Interview: Everyman's paper?

Editor John Micklethwait insists you can't tell if an "Economist" reader is a Republican or a Democrat.

micklethwait 298.88 (photo credit: )
micklethwait 298.88
(photo credit: )
If you believe the doomsday prophecies on the death of quality print journalism, that all the new generation of news consumers is going to be offered is an unending diet of blogs, freesheets and celebrity-obsessed fodder, then a British highbrow weekly magazine, combining serious reports and analyses on international political and business affairs would seem destined for a small niche, if not for extinction. So how do you explain the fact that over the last 10 years the Internet decade, The Economist has succeeded in increasing its worldwide circulation? At the end of 2006, The Economist was selling 1.2 million copies weekly around the world, three quarters to subscribers. Just in that one year, the newspaper's circulation (despite appearing in magazine format, The Economist traditionally calls itself a newspaper) grew by 9 percent. But the most striking figure in The Economist's decade of growth is the fact that despite being a British institution, based in London with a chiefly British editorial staff, only 14% of its readers reside in the United Kingdom, while 54% are in North America. For editor John Micklethwait, who visited Israel for the first time last month, this is definitely good news. For most of his career at the paper, he has been concerned with its coverage of the United States, heading the paper's bureaus in New York and Los Angeles, editing its US edition and also writing a major book on the American Right. He was appointed editor in March 2006. The Economist's preoccupation with the US was highlighted recently by a cover which dealt with the perception of American power around the globe. This preoccupation can sometimes lead to undesirable results, such as the July 21 review of Amity Shlaes's work on the New Deal, The Forgotten Man. A blogger for CAMERA, a US-based media watch group, has decried the piece, writing that it "actually seems to endorse the notorious anti-Semitism of Henry Ford." DESPITE HIS years in the States, there is no danger of anyone mistaking Micklethwait for anything but British - even without a suit and tie, sitting in a Jerusalem hotel lobby in khaki trousers and pink shirt. It's not just the accent and the care with which he phrases his thoughts, it's also his effortless poise and the manner in which he manages to transform our interview into what resembles a collegial discussion. He constantly invites Middle East editor Xan Smiley and Israel correspondent Gideon Lichfield to voice their opinions - even though he has a prepared and well-thought-out answer to almost every question, which he presents as if being asked for the first time. In this way he manages to transplant something of the work ethic of The Economist to his surroundings. "We're a somewhat suspiciously socialist group," he says of the publication that since its inception in 1843 has always been a staunch believer in capitalism and open markets. While being staffed by a team of journalists who are regarded as some of the brightest and well-educated professionals in the business, The Economist isn't a paper for individual expression. Famously it carries no bylines, only pieces written occasionally by outsiders are signed, and the reports sent in by its correspondents and the analyses are heavily edited in London, so that every word carries the stamp of the establishment. The views expressed are usually a product of group discussion and thinking. "Every Monday morning, all of us meet in one room and argue about things," says Micklethwait, "but there are disagreements; there are some instances when one person has to take decisions of what to do." Chairing meetings, managing a team of 80 journalists and deciding what line The Economist should take on any number of political and financial issues leaves Micklethwait precious little time for writing, though he does occasionally write "leaders," the op-ed articles at the front that state its positions on the week's pressing matters. His current visit is part of the research he is undertaking for writing his first "special report" since becoming editor, an in-depth feature that appears every two or three weeks. The subject is a new one for him, the effect religion is having on politics around the world. "I got interested in the fact that religion seems to be coming into public life all the way around the world," he explains, "and obviously, Jerusalem is the epicenter of it and the entire Middle East. It's an interesting way of wandering around the world, talking to people. Part of my job is to gather in information." Most of his four-and-a-half-day visit has been occupied with touring the city's holy sites and speaking with academics, rabbis and various other men of faith, though he has also found time in his hectic schedule for meeting with businessmen, journalists and politicians, including an impromptu meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. LIKE MOST first-time visitors, his first impression was of "the smallness of it all," the short distance needed to travel, for example, from Jerusalem to Ramallah. On most points of local politics he prefers not to give an opinion since "I'm not an expert obviously," but he does have a number of interesting observations on the baffling question for many of how Israel's economy is flourishing despite the combination of an uncertain security situation and a chronically unstable government. "It's not that unusual for countries at the sort of level of war that Israel is to be able to prosper," he says. "You can still get quite a lot of things done. I think you can make the argument that the proximity of danger does actually encourage entrepreneurism. I remember in Silicon Valley someone said to me that the reason he thought Israel was similar to Silicon Valley was 'we have the San Andreas fault and they have the intifada.' "I think it also has to do with immigrants. If you look where entrepreneurism begins, it's often with people who have got shifting backgrounds. It doesn't always tend to happen in stable societies. I'm not saying anyone would wish on a business the politics of Israel, but it's not necessarily as bad as it might first appear." As to the success of business despite the government, he has an interesting comparison to make. "We saw an Israeli entrepreneur last night and listening to his approach to the government in Israel was very similar to talking to an Italian businessman I saw last week. It was very much the same approach, the government is there, it's a problem, but basically you can ignore it and get on with life. You do your own thing in Italy. I'm always intrigued when you meet Israeli technologies, particularly technology companies coming across Europe and America, their attitude toward the government seems to be 'Oh that!' It's not quite an irrelevance, but it's the kind of thing that gets in the way." MICKLETHWAIT IS mildly disappointed that, with The Economist's success in the US and many other countries, it only sells on average fewer than 2,000 copies a week here. The success of Israel's economy notwithstanding, the great majority of reporting from our region is on politics and the Palestinian conflict, which makes an almost weekly appearance on its pages. But Micklethwait is not prepared to accept the claim that the country and its affairs are overreported in the international media. "No I don't agree with that" he says, "because I think Israel's incredibly important and besides, Israel is of supreme interest to a number of our readers and that matters." The Economist's staff is surprisingly small, only about 80 journalists, but Micklethwait believes that having a full-time reporter to cover Israel and Palestine is still justified. "On the base of it, you are right. It looks a somewhat strange devotion of resources, but it's the same in our bureau in New York, where we have someone who spends most of his time writing about what's happening in a city of 6 million people, so it's not that dissimilar. You can have particular regions that are interesting." Nevertheless he is slightly skeptical of the view held by many international figures, including former British prime minister and the envoy to the region, Tony Blair, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to resolving the Middle East's problems. "It would be a huge help and I think it's very difficult to imagine solving the problem of the region without solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, but people who think that the whole thing depends on Israel-Palestine are wrong. From what I know of it, this is usually a European failing. There is a danger perhaps in Europe to exaggerate the level to which Israel-Palestine is the key to it, and there's a danger in US to underestimate. We try to strike a balance between the two." In June, a number of articles on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War were rather harsh with Israel, one of them titled "Israel's wasted war," though not sparing criticism from the Arab side. In a section under the headline "It's not rocket science," the paper presented the view that the answer to the conflict was "obvious," stating that "for peace to come, Israel must give up the West Bank and share Jerusalem; the Palestinians must give up the dream of return and make Israel feel secure as a Jewish state. All the rest is just detail." So simple, but barely days after that was published, Hamas completed its bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip. Micklethwait doesn't seem to think that the prescription is any less valid. "I think we're still fundamentally thinking that the answer is two states," he says. "Things have changed yet again on the ground. You could argue that to some small degree there might have some repercussions for the better, but I wouldn't argue that. At least on paper it looks like a step back." While it hasn't yet joined those advocating negotiating with Hamas, the paper did publish a cover story that highlighted the dangers of the West embracing Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, among other Islamic "moderates," too closely, for the fear they might be seen by other Arabs as collaborators. THE PAPER'S enduring success and influence in Britain, the US and other countries is a result of its growing circulation but mainly a reflection of the profile of many of its readers, who according to surveys tend to be affluent, well educated and contain many who can be defined as "decision-makers" in a wide variety of fields. Such a degree of success obviously cannot be taken for granted in today's instant news environment, in which most serious newspapers are losing readers and being forced to cut news coverage and "dumb down" much of their content in a desperate attempt to attract new readers. Micklethwait admits that a few years ago he was fearful for the future. "The big picture, as I used to see it, is that there were hurricanes sweeping through the media industry that had already hit newspapers, particularly in two areas: classified advertising and young readers. I assumed that the hurricane was sweeping toward us." But while management isn't that worried anymore, it still constantly monitors the situation in the industry, especially among younger readers. "We've done a lot of research with young people," he says, "and we asked them how they use news and the different sorts of news they read. We saw that there were young people who said they don't read newspapers, but they do read Sunday papers and weekly magazines, things people read over the weekend. Not only magazines such as ourselves, also the Sunday papers, both in America and Britain, are doing quite well. It's the daily ones that are more troubled. For the slightly more reflective business, people still want that at the moment not on-line but in print. Obviously I don't want to give the impression that we're not paranoid about it. We have to be worried about what the Internet could and will do, but at the moment the Internet has been more of an opportunity than it has been a threat." Along with the print magazine, The Economist's Web site is also thriving, adding 25 percent more users each year and even showing a profit. There is also an audio version and its podcast is high on the iTunes best-seller list. The average age of readers is 42 according to surveys, quite young compared to many other serious publications. But probably the major single reason for the paper's resonance over the last few years has been its tremendous growth in the US, where it now has almost four times the readers it has in Britain. Micklethwait, while obviously proud of these figures, doesn't believe it had to change that much to transform itself into a global brand. "There's been a slight internationalization. When I first joined, we used to do a British life insurance edition. We did introduce an international section where the idea was to pull in stories that cross boundaries, but in terms of content I don't think there's been a really dramatic change. We still cover the main issues, though they've changed a little bit. I think its amazing how consistent we've been. We were founded as a liberal paper - in both senses. One in the sense of economic freedom and secondly also of social freedom for people who were campaigning for prison reform, against capital punishment, against slavery. I think you could argue that that kind of liberalism still goes on today. We still believe in open markets, but we were among the first to protest about Guantanamo and we were one of the first to support gay marriage." The Economist, while being identified by some as a generally right-wing paper, prides itself on being neither right nor left. It has endorsed candidates in Britain and the United States from both sides of the political divide. "In America, if someone carries The Economist," says Micklethwait, "you can't tell if he's a Republican or a Democrat." Despite its name and Micklethwait's insistence that business reporting is still The Economist's "heartland," it's hard not to form the opinion that over the last decade, it has become more concerned with politics and diplomacy than in the past. Micklethwait believes this is just an impression but admits that there might have been some shift of balance. "There was an element in the 1990s that thought the world was going to be about technology, business and the Internet. It was going to be an onward march of progress and then a lunatic in a cave in Afghanistan changed all that. That's the reason we had more political covers recently, if that's at all true. I think it's simply that's where the news is going. If you work in a software company in Tel Aviv, your life could get changed by another software company in China taking away your product, a company in India taking away your job, but it can also get changed by this lunatic in Afghanistan."