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.