How The Economist distinguished the signal from the noise, creating a successful business model

By Susan Clark

In this time of great economic stress, the structural changes in our industry can cause great damage — and unlock great opportunities. How do we make sure we grab the opportunities and minimise the damage?

The Economist was first published in 1843. In 1959, we added colour with our red logo. In 2001, we went four-colour, and in 2010, we introduced our first app. We added a section on China in 2011, and in 2012 had one million fans on our Facebook page and two million followers on Twitter.

We are not the fastest movers, at least on the commercial side. Yet despite the bleak market and structural change, we’ve ended up in relatively fine condition and are facing the future from a position of strength.

How did we do it? How do we distinguish the signal from the noise?

I’ll start with what we didn’t do … but benefited from anyway:

  • We didn’t cause the rise in globalisation.

  • We didn’t fuel the growth in English as a global second language.

  • We didn’t cause the shift to mass intelligence, the idea that knowledge is available – and interesting – to more than just the elite.

  • Yet these are all integral to our success.

Look at the many graphs and pie charts that follow the newspaper industry — from the decrease in advertising revenue to the transition from print to digital — and you may wonder what business we’re in.

If we think we’re in the publishing or news distribution business, we miss the point. We sell editorial content, not paper and staples. We satisfy our readers’ thirst for knowledge — content, not (print) production.

Is that changing? Quite a bit. More tools and platforms allow us, and others, to create content, engage in debate, and come to conclusions.

The noise vs. signal lesson here? We’re about content and insight – and the signals tell us there are many ways to create and disseminate content. Many of them are exciting opportunities — and many a complete waste of time and money We decide which to pursue based on scale.

We see no benefit to being on the bleeding edge.

We consider our primary audience to be curious, educated people anywhere in the world. Our secondary audience is companies wanting to reach those people.

Is that changing? Yes. The group of curious people is growing – the rise of “mass intelligence” is real. And, more and more, we’re working with companies in new sectors, adding “business-to-consumer” to our traditional “business-to-business.”

Is this because the B2B sector is so bad in the current economic environment that B2C looks good by comparison?


On one hand, our readers want to understand the world across national boundaries. We explain India to the outside world, and the rest of the world to India, but we don’t, for example, explain India to Indians.

Also, our readers want to be intellectually challenged and entertained; serendipity is key to this.

On the other hand, our advertisers want to reach the people who are changing the world – opinion leaders, innovators, and business people with the clout to change things.

Noise vs. signal? Noise, for us, is sales teams asking for more local content. Our signal is that we must remain aligned with our international mission. That is our competitive advantage.

While our biggest business is in the Americas and Western Europe, we’ve introduced a new China section and are growing in India and other parts of Asia.

We have significant site traffic from China but low print circulation because it is very difficult for locals to buy The Economist. India has been an investment market for us for several years and has grown very strongly as a result, both in terms of readers and of advertisers.

Our largest single market in Asia, other than India, is Australia. Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are important to us as well. The uptake of digital has been very strong in Asia, alleviating, to some extent, the great distances and distribution challenges we face.

We also are experiencing digital growth everywhere with notable strength in hard-to-reach locations, like Australia, Africa, and China.

Noise vs. signal? The hardest hit newsstands in Europe are in the PIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). The impact of digital on the newsstand is clear. Additionally, now, readers with tablets seem to make fewer newsstand buys. The impacts are clearly both cyclical and structural.

Our products are premium-priced except for introductory promotions. Digitally, we have a somewhat porous paywall and distribute content extensively through social media.

Noise vs. signal? Noise tells us that people won’t pay for content. However, our signal tells us that we have 130,000 people who pay for our digital products and many, many more who pay for print.

We offer a paid product bundle to readers that includes print, online, digital apps, and audio. We’re rolling out an unbundled reader offer, also, so someone can buy just print, just digital, just online, or the full bundle.

Noise vs. signal? Digital gives us far more options than print. For example, our Economist Radio is looking to include sponsored content, and online, we offer debates, video, blogs, and the very popular Daily Chart. But that doesn’t mean we should do everything we can do.

Readers are our focus, and we try to keep them in mind at every turn. For example, recent research suggests people like a calm, non-intrusive reading experience on tablets. They don't necessarily want a lot of interactivity, intrusive videos, etc.

Noise vs. signal? As far as options for advertisers, while we offer bundles to readers, our advertisers buy by the piece. Print pages of varying sizes, colours, and formats; online slots in a myriad of ways; and sponsorship options online and in our apps as well. We think about simplifying, but there is always pressure to add more options.

The debate is about print vs. digital and about standard vs. custom. Agencies and clients are more willing to accept constraints in print — but not so much in digital. We try to focus on the signal, which is engaging an audience, not the noise of whiz-bang tricks.

Noise vs. signal? Noise indicates we’re going digital, fast. But we are listening for the signal. Will it tell us that print co-exists alongside digital, like TV and radio and Web? Or are smartphones and tablets game-changers that will drive the replacement of print?

Technology itself is changing, and it is also changing us — as it always has: consider the impact and use of electricity, automobiles, and computers.

So the biggest change we introduce in a new feature may be to address the way people interact with technology: for example, the lean-back experience of an iPad is so very different from the lean-forward use of a PC; or, how a landline reached a place, whereas mobile reaches a person.

Our task is to discern signal from noise, and to listen to the signal to get change right.

About Susan Clark

By continuing to browse or by clicking ‘I ACCEPT,’ you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.