Wealth of Nations February 2006

The Brits May Be Onto Something

The success of Britain's The Economist may hold some lessons for American publications.

This week The Economist of London began looking for a new editor. Bill Emmott, who has done the job for the past 13 years, announced he was stepping down. For me, this was a notable event. I, too, am an old Economist hand; and I was Emmott's deputy for more than 10 years, until last summer when I came to Washington to work for Atlantic Media, owner of National Journal. I have self-indulgently decided that my old boss's departure licenses me (or at any rate can be seized upon as an excuse) to reflect on the paper's remarkable standing in Washington and its broader success in the United States and around the world.

Thinking about this phenomenon, I hope, may serve a slightly larger purpose than nostalgia. The Economist's experience may say something about prospects for the industry that delivers news and analysis to curious readers everywhere. It may even—forgive an acquired propensity to overstate the case—say something about the world.

The success of the magazine—or "newspaper," as it insists—is incontestable. The worldwide circulation has roughly doubled over the past 10 years and stands at more than a million. The United States accounts for about half: The Economist now sells more than three times as many copies in America as in its domestic British market. The balance is spread over the rest of the world, with substantial and ever-growing numbers of readers in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The paper's growth has run counter to a nearly universal trend of declining circulation of newspapers and general-interest news magazines.

Moreover, The Economist is expensive—not like National Journal is expensive, of course, but let us not dwell on that. My point is, you actually have to pay for it, unlike much of the competition, once you have allowed for discounts and promotions. I draw comfort from this as the industry reshapes itself around the Internet. The right kind of content has value and will continue to, regardless of the technology that delivers it. The Economist is still small compared with publications like Time and Newsweek, but thanks to its high price and its readers' appeal to advertisers, it is profitable.

Even more surprising, The Economist is not very cool: That "newspaper" thing; the title, for heaven's sake. Its editors disdain celebrity-worship of the sort that has become a staple almost everywhere else. Its photographs are small; its fonts, maps, and charts (yes, maps and charts) all challenge one's eyesight; and far from promoting its writers as stars, it denies them so much as a byline. Its breadth, ranging over global politics, business, finance, and science, is daunting. It isn't dry, by any means; it strives to be witty. But it isn't light, that's for sure, and it isn't easy. And, as I say, it makes money. They said it could not be done.

Concerning its influence, especially in the United States, take my word: Visiting correspondents and editors find that this country does not so much respect The Economist as revere it. Too long a spell in the Washington or New York bureaus can seriously inflame the ego. I shall say no more on this, except to note that, not long ago, the magazine was actually featured in an episode of The Simpsons. Homer and Marge took a flight and found themselves upgraded to first class. Sitting in unaccustomed luxury and enjoying fine wines and canapes, Homer holds up his magazine and tells Marge: "Look at me. I'm reading The Economist. Did you know that Indonesia is at a crossroads?"

Forgive me. That was quite a moment.

What accounts for this success? Skeptics note that the paper does not inspire the same devotion in Britain, its home market, as it does elsewhere and especially in the United States. This arouses the suspicion that snobbery—the Burberry-raincoat factor—has something to do with it. The British are not especially impressed with British things; a certain kind of foreigner, the argument goes, tends to be. So people buy the magazine more to make a statement about themselves, more to ease their embarrassment over not knowing which fork to use, than to read it.

Well, there might be something in this. Certainly, it is an approach that the magazine's marketers (more power to them) have not been shy to exploit when it comes to finding new subscribers. Because of its various peculiarities, including its Britishness, it does have a certain cachet. But it would be easy to make too much of this. A BMW has snob appeal, after all, but it still has to be a good car.

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