One of the more striking developments in contemporary American journalism has been the rise of The Economist. This magazine serves up an unstintingly global menu of news and analysis, in an era when most U.S. news organizations have been retrenching and sticking to their own backyards.
Over the last decade, The Economist’s circulation has doubled to 1.3 million. Two-thirds of this increase has come in North America. The publication now claims four times as much circulation on this continent as in its homeland, the United Kingdom. Its ad revenue through September of last year rose 22.5 percent from the comparable period of 2006 – four times the rate of the rest of the industry.
All of that was enough to earn for itself the top spot on AdweekMedia’s ranking of 2007’s most successful magazines.
Brother Louis DeThomasis, chancellor at St. Mary’s University in Winona, hails the magazine for avoiding a “dumbing down” that he sees in too much of the media. DeThomasis is a one-time entrepreneur who co-founded a mutual fund and an advisory service that have managed more than $7 billion for Catholic organizations. He knows of many investors, bankers and church-affiliated financial executives who follow the magazine closely.
Often, when CEOs in the Twin Cities are asked what publications they read, the first name they mention is The Economist.
“It’s not superficial,” says DeThomasis. “It has a rational, reasoned approach.”
St. Mary’s is bringing The Economist’s editor-in-chief, John Micklethwait, to Minneapolis on Wednesday to help the school and its affiliated Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership launch an annual speaking and awards event. Warren Staley, recently retired Cargill CEO, and his wife, Mary Lynn Staley, will be the first honorees.
Micklethwait embraces classical liberalism, globalization and a belief in “American exceptionalism,” all prominent themes of the magazine.
Monitoring conservatism in America
He and Adrian Wooldridge, also a journalist at the magazine, have teamed up to write four books. The latest of them, “Right Nation,” which came out shortly before the 2004 presidential election, was written partly to explain America’s conservatism to skeptical and often bewildered onlookers around the world. The book quickly achieved status as a tour guide that describes the rising influence of conservative thought in America. Mother Jones magazine, no friend of the political right, called the book “immensely valuable.” (Three installments from the book are available here.)
Micklethwait, 45, studied history at Oxford and then spent two years at the Chase Manhattan Bank. He joined the magazine in 1987, established its Los Angeles bureau in 1990 and worked there until 1993. Later, he served as chief of its New York bureau and as its London-based U.S. editor. He was named editor-in-chief in 2006.
Micklethwait argues that the nature and depth of America’s conservatism vastly differentiate it from all other lands. He describes Edmund Burke’s definition of traditional conservatism as a philosophy based on six principles: a deep suspicion of the power of the state, a preference for liberty over equality, patriotism, a belief in established institutions and hierarchies, pessimism about progress, and elitism. He says today’s American conservatives generally reject the last three of these tenets, preferring instead individualism, optimism and populism.
In “Right Nation” and in various interviews, he has reeled off a litany of statistics to show how America’s brand of conservatism contrasts sharply with versions found in Western Europe.
Most Americans believe in the devil, while only one of six Britons does. In America, 95 percent of the people believe in God vs. 76 percent in Britain, 62 percent in France and 52 in Sweden. More than three of four Americans belong to a church and one of four owns five or more Bibles.
America sends people to prison at five times the rate in Britain. And in America, many states have enacted the death penalty. The European Union won’t let nations in if they allow capital punishment.
In an interview last year with the Institute of International Studies at the University of California in Berkeley, Micklethwait said the Democratic Party is “far to the right” of any conservative political party in Europe. He added that the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, John Kerry, has a much more conservative vision than the British Conservative party, which is by far the most right-wing political party in Europe.
In most nations, he said in that interview, class matters more than values while in America, values count for more than class.
The Economist was founded in 1843 as a foe of England’s Corn Laws, tariffs on cheap food imported from abroad. Ever since, staunch support of free trade has been one of the magazine’s central tenets.
Critics fault the magazine for an omniscient tone, snob appeal and a writing style that can get downright snarky. In a lengthy 1991 critique in the Washington Post, writer James Fallows called The Economist a sacred cow “which each week unwholesomely purveys smarty-pants English attitudes on our shores.” Fans hit back in letters to the editor.
Such critiques have done nothing to stop the magazine’s audience from soaring in the United States, even as most of the country’s newspapers and magazines continue to suffer from circulation declines. America’s two leading newsweeklies, Time and Newsweek, struggled again last year with falling circulation, sliding ad revenue and staff cuts. Both magazines offer distinctly less cerebral content and focus more on service journalism and celebrity.
Flashy covers, nearly half of which are about America, are part of The Economist’s recipe. Some examples, from recent months:
— An executive blithely walking off a snow-capped mountain peak, headed for an abyss, to illustrate “The trouble with private equity.”
— A picture of a “Made in America” pistol about to be fired, beside the question “Will the credit crisis trigger a downturn?”
— An image of a goggles-wearing George Washington wedged in the cockpit of a burning plane about to crash, to underscore “The panic about the dollar.”
— A motorcyclist, speeding down a lonely desert highway and headed for a fork in the road, alongside the question “Is America Turning Left?”
The magazine features 14-page special reports every few issues, a practice almost unimaginable at most U.S.-based magazines or newspapers. Recent examples: mobile telecoms, Israel, France and Japan, asset management, corporate social responsibility.
In one of The Economist’s most contrarian practices, the magazine doesn’t use staff bylines. Many U.S. publications stress bylines, as part of the accountability process or to brand their writers. “We are a collaborative effort,” Micklethwait told the Mediabistro website last fall. If someone files a piece from Nigeria, he explained, then someone in London can change it even to the point of disagreeing with the original piece. That’s part of the deal journalists agree to when they come to the magazine.
Micklethwait considers business and financial articles to be the “engine room” of the magazine’s coverage. Yet The Economist also covers everything from the arts, culture and technology to obituaries and likes to develop “big ideas.” Last November, the magazine tapped into one such idea when it did a special report on religion. Micklethwait is convinced that religion will play a far greater role in the politics of the 21st century than it did in the 20th century.
Hastertland: not so safe
The Economist and Micklethwait are not always right. “Right Nation” described Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert’s congressional territory as “Hastertland,” the prototype of a safe conservative Republican District. Yet in March, after Hastert retired, voters chose a Democrat to succeed Hastert.
The Economist backed Kerry in 2004. Last year, Micklethwait told Britain’s Independent newspaper that the Democratic resurgence to take back the Congress in the 2006 midterm election was because of the “unimaginable incompetence” of the Bush administration and more conservative Democratic candidates. “If you look at the Democrats who got elected, they were pro-guns. Quite a lot were anti-abortion; they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, liberal Democrats.”
As a general rule, he told the Independent, the magazine backs the Republicans on economic issues and the Democrats on social issues.
Most of all, The Economist is an outlier in America, selling a relentlessly global perspective in a time when a consultant-inspired brand of “local-local” journalism prevails.
Micklethwait put it this way in his UC-Berkeley interview: “We’re based in Britain, and we certainly have a British voice at times, but we never look at the world through British eyes. We always try to look at it through global eyes.”
Dave Beal, a former business editor and columnist for the Pioneer Press, writes about business and the economy. He can be reached at dbeal [at] minnpost [dot] com.