The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

My employer, The Economist, is 170 years old. Another British publication, the Financial Times, turned 125 today.

It turns out that we are

  1. loosely affiliated in some complicated corporate way and
  2. very dearly affiliated in a personal way, because I, for instance, share an office space with them in Berlin.

By pure coincidence, their Berlin Bureau Chief, Quentin Peel, has exactly the same deep, sophisticated British voice and accent that one of our editors in London (Xan Smiley, if you must know) has, so I keep doing double takes whenever Quentin is on the phone, expecting Xan to come waltzing in. I digress.

The first of my points, if this post has any, is that the FT is a spring chicken by our standards. I mean, we were friggin’ middle-aged when they were born. But what’s a half-century or so among friends?

The second point is that it can be strangely revealing to go back in time to what journalism back then was like. And so I indulged myself during my coffee break today by reading their first front page, the one from February 13, 1888.

As was the custom at the time, the articles were listed (no pictures, it goes without saying) in unadorned columns. And so my eyes alit, after the headline on “Russia and Finance” and before the one on “Speculation in Copper,” on an article that began as follows:

The Crown Prince

What is to be the result of the very serious operation which has been performed on the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia? This is not a mere question of ordinary politics, but one which vitally affects the peace and prosperity of Europe. It is not merely that the Crown Prince is the son of our ally, the Emperor of Germany, and the husband of England’s eldest daughter, but he is a Prince of pacific tendencies, though not less a soldier than the rest of the Brandenburgers. The operation only took ten minutes to perform…..

For those among you who are, or are related to, hacks, let’s just savor such themes as:

  • lede
  • context and history
  • grammar (=> passive tense, hyperbole, …)
  • presentation

Is this not a gem? Happy birthday, FT.


PS: As far as I can discern, the Crown Prince (never named in the article) is Frederick III, and “England’s eldest daughter” is Victoria Adelaide Mary Lousia.

Frederick III Vicky

The first secret to good writing

Clive Crook

Clive Crook

I’m just cleaning out some of my old stuff and came across this, which is now two-and-a-half years old but worth re-reading for a moment. In it the author, Clive Crook, writes about why, in his opinion, The Economist is such “a splendid, and partly inadvertent, success,” as he puts it. He gives a few reasons, but one is, I believe, relevant to all writers–of books, articles, blog posts–and even to all story-tellers, whether in video, audio or text.

First, though, the obvious disclaimers: I write for The Economist, and it was Clive who “discovered” and hired me, way back when. Clive was The Economist‘s deputy editor for many years, until he left to join the National Journal/Atlantic family. (He also blogs for the FT now.) At the time of the article from which I am about to quote, The Economist was looking for a new editor, and Clive threw his hat into the ring. (John Micklethwait became editor instead.) But that is neither here nor there.

Instead, here is the crux, buried in his last two paragraphs (my italics). Isn’t it odd, he says, that we are getting so many readers, when

it is not as though the paper’s writers and editors ever really sought those readers out. In my experience, the editorial side of the enterprise spends little time worrying about what readers might want. In this insecure age, the larger part of the media industry thinks about little else but what readers, viewers, and advertisers might want—the better to serve them, or condescend to them, or pander. The Economist has always been much more interested in the world, and in what it thinks about the world, than in the tastes of its readers or anybody else.

… I suspect that if The Economist ever starts to worry very much about the new readers it would like to reach, in print and on the Internet, and to think about how it should tailor its content more deliberately with them in mind, then that will be the moment when its business starts to conform to industry averages.

The lesson: don’t second-guess what others want, for that is the way to inauthenticity. Say what you want to say, and to hell with “the market”.

Now, every lesson, needs a counter-lesson, just as yin and yang need each other. Otherwise you make a fool out of yourself. I’ll give you the counter-lesson in the next post.

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