Interview: John Micklethwait

The Economist, Weekly Commercial Times, Bankers’ Gazette and Railway Monitor, was founded in 1843 by a Scottish hat maker to promote free trade and oppose the newly enacted Corn Laws. When, in 1930, its somewhat verbose title was modified to the pithier The Economist, circulation stood at less than 20,000. Now, having been described as “the most successful magazine global brand in the world on and off the web” by the former Sunday Times Editor Andrew Neil, that figure stands at 1.55 million and it is considered more influential in Washington DC than American publications such as Time and Business Week. Karl Marx, in his development of social theory, also gave The Economist a shout out when he observed, “The London Economist, the European organ of the aristocracy of finance, described most strikingly the attitude of this class.”

After a number of jobs John Micklethwait, 44, took over from Bill Emmott as the 16th Editor of this journalistic institution in 2006. Having appeared on radio and television around the world, and co-authored with Adrian Wooldridge — also an Economist journalist — six books, as well as being named Editors’ Editor by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2010, Micklethwait is certainly no lightweight in the world of journalism. Having read history at Magdalen College, Oxford (which seems to have produced more than its fair share of Economist journalists over the years, including his prede- cessor) he worked first in the City, as a banker at Chase Manhattan bank from 1985-87, before joining The Economist as a finance correspondent in 1987. “I was not a terribly successfulbanker,” he says with characteristic understatement, “but I think [City experience] means you understand some element of what business is about. Coverage of business and finance is the engine room of The Economist. You can’t feign interest in it; you are either interested or you’re not.”

And looking at issues through the prism of business, finance and economics is part of the essence of how The Economist looks at the world. A recent piece, for example, looked at the business, demographics and economics of prostitution. But Micklethwait insists that The Economist is not pro-business, although it is pro-capitalist. “We don’t treat business people with the same slavish idolatry that some do; we don’t put pictures of them on the cover playing golf. On the other hand, we definitely do not look down on business and see it as somehow reprehensible.”

Nor does the paper see itself as right wing. As Geoffrey Crowther, a former Editor, said in 1955, “The extreme centre is the paper’s historical position.” Micklethwait expounds on this, “If you go back and look at the beginnings of The Economist, it fought against slavery, fought against capital punishment, fought for penal reform; it’s always had quite a strong socially liberal side. From that perspective it’s not that odd that we were among the first people to promote gay marriage, among the first people to campaign against Guantanamo. Those traditions still continue.”

The rise in weekly sales by over half a million since Micklethwait became editor is widely regarded in itself as something of a triumph, given the drubbing that many print newspa- pers have received in recent years. And under his leadership The Economist also deserves credit for its handling the tricky transition from print to online, with digital edition sales now accounting for 11% of total circulation. “We have started to adapt”, he says. “Newspapers are not necessarily dying out, just changing form to things like blogs. Twitter is again something very brief and very different. But you’ll find there are some antecedents to all these mediums — if you look back to very very early trends, in, for example, the Roman times, people were also constrained by what you could get on to tablet. But yes, in general some parts of online are a bit different, but the basic value of journalism is pretty much the same in both. It is to inform, to analyse and I suppose to provoke.”

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Even if their aims are the same, surely, I ask, there must be some trade-off between online writing, which has less-editing and more immediacy, and the more heavily edited print edition — especially given The Economist prides itself on its editing? “When a news event hap- pens, you feel as though you have to react to it on the web. If you put as much effort as we put on the weekly print, that would take a long time. If, on the other hand, you put something out that looks the same as the print edition but is done very quickly, you run the risk of damag- ing your brand by making it look as though it’s not as good as the weekly one. Online, we let people have initials and it’s much more obviously a quick update.”

He adds that readers tend to be more forgiving in online pieces than those in print, “If I did a piece about France and for some reason we missed the ‘e’ off the end of Hollande, in the print edition we would have a hundred letters by the end of the day. Online, what tends to happen is the second or third comment says ‘I disagree with you completely about this oh and by the way you’ve missed the ‘e’ off the end of ‘Holllande’.’ People know its a different me- dium. It’s like if one measures tea against cof- fee. That said, I have people inside The Economist who say we should be even tighter on quality control.”

The way in which the paper has handled the cyberspace revolution — its online product — has also helped with another of its remarkable achievements in recent years. In contrast to many papers, advertising has not just held up but flourished. It is one of the only papers for which advertising revenue has actually been steadily increasing year by year, rising to roughly 10% in 2013. How has it managed, I ask, to overcome the difficulties posed by the democratisation of journalism? “In terms of advertising, in some ways it’s easier online because you can see exactly who’s clicked on a page. In terms of the readership, we do have a paywall, which allows us to prevent users from accessing the webpage content without a paid subscription. I’m against having a one hundred percent paywall. Our paywall at the moment is you have a certain number of stories you can get a week, and then it asks you to register and subscribe if you want more. Letting people sample is useful, but also, to be frank, drives up your traffic. Sometimes you can have strange stories, for example why hippopotamuses are better than crocodiles, and Yahoo News in America pick up on it or have read it, and suddenly there’s a surge in traffic from another site. And after that surge, some people there might be longer-term readers of The Economist and we draw them in, but also we get other people who may not want to be dedicated ‘Economist readers’ but they still read it and their eyeballs are worth at least something as they stare at it.”

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It probably helped that over the years the paper has had a dizzying array of very good technology and science writers. Indeed, one of them, Nick Valery, was responsible for registering the paper’s domain name (economist. com) back in the mid-1980s. Others, including Micklethwait himself, took longer to become comfortable with the internet, but have now wholeheartedly embraced it. “I think on the whole if you’re a journalist you have to think that more information is good. I was very paranoid about the internet when it first ar- rived, but it actually didn’t hurt the basic core Economist product at all: people still wanted a weekly filter to sort everything, and also it’s a fundamentally different experience. When you do something on the internet you’re leaning forward; you’re trying to do things at the same time. You’re ‘snacking’. By contrast, if you’re reading The Economist, you’re probably sitting on a sofa, you’re reading it at the weekend, you’re taking longer over it. People take two to three hours browsing through and, that’s a very different affair to the internet.”

Aside from the experience, another notable difference between the online content and the print content is the lack of bylines in the latter. Though it has many individual columns, the magazine ensures a uniform voice through the anonymity of the writers — as well as its heavy editing. The Economist sticks to the belief that what is written is more important than who writes it. As previous Editor Crowther put it, anonymity keeps the Editor “not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself. You can call that ancestor-worship if you wish, but it gives to the paper an astonish- ing momentum of thought and principle.” For Micklethwait, it’s a question of the brand being stronger than the individual. “The message that The Economist stands for goes on from Editor to Editor. I think a cult of personality would be dangerous — and that extends to writers throughout the paper.”

The anonymity, however, does not seem to be a deterrent for the hordes of people clammer- ing to write for this globally renowned news- paper. Micklethwait’s main advice for those wishing to get in line? “Just write. I know it sounds stupid, but we get a lot of clever people wanting to work for us but can they write?” And with that, I get back to those essayspage1image94416