The Newsweekly’s Last Stand

Why The Economist is thriving while Time and Newsweek fade

Pieces like these tend to support the Economist-haters, who believe the magazine is simply conventional-wisdom-spewing crack for Anglophiles. But then you come across a brilliant exploration of the current drug-fueled violence in Mexico, offered in support of The Economist’s long-held position in favor of legalization, and you suddenly feel like you have a handle on the world that you didn’t have before.

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—meaning, after it transcends its current status as a free-fire zone and settles into a more comprehensive system of gathering and presenting information. As a result, although its self-marketing subtly sells a kind of sleek, mid-last-century Concorde-flying sangfroid, The Economist has reached its current level of influence and importance because it is, in every sense of the word, a true global digest for an age when the amount of undigested, undigestible information online continues to metastasize. And that’s a very good place to be in 2009.

True, The Economist virtually never gets scoops, and the information it does provide is available elsewhere … if you care to spend 20 hours Googling. But now that information is infinitely replicable and pervasive, original reporting will never again receive its due. The real value of The Economist lies in its smart analysis of everything it deems worth knowing—and smart packaging, which may be the last truly unique attribute in the digital age.

For a magazine that effectively blogged avant la lettre, The Economist has never had much digital savvy. It offered a complex mix of free and paid content (rarely a winning strategy) until two years ago and was so unprepared for the Internet that it couldn’t even secure as its Web domain. (It later tried, unsuccessfully, to claim the URL.) Today, access to the site is free of charge, excepting deep archival material, but while editors have made some desultory efforts at adding social-networking features, 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.

This 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. In other words, readers continue to believe its stories have some value. As a result, The Economist has become a living test case of the path not taken by Time and Newsweek, whose Web strategies have succeeded in grabbing eyeballs (Time has 4.7 million unique users a month, and Newsweek has 2 million, compared with The Economist’s 700,000, according to one measure) while dooming their print products to near irrelevance.

It’s no surprise, then, that the redesigned Time seems to bear an ever-greater resemblance to The Economist (its editor is on record as being a fan; and every other editor of a vaguely upscale magazine nurses a hard case of Economist envy). The revamped Newsweek, not yet unsheathed at press time, no doubt will as well.

As it happens, the new-look Time is quite a good read—my earlier prejudice against it, I’m sure, being a learned response similar to that of millions of others who came to see it as doctor’s-waiting-room fodder. Perusing a recent issue, I found a sharp essay on the changing ethical landscape of “Great Recession” America, and a terrific piece of reportage about how Detroiters are responding to the accelerating collapse of their city and, more generally, how cities should respond when significant chunks of their metropolitan area become unsalvageable.

But it takes time and millions of dollars, and possibly risible branding campaigns, to turn quintessentially middlebrow secondary reads into upper-middlebrow must-reads. And even as Time and Newsweek attempt to copy The Economist’s success, they seem to be misunderstanding what it is, exactly, that they should be copying. By repositioning themselves as repositories of commentary and long-form reporting—much like this magazine, it’s worth noting, which has never delivered impressive profit margins—the American newsweeklies are going away from precisely the thing that has propelled The Economist’s rise: its status as a humble digest, with a consistent authorial voice, that covers absolutely everything that you need to be informed about. (Tellingly, the very lo-fi digest The Week, which has copped The Economist’s attitude without any real reporting or analysis at all, is thriving as well.)

The secret to The Economist’s success is not its brilliance, or its hauteur, or its typeface. The writing in Time and Newsweek may be every bit as smart, as assured, as the writing in The Economist. But neither one feels like the only magazine you need to read. You may like the new Time and Newsweek. But you must—or at least, brilliant marketing has convinced you that you must—subscribe to The Economist.

Perhaps Time and Newsweek simply can’t mimic The Economist in function as well as form. The rapid marketplace shifts that are forcing the newsweeklies to retrench may have bled them of the resources necessary to imitate their British rival’s globe-saturating coverage—say, the reports on trade policy in Botswana; the 30-page specials on fusion energy in Indonesia; the correspondents who scamper (or give the impression that they’re scampering) across backwaters and remote deserts, spraying assured advice along the way like so much confetti.

But even if the newsweeklies had millions of dollars to throw at covering the world, their efforts probably wouldn’t be enough. Repositioning your brand today is so much harder than it was in the old days, especially when you’re destined to be seen as a copycat product. In the digital age, razor-sharp clarity and definition are the keys to success. Knowing what and who you are, and conveying that idea to an audience, is the only way to break through to readers ADD’ed out on an infinitude of choices. 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.

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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