Leader of the pack

In 12 years the circulation of The
Economist has doubled. Editor Bill Emmott has done his sums and expects
it to double again over the next decade, writes Alyson Fixter

FOR
A MAN IN the midst of press day, with the results of the Israel
elections still rolling in while his final leader comment on the issue
already sits at the printers, Bill Emmott is surprisingly calm. But
then, he has had 12 years to get used to this kind of thing.

“It
doesn’t seem likely that the way things are going will change,” he
says, as a colleague tells him Hamas has gained 50 per cent of the vote
so far. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

When it does happen, The
Economist is known for pulling out all the stops. When Britain’s first
suicide bombings hit London on 7 July much of the magazine’s print run
had already been produced, bearing a cover on global warming. That was
scrapped: the front, two pages of news and the leader were replaced. It
cost “a lot of money”, Emmott admits, but it was vitally important for
the UK-based magazine to be able to comment for a worldwide readership
on the event.

In fact, that cover, which was put together in
record time, is one of Emmott’s favourites of the selection up on his
office wall, covering 12 years in which the title has doubled its
circulation to more than a million. It has also expanded its reach in
North America and Europe and its success recently gained Emmott an
editor of the year award from the British Society of Magazine Editors.
The plan is to double the circulation again over the next decade.

“Currently
our circulation is increasing by seven to eight per cent every year,”
he says. “It’s simple arithmetic to work out that in 10 years we’ll
double, as long as things don’t change.”

Again, the calmness. In
an environment where global current affairs magazines are struggling –
with BusinessWeek and Forbes closing their UK bureaus and Time and
Newsweek cutting staff across the board – The Economist prides itself
on having a clearer sense of its purpose and direction. It describes
itself as a “weekly newspaper” rather than a magazine, and in the
newspaper market it contrasts strongly with British papers struggling
to rein in falling circulations by means of free gifts and redesigns.

The
Economist was redesigned in 2001 when it went full colour, and Emmott
says it won’t do so again this decade. “Once a decade seems about
right,” he muses. “Design is overdone these days. You should be
accessible and easy to navigate, but beyond that it’s the content that
counts.

“The Guardian and The Observer redesigns look good, very elegant, but it’s not the point.”

The
magazine’s other famous point of difference from news publications is
its lack of bylines, a tradition that has grown stronger under Emmott’s
editorship. How do his journalists cope without the weekly fix of
seeing their names in print?

“We’re no different from other
journalists: we don’t lose that urge for a byline just because we join
The Economist,” he says, smiling. “We give bylines on our supplements,
and we encourage our journalists to write outside the magazine to give
them a chance to develop their own names.” Emmott himself has published
four books.

“But if a journalist is really turned on by
international affairs, then The Economist is a unique place to work
where they will gain a lot of access to companies and governments and
experts. They gain a lot for what they give up.”

He also insists he hasn’t used the anonymity to turn the title into a vehicle for his own opinions.

“I’m leader of the pack,” he says, “but this isn’t the sort of place where I could enforce my opinion.

We’re
not a democracy, but I don’t think an editor could consistently go
against the large consensus of his team and survive. There isn’t a
catechism.

“People who join The Economist know what its views
are, so to an extent they are self-selecting, but there is still a
great deal of argument and discussion.”

So which issues in particular get the pack howling?

He
hesitates. “We said that the invasion of Iraq was right, on the basis
that Saddam didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt and there was good
reason to believe he had weapons of mass destruction.

“Clearly it was subsequently found that he didn’t have any WMD, and the post-invasion has been a fiasco.

“But
was the decision to support it therefore wrong? I’d say it was still
right. We couldn’t have known differently, and it was reasonable to
believe that he had them.”

Now he is not so relaxed. “We had a
lot of arguments and discussion about that, and the staff were probably
about 60-40 against. But it depends how strong people’s opinions are.
In the 40 per cent there were a lot of people who were very strongly in
favour. It takes a lot of thought to come to a ‘yes’

decision.”

In the future he expects more “arguments and discussion”, particularly over Israel, and the threat of action against Iran.

“That’s much more difficult [than Iraq],” he says, obviously already working through the pros and cons.

But
back to the present, and press day. “We haven’t been interrupted while
we’ve been talking, so I assume the situation in Israel hasn’t changed,”

he says, with another smile.

He strolls off to check, but it seems a safe bet that he’s got everything under control.

Bill Emmott CURRICULUM VITAE

  • Studied politics, philosophy and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford
  • Scrapped
    postgraduate research on the French communist party to join The
    Economist’s Brussels office, writing about EEC affairs and the Benelux
    countries
  • Between 1982 and 1993 worked as the magazine’s
    economics correspondent in London; Japan and South Korea correspondent
    in Tokyo; financial editor and then business affairs editor in London.
    He was appointed to the editor’s post in 1993
  • Has written three books on Japan, including one published only in Japanese
  • In 2003 published 20/21 Vision – The Lessons of the Twentieth century for the Twenty-first

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