The Economist has a strong church-state divide, which, until recently, extended to innovation. 

These days, the commercial new product development team reports to Tom Standage, The Economist’s deputy editor of innovation, to ensure much closer editorial involvement in new products. Standage is also The Economist’s deputy editor of digital strategy and is a member of The Economist Group’s Group Management Committee, allowing top-level influence with the media company’s digital strategy and development of new products. 

Several new products came out of The Economist's move to more closely connect the editorial team to innovation.
Several new products came out of The Economist's move to more closely connect the editorial team to innovation.

“Flexibility and willingness to experiment are hallmarks of successful innovation, and we’ve shown both in our internal approach to the management of innovation itself,” Standage says. “We’ve tried several models before arriving at our current approach, which integrates editorial and commercial. We think we’ve built some pretty cool stuff in the past few years, but we also reckon that this new model will allow us to innovate more quickly and successfully than ever before.” 

Previously, one editor was assigned to each new project to provide editorial oversight. This essentially involved re-purposing and re-packaging existing editorial content in various ways. Very little editorial oversight was needed. Then the Web started to strain this model. 

Similarly, programmers work for the commercial side, so they have many people asking them to do things, not just editorial. This was not a recipe for agility.

Meanwhile, the new product development unit began developing more ambitious products. And the editorial team wanted to build a new daily product called Espresso, a daily edition for smartphones. For that initiative, The Economist created a cross-functional team with outside contractors to build the backend and the apps. This project was essentially an internal start-up. 

The news media company used the same model to develop its bilingual Chinese/English app. But for both these apps, the company had to go outside its usual processes, so leaders felt it was time for another change. 

Hence the latest move: an editorial-led product development to ensure closer editorial support in all new products. 

The team works on ambitious products that begin with the incubation process. Their incubation team hosts an annual Media Lab, a space that brings together savvy Millennials to look to the future and generate ideas for forward-thinking programmes. 

The team takes hundreds of ideas from the programme, then categorise, score, and validate the potential business opportunity. Team members then connect the remaining top-level opportunities with partners and technology companies to prototype and pilot to prove (or disprove) their potential for business impact. 

Some of the top outcomes: 

  • Economist essays: Rich, immersive long-form stories with integrated interactive features and video. 

  • Economist Espresso: The Economist’s first-ever daily edition, to provide readers with a concise daily briefing via smartphone app.

  • “In other words”: A 20-30 minute morning radio show from the desk of The Economist. 

  • The Economist traveler briefings: A collection of valuable insights for business travellers and global enthusiasts planning a a trip. They are just getting started for an exciting year ahead, but they have a head start with a few pilots. 

Some of those projects were big enough that leadership had to change again, so they created a product team across editorial and commercial. This is how the created Essays, for example. It’s an editorially led product, but it has to fit in with technology and advertising on the commercial side. Leadership used the same model to develop election content.