The Atlantic on the success of The Economist

Michael Hirschorn

Michael Hirschorn

Our success at The Economist continues to baffle and intrigue an entire industry.

Where some postulate that it is our tone (analogous to coffee beans “shat out be a civet cat“), others are analyzing our position as simultaneously niche and global, which is no longer oxymoronic but suddenly à la mode.

Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic is the latest. As he puts it,

The Economist has become an arbiter of right-thinking opinion (free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism) at a time when arbiters in general are in ill favor.

This is the American part of any article about us, which is always amusing, since there is a one-word synonym for the convoluted phrase “free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism”: That word is liberal.

But Hirschorn is really interested in why we are doing well when Time and Newsweek, which are trying to copy us, are not.

The easy lesson might be that quality wins out. The Economist is truly a remarkable invention—a weekly newspaper, as it calls itself, that canvasses the globe with an assurance that no one else can match. Where else, really, can you actually keep up with Africa? But even as The Economist signals its gravitas with every strenuously reader-unfriendly page, it has never been quite as brilliant as its more devoted fans would have the rest of us believe. (Though, one must add, nor is it as shallow as its detractors would tell you it is.)

Here he is expressing what I’ve observed to be a persistent sour-grapes, cringing, squinting snobbishness toward The Economist from American journalists at the “good” publications: They always feel compelled to call us “smug”.

Indeed, he does:

At its worst, the writing can be shoddy, thin research supporting smug hypotheses.

I don’t actually disagree. But Hirschorn then comes around to what I’ve been saying internally at The Economist for a while now:

The Economist prides itself on cleverly distilling the world into a reasonably compact survey. Another word for this is blogging, or at least what blogging might be after it matures.

This of course leads to an irony that we at The Economist all savor:

For a magazine that effectively blogged avant la lettre, The Economist has never had much digital savvy…. most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.

As it happens, this missing “link love” was the topic of my presentation at our internal powwow last fall in Danesfield. The title of my talk was “Google Juice”. I was offering thoughts on how to increase our link love, but Hirschorn thinks that our relative dearth of it

turns out to have been a lucky accident. Unlike practically all other media “brands,” The Economist remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly. …

By that he means that we are really friggin’ expensive. He then signs off with an interesting thought:

General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know—and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out—is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.

I like that. That’s exactly what I might try to do when my book comes out.

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6 thoughts on “The Atlantic on the success of The Economist

    • As in: Niche-y but global? Yes, sort of.

      But: Starbucks is doing badly, whereas The Economist is (still) doing well; Starbucks went tacky and cheap whereas The Economist (still) has not.

      But but: You consume too much in either, and your ears ring.

  1. Content aside, the absence of in-your-face advertisements does a lot for me. Paying for an expensive subscription is an affordable luxury. There’s a whole parallel universe in which I try to live that is quieter (literally, figuratively). This applies to all the media, except perhaps the ‘free’ e-mail service. Yahoo and Gmail are both still free, but Yahoo is like driving thru a strip mall listening to adds on the radio (loudly). I’m not a good consumer because I can’t deal (not a snob, a whimp).

  2. Michael Hirschorn give out figures about the popularity of the Economist which puzzle me, and which you may be able to clarify. He said that the Economist’s circulation in the US is 800,000. And he said that 75,000 copies of the Economist are sold each week on US newsstands.

    What, then, does this figure of 800,000 mean?

    Whatever it means, it is far less than the “circulation” for Time (3.4 million), or for Newsweek (2.7 million). However, these numbers for Time and Newsweek don’t indicate what percentage is “foreign”. But Hirschorn did say elsewhere that Newsweek’s American “circulation” is bigger than the Economist’s. So I assume that Time, too, has a bigger American “circulation” than the Economist.

    Therefore the American, by a large margin, still prefers Time and Newsweek in total. So Time and Newsweek must still be getting much right, at least for the American.

    As for 75,000 copies of the Economist sold weekly at American newsstands, this doesn’t seem much, given there are 300 million Americans. So I assume that most of the Economist’s print readers are outside America, perhaps because in most countries outside America, (and particularly outside Europe) the internet is far less ubiquitous in homes.

    Michael Hirschorn, in the video clip, said, in so many words, that the focus of Time and Newsweek is Washington, as if it is the place the world revolves around. But the foreigner doesn’t, by and large, see it this way. Hence, the attraction for the foreigner of the Economist over Time or Newsweek; and hence, the attraction for the American of Time and Newsweek over the Economist, since the American, in general, sees Washington as the place the world revolves around.

    • I don’t know the latest numbers, Christopher, but by way of explanation:

      “Circulation” refers to the total number of copies out there in a given week. “Newsstand” (kiosk) sales are a small fraction of circulation. The rest is subscriptions.

      I think about 40% of our circulation is in America. Time and Newsweek have foreign editions, but they are almost entirely “American”.

      You shouldn’t be surprised that the total numbers for Time and Newsweek are still larger than The Economist’s. They are mass-market magazines that are now shrinking and re-focussing; The Economist is a “niche” magazine that is now growing.

      In general, we don’t look at what “the American” or “the European” expects to read about. We visualize our readers more in terms of demographic/culture/sophistication, irrespective of nationality.

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