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.

The difference between perceptions of the magazine in Britain and America, I think, has more to do with those countries' respective newspaper markets. Britain has a highly competitive national market with many good papers vying for the same readers. They differentiate themselves partly with a frank display of editorial sympathies—with ideology, in a word. America has a tradition of locally monopolized newspaper markets and a resulting sense of obligation to supply a remorselessly bland editorial neutrality. (Set aside the question of whether that neutrality is more apparent than real.)

Ideas in American newspapers are fenced off from reporting. Opinion pieces are very often just that, mere statements of a point of view, tribally affiliated, artfully and coherently argued—or not, as the case may be. The Economist's forthright blend of reporting and sharp-elbowed commentary looks strange to American readers, stranger than it does to the British. A magazine that supports abortion rights, opposes the death penalty, and is scandalized by Guantanamo—but that is also pro-market, pro-capitalist, and in favor of a muscular American foreign policy—is stranger than strange. And it is wise in this industry, other things equal, to be different.

The basic formula—a weekly analytical digest of global affairs—has great utility. And it is superbly executed. The paper has had a run of outstanding top editors. And beyond its good fortune in that respect, The Economist's trade secret is its cadre of section and departmental editors: subject specialists in their own right, who commission and edit reports from the paper's correspondents, and who also shape the editorial line and write most of the magazine's "leaders." In doing that job, the weird anonymity of writers and editors is no mere affectation, but rather is helpful and possibly even essential. It is an oddly collegial way of working—collectivist, even—for a magazine that venerates the individual, but there you are.

In some ways it was just a happy accident that, down the years, the interests of this team of people intersected with those of an emerging new group. The magazine has been aptly called the house journal of globalization. Its readers around the world are members of a recognizable species. You might call it Economist Man: educated, English-speaking, well traveled, with international business connections, intellectually engaged with the world around them as much as with where they happen to live. The paper has different printing editions, reorders the content market by market, and sometimes uses a different cover in different regions—but (aside from a few extra pages about Britain in the British edition) the words are the same everywhere.

Crucially, that is how writers and editors approach the task: It is one magazine for a single global readership. Far bigger print media enterprises have left this new class of international reader, a tempting market if ever there was one, to The Economist. That may be the oddest thing of all.

Yet 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.

Whether that has a lesson for others, I doubt: It is such an unlikely money-making formula—and outright heresy in today's magazine-publishing business. But 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. That is, after all, what everybody else is doing. Until then, it just works: a splendid, and partly inadvertent, success.