Perhaps not one for The Economist


The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a fascinating and provocative outfit and has so much to say — albeit in an oblique way — about America, as I said in the previous post.

Who else would study, with the same quasi-scientific rigor and implicit irony, the following?

  • Yucca Mountain (above), America’s preferred dumping ground for nuclear waste,
  • Cathedral Canyon (below), a random crack in the desert turned into religious shrine,
  • Emergency training centers such as Del Valle, California (all the way at the bottom), and
  • the thousands and thousands of other non-obvious but telling places in America

And yet, we decided not to run a piece on it in The Economist. At least for the time being.



I decided to let you peak into the process because I think it might give you a useful glimpse into

  1. writing, and
  2. The Economist

Specifically, the issue involved all of the writerly themes that you guys and I have been writing about:

Here is what happened

After my visit to the CLUI, I did indeed write a draft, at about 700 words, for our US Section. And I sent it off.

I had an unsure feeling. I felt that I had not done justice to the CLUI or the places I had chosen as examples.

1) Length

Our pieces in The Economist are short, and they are best when they compress complexity into a dense and yet simple and forceful narrative. The CLUI, however, seemed to need the opposite: not to be compressed but to be expanded and developed. It seemed to need length.

2) Momentum

Worse, I had not spotted an underlying narrative in the CLUI (or the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for that matter) at all. This, in fact, is my criticism of the CLUI: They are so meticulous about their neutrality that they forget to do storytelling.

In fact, the Center’s name is a misnomer. It is not the Center for Land Use Interpretation but the Center for Land Use Observation. The interpretation is what is missing.

3) Voice

So I felt that to do this justice, I would have had to make it a humorous-but-profound story about a search for something elusive.

When you’re searching in vain, the story is about doubt, uncertainty, futility. Not things that The Economist is naturally good at, even though I excel at them personally. 😉

4) The First  Person

To be really fun, moreover, a search narrative would have to be about me, the searcher. Me looking for answers and getting confused. Me on a CLUI bus in the desert with other searchers…

The First Person: Definitely not something that The Economist is naturally good at. 😉 😉

(Since we have no bylines, we also have no First Person. It is banned. The most you might see is “As your correspondent took his seat…”. Yuck.)

Conclusion: This really wanted to be a New Yorker piece.

A few weeks later, I got an email from my editor. He essentially said the same thing:

The problem with the piece as it stands is that it poses a lot of questions, but does not answer them. I appreciate that that is part of the philosophy the point of the CLUI, but it doesn’t really satisfy as a US section article. It reads too much to me like a long list of interesting and not-so-interesting places…

What is it, in fact, that we learn about American culture from the landscape, other than its uses are many and various? That America (like every other country) cherishes, abuses and neglects its physical space? …

I think this piece could benefit from being longer… Such a longer and more narrative piece would not, I think, work in the US section.

In a way, this was reassuring: My editor and I had come to exactly the same conclusion independently.

There was another upshot: Another editor had read it and expressed interest in a longer and more narrative version for our Christmas Issue, the one occasion every year when we really let our writerly hair down.

Did I want to expand the piece for the Christmas issue?

Opting for easy

This is when experience kicked in (13 years at The Economist now).

My experience told me that it was time to move on.

I did a risk-benefit analysis. I could sink a lot more time and effort into this story in the hope that a forceful narrative might emerge out of it. Or I could write the many easy and obvious stories that were offering themselves to me like streetwalkers.

In case you’re wondering, there is pressure on us to perform. We’re supposed to write something in every issue, on average. In fact, the last sentence in that same email from my editor was:

PS: that said, I am therefore in the market for a piece from you next week! Can you call me on the mob once you’re up and about?

And so I moved back into streetwalker alley, where it has been easy pickings and obvious stories since.

How judge ye?


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14 thoughts on “Perhaps not one for The Economist

  1. Who picks the topics? The correspondents? Every week each correspondent submits a piece on the topic of his or her choosing and then the brass decides which ones to print? Is it a system where the cubs get weekly assignments and the senior writers are allowed to use their own judgment as far as topic selection?

    • First, it is British, which is to say that there is no “system” at all. Unless you call muddling through a system.

      To the extent that there is a style or culture, it is this: The correspondents think up stories and pitch them to section editors. This is informal because we all know each other and regularly trade jobs. (A section editor might have been a correspondent and will soon become a correspondent again, eg).

      The Section editor then allocates space (line count) to the ideas he has on offer. He may hold a story if news dictates that something else runs in particular week. If there is a conflict between stories, he may point that out and leave the correspondents to work it out.

      But most of the time, I just pitch a couple of ideas by email, and he says, in effect, “The first idea, at 700 words.”

      You’ve read me go on about the Dunbar Number in previous posts. That’s the key. We’re so small as a group that we can get by with zero bureaucracy.

  2. “……….Our pieces in The Economist are short, and they are best when they compress complexity into a dense and yet simple and forceful narrative……..”

    Are the short and dense narratives born of perceived necessity because the owners see the Economist as primarily a printed product, hence articles have to be chopped to a predetermined length?

    If the owners saw the Economist as primarily a digital product (read off a computer screen) then its articles needn’t have so much of potential interest chopped off and left strewn on the cutting room floor.

    Would I be correct to assume that most Economist readers now read it off a screen? If so, all the more reason to view the “paper ” as a primarily digital product.

    Given that the Economist does still have a printed edition, its content has, of course, to be of a predetermined length ie chopped. But the digital edition could show them unchopped. Hence a two-tiered Economist.

    Mindful of the chopping, I now – when I click on to the Economist’s web-page – read less and less the official chopped content, and more and more the blogs, which I assume don’t appear in the printed edition and aren’t chopped.

    Perhaps this is why I find the blogs livelier, more flavourful, more informative, and thus more compelling reading, than most of the “paper’s” official content.

    As it is for me, so it may be for many others.

    • You have guessed right.

      That is to say: Yes, the length (or rather, shortness) of the pieces is dictated by the layout of the print magazine. That not only means that most stories are short but also that the line counts, whatever they are, are rigid. So yes, things get chopped, often sub-optimally. Sometimes, lines have to be added, which is also not ideal, but that is less frequent.

      Most people still read us on paper, so the paper product still determines the web product. This is an interesting issue: Would we be comfortable with several versions of the same story (web, paper)? So far, I suspect not.

      Eventually, of course, people will read us on screens, from small (iPHone) to medium (iPad, Kindle). My friend Tom Standage, who is a certified genius and in fact not entirely human, is currently working on formatting The Economist for all current and future screens. If anybody in the universe can get it right, he is the one.

      That leaves your impression of our blogs. That’s a big subject, one that is causing a lot of hand-wringing internally. I’m quite intrigued that you seem to prefer them. At some point, I will post just on the issues that raises….

  3. How about a story on the Mystery Spot?

    You could segue from the real Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz to a Christmas edition on female sexuality, this new pill that was rejected, and our mystery spots.


    • Never mind Santa Cruz. I will certainly research the mystery spots.

      This would be an interesting occasion to ponder whether writers must have expertise in a subject in order to touch upon it. I mean, cover it … Snoop around in it… Oh, dang…

  4. Perhaps the CLUI is not a topic itself but rather a source for topics. It seems like each of the 3 locations you mention at the top of the post reflects a different aspect of our deepest fears and hopes (and you say there are thousands of locations). What’s wrong with having a repository of microcosms to illustrate (or undermine) whatever point you wish to make about the American psyche?

    • I think you’re right. I could have/should have chose JUST ONE case study and spun an entire yarn around it.

      The trouble is: Which one?

      As I pondered this option (and our fears and hopes, as you perceptively said), it occurred to me that this would be a book, not an article. And a risky book at that.

      Perhaps I’m secretly hoping that one of my readers here will do just that….

  5. 🙂 cute pun

    synchronous as usual “this would be an interesting occasion to ponder whether writers must have expertise in a subject …”

    i was just wondering this about writers.

    it crossed my mind to wonder how closely you have experienced the topic of your book?

    completely rhetorical of course, but it’s a question that crosses my mind whenever i read a good book.

    • “…how closely you have experienced the topic of your book?…”

      You mean, have I experienced triumph and disaster and found them to be impostors?

      Yes, but not in a photogenic, memorable, tellable way. If I had done an Eat-Love-Pray me-me-me story, I think it would have been a snoozer or a vomiter. So I only appear tangentially in my book. VIPs (Very Interesting People) are the main chracters, although hopefully in such a way that Dafna can see herself in them.

  6. Why is this an either-or situation? Why couldn’t you simply write the many easy and obvious stories that are offering themselves to you like streetwalkers and sink some more time and effort into the CLUI story for the X-mas edition? Since you apparently managed to knock out an entire book parallel to regularly consorting with your pithy odalisques, you may be able to handle a lengthy magazine piece on the side.

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