dependent on advertising. The funny thing is, newspapers in print have always had at least 80 percent of their revenue come from advertising. So I think everybody is trying to look at different lines of business. I think paying for content is just one revenue stream. I don't think it's going to be the silver bullet. I think it has a bright future, but we have some work to do.

What do you see as some potential new streams of revenue?
You can think about your assets, which are your writers, your voice and your sales team. What can you do with a "feet on the street" sales team? Is there something else they can sell, for example? A lot of companies are starting to try to do events, which some publishing companies have been very, very successful in. So I think there's other opportunities.

Your old home, The Washington Post, got in some hot water recently over its proposed "salons," which could have been another revenue stream for them. What was your reaction to that controversy?
I think Katharine [Weymouth] took the hit for something that she probably had very little to do with. I think she handled it correctly and well. She's a good friend of mine, but I think she bore the brunt of that. I think you have to be really, really careful, and Katharine knows that. Somebody below her blew it. I think she knows that more than anyone.

Despite the challenges, there are quite a few women who are working at the executive level in the media industry. How do you think it compares to other industries?
I think it's probably better than most in this country. And I think there is nothing stronger than having an example of another woman who's done it and who totally gets the push-pull with children. We just manage things differently, and having someone support you and understand has been huge. I had a boss at US News and she was a great mentor to me and a role model. And as you see more and more people doing that, it becomes much more possible.

Right now you're splitting your time between New York and Washington, D.C. Is that something you're doing for your family?
I'm doing it for the job, because the job really requires me to be in New York more than I actually thought. But my youngest just went off to college. I used to live in New York for five or six years, and I love being back here. It's kind of fun. And my kids love it. And I'm in the process of getting a studio here. But I'll just spend a few days a week up here. D.C. is home.

Amanda Ernst is editor of FishbowlNY.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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