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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Why Andrew blogs

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan, celebrity blogger and acerbic teller of truth, writes a long treatise on why he blogs in The Atlantic. He’s been at it far, far longer than I have, but his reasons are the same as mine. Some excerpts:

On finding a telos and a voice as a blogging virgin:

I remember first grappling with what to put on my blog. It was the spring of 2000 and, like many a freelance writer at the time, I had some vague notion that I needed to have a presence “online.” I had no clear idea of what to do…

I realized that the online form rewarded a colloquial, unfinished tone. … So I wrote as I’d write an e-mail—with only a mite more circumspection. This is hazardous, of course, as anyone who has ever clicked Send in a fit of anger or hurt will testify. But blogging requires an embrace of such hazards, a willingness to fall off the trapeze rather than fail to make the leap….

On the sense of liberation from the evil editor:

It was obvious from the start that it was revolutionary. Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth. Every professional writer has paid some dues waiting for an editor’s nod, or enduring a publisher’s incompetence, or being ground to literary dust by a legion of fact-checkers and copy editors. If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated….

On the intimacy and authenticity of blogging:

That atmosphere will inevitably be formed by the blogger’s personality. The blogosphere may, in fact, be the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself. Even the most careful and self-aware blogger will reveal more about himself than he wants to in a few unguarded sentences and publish them before he has the sense to hit Delete. The wise panic that can paralyze a writer—the fear that he will be exposed, undone, humiliated—is not available to a blogger. You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts. You can try to hide yourself from real scrutiny, and the exposure it demands, but it’s hard. And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality. …

On how the new medium of blogging is likely to reinvigorate the older text media:

A blogger will air a variety of thoughts or facts on any subject in no particular order other than that dictated by the passing of time. A writer will instead use time, synthesizing these thoughts, ordering them, weighing which points count more than others, seeing how his views evolved in the writing process itself, and responding to an editor’s perusal of a draft or two. The result is almost always more measured, more satisfying, and more enduring than a blizzard of posts. The triumphalist notion that blogging should somehow replace traditional writing is as foolish as it is pernicious. In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding….

In fact, for all the intense gloom surrounding the news-paper and magazine business, this is actually a golden era for journalism. The blogosphere has added a whole new idiom to the act of writing and has introduced an entirely new generation to nonfiction. It has enabled writers to write out loud in ways never seen or understood before. And yet it has exposed a hunger and need for traditional writing that, in the age of television’s dominance, had seemed on the wane.

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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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