The Economist’s Secret: Its Limits

By | June 17, 2009

Interesting piece by Rafat Ali on quoting Michael Hirschorn of The Atlantic as to why The Economist is doing OK, while Newsweek and TIME are in free-fall:

“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…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.”

Apart from the obvious reasons–the global thing (rather than Newsweek etc, who catered only for Americans Abroad)—I think the key thing here is that The Economist is digestible.

This means it’s finite. It’s a promise of a definitive digest in return for a commitment of time. It’s an odd equation: Give us some money and then we’ll give you back your time. (I’ve whittered on about attention being the scare commodity these days elsewhere.)

The other thing they point to in their critique is the web. The Economist folks aren’t link whores—linking in. They’re not link journalists—linking out.  (This doesn’t mean The Economist shouldn’t be online; it’s just that it shouldn’t try to be just another part of the big wide-web.)

There’s a lesson in here for all mainstream media. Well, several, actually:

  • Don’t focus on eyeballs. Concentrate on attention. Your readers won’t thank you for wasting their time with more stuff to read. They want the digest.
  • Don’t try to be trendy. The Economist looks little different than it did in the 1970s. That, actually, is the selling point.
  • Online has lots of different opportunities. I don’t think they’ve made full use of them yet, but at least they haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater. That may prove the smartest thing they’ve done so far. As Hirschorn says in the TV clip, when you can get a subscription to a magazine for virtually nothing, what kind of commitment does that demonstrate (on either side?)

Hirschorn: The Economist Benefited From Being Semi Competent About the Web | paidContent

One thought on “The Economist’s Secret: Its Limits

  1. mattbg

    I definitely agree with your characterization of “The Economist”. It is much, much more valuable than my daily newspaper.

    Further, it can comfortably be carried with me and read in tight quarters (i.e. the train), which a newspaper can’t.

    A few times now, I have considered cancelling my daily newspaper subscription in order to focus more attention on content like T.E.


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