The Economist’s new home page

I’ve mentioned here and there how The Economist has been — really, really, honestly, totally, prove me wrong! — entering the internet era. 😉

Well, you should finally start to see some changes.

Our new home page will go live at the beginning of July. You can see a mock-up here, and you can take tell the web designers what you think about it here.

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Tracking The Economist’s success

EconomistCirculationChartWe have a new, moderately interactive and even somewhat interesting “widget” on our website that gives all sorts of circulation data, by region, country and so forth.

It continues to amaze me, like everybody else, that we at The Economist keep growing when everybody else, with a few exceptions, is suffering.

The growth continues to come disproportionately from North America, as you can see on the left.

Worldwide, circulation has doubled in the past decade to about 1½ million a week now (which = about 3 million readers, since every copy tends to get “passed along”).

I joined a dozen years ago, so everything I write now reaches more than twice as many people as it did back then. I will continue to ponder this mystery, the sausage factory I work in, and the world around it. One day I will have an answer.

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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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Your pinko, Commie snob

Well, things change when you take a new beat, as I recently did (and as we regularly do at The Economist). In this case, I switched from a rather geeky beat–Silicon Valley–to a more general beat–politics and society in the Western states. Mostly, I’m thrilled about this new, and much bigger, hunting ground. But it comes with, shall we say, rather different reader letters.

Our reader letters at The Economist can be witty but tend to be flamingly, aggressively, rantingly, lividly hostile. What varies is the level of sophistication. Some readers really know what they are talking about, and really know The Economist, and eviscerate us effectively and brutally.

Others are, well, just plain amusing.

Here is one of the dozen or so I am perusing this morning, all informing me of my wanton and despicable ignorance and depravity. This particular letter writer reminds me that one of my recent articles

once again shows the elite arrogance and display of socialist bias on the part of The Economist.

Elite arrogance. Hmmm. Socialist bias. Hmmm.

That’s a classical liberal/libertarian from a classical liberal family writing for the world’s oldest classical liberal magazine, displaying a consistently elitist and socialist bias. Gotta love our readers. Can’t wait to read the next batch.

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The Economist: “shat out by a civet cat”

An amusing discussion on why The Economist does so well while other magazines are hurting: According to Tom Ascheim, the boss of Newsweek, it is because we:

  • are non-American and thus necessarily global in outlook,
  • have high subscription rates, and
  • snob appeal

But the fun is in this quote attributed to Vanity Fair writer Matt Pressman:

The Economist is like that exotic coffee that comes from beans that have been eaten and shat out undigested by an Indonesian civet cat, and Time and Newsweek are like Starbucks — millions of people enjoy them, but it’s not a point of pride.

Would that make me the shitting civet cat?

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A peek under the New Yorker’s kimono

newyorker-logo

For many sophisticated people, heaven is “an uninterrupted day or five to go through my … pile of The New Yorker magazines.” The publication has a special cachet: very different from–though no greater or less than–The Economist‘s, and indeed highly complementary. (We know from research that many coffee tables in many homes have both the New Yorker and The Economist on it.)

So I found myself fascinated by a rare lifting of the New Yorker’s kimono, as Dan Baum, a writer who got fired from the magazine, told his tale. (Thanks to Jag for pointing me to it.)

The first thing of interest is that Baum did this on Twitter. Yes, he tweeted his story in 140-character increments. If I may say so (redoubling my skepticism about Twitter), that part did not work. Twitter may be a great medium for some things, but not for storytelling. But Baum then consolidated the tweets here.

And what a very different culture the New Yorker‘s is from the one I live in at The Economist. First of all, the writers do not make a good living:

you’re not an employee, but rather a contractor. So there’s no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-Year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet.

Why do they put up with it? Apparently, because they are all convinced that

writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs.

This it may be. Certainly, the New Yorker’s writers can expect to rise to fame with their bylines and become stars, selling books and going on lecture tours. We at The Economist, of course, have no bylines. As a result, we ‘don’t do’ the star thing.

Another contrast: The offices of the New Yorker, according to Baum, are an eerie place where

Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles.

That is not how I would describe the merrily eccentric and light-flooded Tower that serves as our head office in London. Is it the time the science correspondent came into the editorial meeting in drag, with nobody even batting an eyelid, that springs to mind? Or the time I had to duck as I passed a senior editor’s office to evade a flying object, dispatched with a scream that made the windows vibrate, only to hear the same editor invite me in with a cheerful and jovial demeanor, since he had just loosened up a bit and now felt envigorated?

The whole way they pitch stories at the New Yorker is one I do not recognize. They apparently write elaborate treatises just for the pitch, then wait to have it rejected or accepted. Baum even puts his successful and failed pitches up on his site. We on the other hand might casually mention or email a half-formed and tongue-in-cheek phrase (something that I might shout through a closing Tube door), and off we go. The other day I was skyping with my editor and said two words (“whither [name]”) under my breath. I just saw it on the official planning list.

But the most subtle and interesting bit in Baum’s account was the psychological tension between him and his editor, which he blames for his firing. They were discussing story ideas, and the writer knew more about his subject than the editor (which is inevitable). Baum thinks he made a mistake, because

I made him feel uninformed.

Granted: Baum got fired and is looking for reasons to apportion blame. But he is not slinging mud. This is the closest he gets to it.

In my twelve years, I cannot remember a single conversation at The Economist where one party felt threatened if the other ‘knew more’ about something. We thrive on talking to people who know more. How boring the obverse tends to be.

I am a fan of The New Yorker. It is a special place. So are we.

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Dear Economist; REALLY dear

A truly shocking notion: If your numbers are shrinking from one of your two revenue sources, raise prices for the other revenue source.

Not so shocking perhaps, but we’re talking about the magazine industry. A lot of magazines have been charging subscribers far less per issue than a Starbucks anything, and lowering that price in the hope of getting more subscribers and thus, in theory, higher advertising revenues.

Fast forward: Depression → Ads go poof. So what to do?

They’re suddenly paying attention to … us. As this piece says,

The Economist is leading the charge on expensive subscriptions, and its success is one reason publishers are rethinking their approaches. It is a news magazine with an extraordinarily high cover price – raised to $6.99 late last year – and subscription price, about $100 a year on average. Even though The Economist is relatively expensive, its circulation has increased sharply in the last four years. Subscriptions are up 60 percent since 2004, and newsstand sales have risen 50 percent, according to the audit bureau.

Will it work for others?

Let me tell you how I buy wines.

In normal circumstances, economists talk about something called the price elasticity of demand, because when something gets more expensive, people tend to buy less of of it. But there is a quirky exception. The demand for certain things has an inverse price elasticity. As the price goes up, you buy more of it.

This explains why I, occasionally capable of rationality, have nonetheless found myself reaching for the more expensive of two otherwise indistinguishable bottles of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. It must be …. better. How do I know? I don’t. The price led (fooled?) me into thinking it.

But: For this to work, the product must be something that is not fungible and that I value intrinsically. Having bad wine at my age is worse than no wine. Ditto my reading time: Reading crap is worse than not reading at all. By contrast, I would not reach for the more expensive of two otherwise indistinguishable rolls of toilet paper.

We may soon find out how the reading public views its news magazines.

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My magazine vs. all magazines

Play with this interactive barometer of ad pages inside the major magazines.

The overall picture is grim, grim, grim. Fortunately, we at The Economist are still going strong. (I wonder how we do that. ;))

But lest you hypothesize about a “flight to quality”, note that the New Yorker is also down, really down. Breaks my heart.

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Answering questions about The Economist

Margaret Lee, a journalism student at the University of Maryland, has to write an essay for her class on “the future of newsweeklies,” and emailed me some interview questions. I thought that I might as well share her questions and my answers here.

1. How long have you been working for The Economist? What do you like about working for this magazine?

I’ve been working for The Economist for eleven years. What I love most is the people. The Editorial team of about 70-ish writers is like a large, chaotic family, as I was reminded again this week when we gathered here. I like the open-minded and inquiring culture, the pervasive irony, the informality and quirkiness….

2. The Economist has increased circulation and added advertisers when the opposite has been happening to Time and Newsweek. To what do you attribute to The Economist’s success in the era of 24-hr news on the web? Do all newsweeklies need to go niche to be successful?

We are a very unusual, perhaps strange, magazine and culture. And we are unapologetic and un-selfconscious about this eccentricity. Our best-known idiosyncrasy is that we have no bylines, but there are many others. We often and in many ways defy trends. For instance, we “spend little time worrying about what readers might want,” as Clive Crook, our former deputy editor once put it. Instead, we write what we think should be written. With that attitude, I think, comes a certain authenticity that readers recognize and appreciate.

Are we “niche”? I don’t know. Not as niche as many blogs or special journals that go deep without being broad. But a lot more niche than some mainstream publications, which are broad without being deep. My feeling is that authenticity is a bigger factor in success than niche-ness, but the two often go together.

3. US News also recently went digital. What do you think of this transition? Will it enable the magazine to survive?

I couldn’t possibly say. Not because I’m being diplomatic and coy, but because I have no idea. It depends on what they do next.

4. What role does The Economist’s website play? Is this role similar or different to the role of Time or Newsweek’s websites?

Well, this is the main topic that we just discussed this week at a powwow in the English countryside. Thanks to the success of our print edition we are in the unusual and strategically valuable position of having time to think it through and to let others make mistakes. Nobody in the industry today has figured out a demonstrably lucid answer to your question. But I think it is obvious that over the coming years both the web site and the print edition will change to find different but complementary roles.

There are some obvious differences: Reading the paper edition is a “lean-back experience”, whereas being online is a “lean-forward experience”. Paper can not make sounds or play video, but the web site (and iTunes, where we are big) can. Paper gives you one issue at a time, whereas the web site can, in theory, give you all 160 years’ worth of articles, which can be searchable, sharable and linkable.

These are statements of fact. That said, there are some things in the works that will be of interest to you in the coming year, but I can’t say more at this point. Sorry to remain somewhat vague.

5. Time and Newsweek have been revamping their print editions and website. What changes have you noticed and do you think they were the right move?

In this case, I could comment but prefer not to. They have very smart people, and we will pay attention to what they do. But–and this is important–I don’t want you to go away with the impression that Time and Newsweek are our main rivals. They are not.

Who is? This is a subtle question. We are in 208 countries. In each country we compete with a) magazines and newspapers, b) radio and television to some extent, and c) the web. In America, readers in our segment are more likely to read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, The Atlantic and Wired than Time and Newsweek. Even Forbes and Fortune and Business Week are not direct comparisons (they are business magazines, whereas we, despite some impressions to the contrary, cover everything).

Ultimately, we all compete against time. Not the one with the capital T but the other one. Our readers in particular tend to have too little of it (ie, time). What might a demanding person choose to do on, say, a weekend? Family. Exercise. Culture. Books. Somewhere we want to fit into this. And that should be rewarding for our readers. Again, you would be surprised how little we worry about what other magazines might be up to.

6. What are the The Economist’s current goals for the near future and how is the magazine working to achieve them?

1) To weather the current economic crisis, which is a recession and might become a depression, and which is likely to hit advertising even harder than other industries. We can be disciplined about costs, but ultimately we can do little more than to keep writing good articles.

2) To figure out the ultimate and precise answer to your question about our web stragegy. This, in contrast to the previous point, is within our power. But I can’t say more.

7. Will there always be a place for print newsweeklies? What do you hope to see?

Yes. The lesson from media history, going back to Gutenberg, is that no “old” medium ever disappears because a newer medium arrives. Instead, the old media change context. (Individual media companies may disappear, of course, but not the medium as such.)

One example: The context of radio used to be a) in the living room and b) during prime time, with the family gathered around a big box. Think of FDR’s fireside chats. Then television came along, a strange new thing that was “half Latin and half Greek” and would surely kill radio off. Well, it didn’t. Instead, radio entered a new golden age, by moving into a) the car during b) the commute hours.

The challenge is therefore not about gracefully preparing for death but about thinking clearly about how the context of magazines is changing and then adjusting.