LONDON -- Before this week, the Guardian newspaper's gradual move into the U.S. – hiring dozens of employees in the last two years – hadn't produced much of a splash in terms of scoops.
In the last three days that has changed.
The newspaper, which started publishing in the English city of Manchester in 1821 and is now based in London, has established a significant presence in Washington by uncovering the vast scope of secret surveillance operations carried out by U.S. officials at the National Security Agency.
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 Friday to Britain with an exclusive report that the U.K.'s electronic surveillance agency also has had access to the information trove collected by the U.S. government.
While there had been hints of government accessing domestic U.S. phone records in the past, including reporting of domestic surveillance by the NSA that earned a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times in 2006, Glenn Greenwald – a lawyer turned journalist, blogger and commentator for the Guardian – broke the news Wednesday that the NSA had collected the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of the telecom giant Verizon under a recent secret court order.
A day later, the Washington Post's Barton Gellman weighed in on the existence of another secret NSA program – codenamed PRISM – that reportedly gave the U.S. government direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants,
Greenwald's piece on that same program appeared only about 20 minutes after the Post's story broke online. Gellman, himself a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter, was quoted by the Huffington Post that he "started to hear some footsteps, so I had to move."
Guardian defense correspondent Nick Hopkins added to the British newspaper's string of newsbreaks Friday, revealing that the U.K.'s electronic surveillance agency has had access to the data trove collected by the U.S. government.
The stories have brought the Guardian wide attention in media circles and its website a substantial spike in traffic – company figures show a 20 percent increase in Internet visits. Thursday was the company's busiest day for U.S. traffic ever, it says.
Steven Barnett, a communications professor at the University of Westminster, called the Guardian's journalistic achievements in recent days "a breakthrough" in the paper's bid to establish a stronger presence in the U.S.
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 U.S. national debate until now.
Roy Greenslade, a media commentator who blogs in the Guardian and elsewhere, said the paper's surveillance stories have made it a serious player on the U.S. scene.
"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 backyard."
Greenslade 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 the New York Times, the Guardian published many of the first 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 of its major rivals, the Guardian doesn't charge for Internet access – a factor that swells its page views but does little to help its bottom line.
Chief editor Alan Rusbridger told a conference in April that the Guardian's U.S. web traffic grew roughly 37 percent 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 funds are running low and 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.
Barnett cautions that it is not clear the Guardian will be able to capitalize financially on its reputation for breaking big news.
"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 the Guardian's more lucrative print advertising fades.
The paper has acknowledged that it is focusing on increasing Web traffic and Web advertising.
Associated Press writer Cassandra Vinograd contributed from London.