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So What Do You Do, John Micklethwait, EIC, The Economist?

An EIC explains how his newsweekly's increased sales by 107 percent in seven years and discusses his next step

By David Hirschman - November 7, 2007
Bucking the trend of the major newsweeklies, The Economist has grown in leaps and bounds over the past decade. Newsstand sales have gone up 107 percent since 2000, and the magazine (the publication actually quaintly calls itself a "newspaper") now boasts a total audience of 1.8 million. John Micklethwait became the magazine's editor-in-chief last year, following a 13-year run by his predecessor Bill Emmott. Here, he talks to about his recent writing project, how The Economist is staying relevant in the digital age, and why the magazine has no plans to buck tradition and give is journalists bylines.

Name: John Micklethwait
Position: Editor-in-chief, The Economist
Resume: At the publication, he's been finance department reporter, chief of the L.A. and New York bureaus, led business coverage and coverage of America, and EIC since 2006
Date of birth: August 11th, 1962
Hometown: Leicester, U.K.
First Job: Worked at Victoria Wine as a sales room assistant
First section of the Sunday Times: Week in Review
Marital Status: Married
Favorite Television Show: Watching The Simpsons with my children
Guilty Pleasure: Listening to Leicester city football matches on the Internet
Last Book Read: God and Gold by Walter Russell Mead

Tell me a little about the special report on religion you have been working on lately.
The big idea behind it is the idea that if you look at the century going forward, I think religion is going to play a much larger role in politics than it did in the past century. I think there was an attempt -- in some ways a rather benign attempt -- to push religion out of politics in the 20th Century. In some cases it was disastrous: in the case of communism and fascism. But what seems to be happening now is that you have religion growing in a large number of places, and largely it is religion by choice, rather that "religion from above."� And this is changing quite a lot in politics, because if you choose to be a certain religion, then it's more likely that you are going to have a public interest in views connected to that religion being put forward. [EDITOR'S NOTE: On Nov. 10, Micklethwait will moderate a debate on the topic.]

This kind of project doesn't seem like the kind of thing the editor of a major news magazine usually does. Is this part of the job description as editor of The Economist?
The advantage of going off to do a long story is that it allows you to sort of recharge your intellectual batteries a bit, and ideally the subject is something about which you know a bit but not a huge amount. It's a way of pulling more into your world. [My predecessor, Bill Emmott] went off and did one on the 21st Century ... he did stuff on capitalism, as well. It's the kind of thing that Economist editors have always done. It's a nice indulgence that you get five weeks to go and do it. It's not built into the job description, and [laughs] about three-quarters of the way through it you wonder exactly why you are doing it, because vast amounts of your day job still come back and hit you. But, in general I think it's a good idea; you learn a lot.

Who is your target reader these days, and if you had to sum up the mission of the magazine under you, what would it be?
I think the mission of The Economist under me is not very different from what it's been under my predecessors. It's been a mixture of, on the one hand, trying to grow the circulation and expand; we think there is an ever-growing number of people around the world who are not interested in not just good coverage of where they are, and also of the world around them, because your world can get dramatically changed by things happening miles and miles away. That said, if we just sat there and though, "We want to just write global stories," that wouldn't work. I think the key is to write about every region of the world, and to do it in such a way as to compete with the local press where you are. I think if you can tell a good story then it travels.

We remain provocatively paranoid about the Internet

While business pervades most of the sections of The Economist, the magazine has also spread out quite a bit over the past few years, and there is much more arts, science, and culture. Will these be expanded even further? And how do you see the relationship of the magazine toward business, generally?
Business is absolutely core. We have someone around here who calls our business coverage "the engine room" of The Economist. He jokes of that, but it's absolutely key. Not only do we have a lot of business people who read us, but we think you can make business interesting and provocative as well to people who aren't necessarily in business themselves. We're not all about business, but economics is a useful discipline in that it forces you to pare things down to what really matters. But that doesn't stop us from having a lot of fun. We have a lot of people remark on the obituaries, for instance when we have obituaries of parrots and that sort of thing.

Who do you see as your main competitors? Is it business magazines? Time and Newsweek? The Week?
All of the above. The "cute" answer I give that our main competitor is "time"; not the magazine, but people's time. People have very busy lives, particularly the sort of people who tend to buy The Economist. You are trying to squeeze into their life, and you have to make that worthwhile, because often I think the choice is not between us and BusinessWeek, or The New Republic, or the LA Times; it's more, "Are you going to spend 10 minutes grazing on the Internet or are you going to watch a soccer match on the internet, or are you going to watch a film?" It's that sort of thing. You have to come up with something as challenging, interesting, and provocative enough to demand someone's time. You don't really think too much about the competition, because in the end it's just about producing something interesting and relevant to people.

Newsweeklies particularly have had a lot of trouble staying relevant in recent years, as they adapt to the instantaneous nature of news on the Internet. How is The Economist dealing with the Web and what sorts of things are you planning on doing online in the future?
One thing we're doing is just increasing the amount of daily content [online], so that people can come back every day and find something worthwhile. And we've done a lot to make sure the content online is at the same level as the content in the magazine, even while we're introducing blogs and a rather good weekly correspondent's diary from some distant part of the world.

One place on the Internet that we've done really well is in audio. We've discovered that audio seems to do particularly well for us; we've had a big success in starting a weekly podcast. And on top of that -- and I think we're alone in the world in doing this -- we now offer a full audio version of The Economist online. You can listen to the whole thing read by BBC newsreaders. It's a way of getting people used to experiencing The Economist in different ways; people who are jogging; people who are in cars; people who are cooking; people who are at the gym.

We remain provocatively paranoid about the Internet; you have to be thinking of ways in which you can deal with it. When I first came on I thought of the Internet as this sort of hurricane coming right towards us, that had already hit newspapers and now would come to magazines, which were further ashore. But now it seems to be sort of glancing magazines, rather than hitting directly. It's not true for all magazines -- there are some that have been hit quite badly -- but the sort of thing that we're doing at the moment seems to be helping us rather than hurting us, because it's putting so much more information out there.

While it was a more common practice in the past, there are almost no other publications left aside from The Economist where the articles don't include bylines. Why have you stuck with this? Is there any talk of changing?
We're really the last people clinging to that tradition of not having named correspondents and [laughs] we look with great envy upon those publications that have big pictures of 50-year-old journalists staring out from their columns. But no. Really one of the reasons that we do it is just history; we've stayed the same while everyone else has changed. Another reason is the brand; I think it would be unfair of me to deny that it's part of the ethos of The Economist, part of what we all like about it. But the fundamental point is that it has to do with the way we all work; we are a collaborative effort, so that if someone files a piece from Nigeria, and then someone here wants to change it, the fact that it's anonymous means that you can change it, even to the point of disagreeing with the original piece -- which would have made it much more difficult for the original person if their name were still on it. It doesn't happen that much, but it does have to do with that collaborative sense. I would suspect that none of the journalists here agree 100 percent with all of the things we say, but that's part of the deal when you come here. And it's good because you can bring a lot of people's brainpower to the same topic.

The magazine has a reputation for shading conservative, having supported the war in the Iraq and the presidency of George Bush -- at least until recently. How do you see The Economist's politics, generally?
I regard us as classical liberals. And we did back Bush against Gore, but we backed Kerry against Bush. Foreign policy is really the hardest thing to apply a liberal perspective to. You could certainly add a sort of liberal spin to the war in Iraq. Now it seems almost ridiculous to do that. We tend to approach each election with an open mind; I would hope that both Democrats and the Republicans would have reason to believe we'd endorse them in the next election, because our history shows that.

In the past decade the magazine has made a lot of strides in the U.S. market, to the point where The Economist is read by four times as many people here as in the U.K. Does that change how you position the magazine?
No, because I don't think you should pander to your readers. If The Economist started catering to an American view of things, we would lose our readers elsewhere. Often what happens is that in America we get depicted as pro-European, and in Europe we get depicted as pro-American. But once you start thinking too much about who's reading you where -- particularly when you have so many readers in as many places as we do -- you could get yourself into a horrific muddle. We always respect our readers from everywhere, but you cannot design your package around them.

It says in your surprisingly short Wikipedia entry that you invented the term "Cosmocrat." How do you feel about that as �
As my epitaph? [laughs] To be fair, it was actually me and Adrian Woolridge who I wrote the book with. We actually thought when we invented [the word] that it would be a wonderful hit, but now it seems to drift away. But it seems to be coming back again. The idea behind it was really that there was a sort of global class of people emerging, many of whom had more in common with each other than with people closer to them. The example being that someone in Canary Wharf [in London] and someone in lower Manhattan and a person in Los Angeles would have more in common than they would with someone a mile to the East of them. The only thing that seems to have happened to [the term] -- and one thing you can't do when you come up with these sorts of glib phrases is that you can't complain when they're changed by other people -- is that it seems to be more focused in on hedge funds and private equity than we had intended. Anyway, it's very flattering when people use it.

David Hirschman is's Newsfeed editor.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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