June 19, 2009

Why the Economist works

There are two magazines that I regularly buy and read- the Economist and Private Eye. There are a selection of magazines- Prospect, the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books that I often buy or consider buying- but my two staples are the Economist and Private Eye. I'm telling you this because of an article in the Atlantic monthly about the success the Economist has had in growing in an era when news magazines in general have been in decline. In part that growth ressembles that of the Financial Times in the Uk- the only paper to see its circulation continue to rise- and it may be due to the extension of a market- professionals with degrees- that the expansion of higher education in the last quarter century has acheived. But the Economist's success is interesting because I think it points to something else- and that is what we demand of magazines and why we read them.

One of the most important things to remember about any publication is that almost noone reads the entire thing- unless you are stuck in a hotel room in Milton Keynes with nothing else to do (an experience that sadly I have had) or on a long coach journey between Oxford and Cambridge (ditto- that journey last four hours and takes you through every byway in southern England) you are likely to read those bits of a magazine that attract you. So for example to take my own reading habits, foreign news, economics, politics of a certain type and book reviews of historical and literary tomes attract me, reporting about technology, scandal and disaster does not: you may have a different set of preferences, it does not really matter, the point is that you like me and like every other individual on the planet have a set of preferences about what you want to read and what you want to ignore.

The virtue of a magazine like the Economist in this context then- and the same is true of Private Eye- is not so much the quality of its reporting and writing as the content. A set of varied short articles (none more than a page and a bit long) allows a wide variety of readers to find something that they like regularly in the magazine. Compare that to Prospect or the New Yorker- often in those magazines you will find intelligent and thoughtful articles but if you don't like all three of the three main features, there isn't much point in buying the magazine. If you don't like the Economist's leaders, you have the rest of the paper. The same is true of the Spectator and New Statesman. The writer in the Atlantic says that the Economist in this sense mirrors the web- I'm not so sure about that, the Economist is more authoritative than many blogs for example. What is interesting is that the success of the magazine with a wide range points to a strength and a weakness of the web.

The strength is obvious: it is the heterodoxy of the internet. If you want provocative rightwing comment, here is the Corner, if you want magisterial analysis of the middle East, turn to Juan Cole, etc. What the internet lacks and one of the reasons that sites like Daily Kos and Liberal Conspiracy which begin to provide this demonstrates, is the editor. The problem with the internet is navigation and the weakness of the blogosphere as a product is its impenetrability to those who do not know it already. I find it difficult even to find blogs which say interesting and important things in a thoughtful way. A magazine in a sense does not have that problem- which is why something like the Economist that combines editorship with variety is a winning package and why entrepreunerially the challenge on the internet is to combine the virtues of variety found on the blogosphere with guides and platforms which allow people to assess it and find quality.


James Higham said...

provocative rightwing comment


James Hamilton said...

You are aware of the train between Oxford and Cambridge, I trust? Via Bletchley and Bedford?

Hope your work schedule will leave you free for a drink in London in July -

James Higham said...

Little Sunday item over my way you might like, Tiberius.