Economist embeds product, digital transformation in its culture

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


The Economist — the venerable source of intelligent news and views on world affairs, economics, business, science, technology, and culture — is on a journey to embrace audio and expand digital reach and capabilities, sometimes challenging long-held traditions in the 179-year-old publisher.

Tom Standage, the deputy editor, has been at the forefront of that effort for years and has seen it gather impetus under a new chief executive officer and editor-in-chief.

The Economist works to align product and editorial on business goals and reader needs.
The Economist works to align product and editorial on business goals and reader needs.

Recently Tom talked to me about the transformation, some of the success stories like The Intelligence podcast, and how a big focus on audio from stories to podcasts is being embraced by the newsroom as a critical driver of the business and new ways to reach an audience. 

In this second installment, Tom talks about embracing a stronger approach to product and engineering, how the historic anonymity of Economist journalists is evolving, and his approach to a new content management system.

Here are a couple of critical takeaways I took, but there are many more nuggets below:

  • Product and editorial need to align on business goals and focus on audience needs.

  • Media companies need to increase the perceived value of subscriptions (such as including newsletters) and remind subscribers what they are entitled to as part of the package they already take.

  • Goals need to align with historic culture if they’re to be taken seriously.

INMA: Tell us about “product thinking” has developed at The Economist.

Tom Standage: We didn’t have a proper product organisation a decade ago. We just had journalists talking to engineers. So I have seen the emergence of the product organisation as a very, very helpful coordination between journalism [and engineering].

That’s what it’s meant to do, of course. But the problem before was that because we have a very strict Chinese wall within The Economist and the engineers did not sit in editorial, they didn’t report to editorial. We were constantly frustrated by the fact that we didn’t have ring-fenced engineering capacity.

When you have proper engineering teams and product teams and it’s all run properly, this is much less of a problem — because the business understands that it is a priority that the Web site works and that the app works and that you execute and deliver on the roadmap.

The growth of a proper professional product organisation has been really good because it means there is proper discipline in actually engaging all stakeholders.

INMA: What metrics do you share with journalists to help focus on the business goals?

Tom Standage: We’re not big on giving analytics to journalists in more than a quite general way. We just think this whole kind of feedback loop where you say, “People really like it when you write about Elon Musk, so write more about Elon Musk,” we think that's dangerous.

Our readers pay us to decide what we think is important and tell them about it. That’s our job. They are paying us to decide what’s important for them. They’re paying us for the curation.

INMA: You do track the propensity to subscribe from story level though, right?

Tom Standage: One of the metrics we have for every story is how many subscriptions arise from it. Obviously, you have a big attribution problem, which is that most people subscribe by just going to the subscribe button on the Web site. But even if you know only 10% of the subscriptions come from stories, it’s still useful to see which stories are more effective at conversion.

INMA: You also talk about enhancing the value of subscriptions by putting some things that are now open behind an Economist subscription.

Tom Standage: We want to make the subscription more valuable. I thought The New York Times did this beautifully: They moved several newsletters behind the paywall, and the way they telegraphed it was: “Your subscription has just become more valuable.” That’s the right way to do it.

INMA: The Economist has idiosyncrasies such as no bylines on most stories. What’s the impact of that culture on your digital efforts and this shift to making journalists audio personalities?

Tom Standage: The Economist has a very, very flat structure, and nearly everyone is both a writer and an editor. There are no sub-editors and there are no leader writers. We don’t have this idea that there are grand senior people who think lofty thoughts and then there are minions who make it all fit on the page. We really all swoop up and down the scale of A: thinking lofty thoughts and writing things and B: fixing the hyphens and running the spellchecker.

It’s a very lightweight process that relies on the fact that we were just in the same room, and I think it’s transferred reasonably well to Zoom and Slack.

INMA: What about anonymity in an age of social media and podcasts? It used to be just your special reports that carried a byline.

Tom Standage: The anonymity makes us collectively responsible. Originally, anonymity was used to make one person [the founder, James Wilson] look like many, and it’s now used to make many people look like one.

The anonymity has been fraying because of social media, because of podcasts, and because of newsletters, because we quite often have authored newsletters. People are used to, very often, the authorial voice of The Economist and the institutional voice of The Economist … but we’ve found this pulling back the curtain to show that real people, not robots, write it is extremely effective.

Similarly, we’ve had this very successful series of subscriber-only Webinars on Friday afternoons where we have, you know, senior editors tell you what’s going on … such as in Ukraine. That has proved to be extremely popular with subscribers.

It’s a drawing back of the curtain. We get to have it both ways, which is that we remind people that The Economist is written by humans, and they can get to know who some of them are. But at the same time, we have the continuity of the authorial collective editorial voice.

INMA: You’re implementing a new content management system (CMS), but your model is a bit of a twist from the approach of going digital-first and the paper second, right?

Tom Standage: Our workflow is the other way around from most people. At The Economist, the print stories are the stories of record, even if they are published early on digital. It’s a print editing process, which we don’t really think of as the print editing process. It’s actually the weekly edition editing process.

That’s the crucial thing. It means we’re not doing the kind of continuous flow and then taking stuff out of it that daily newspapers are doing, which is what most CMS are built to support. The point about our articles is that they’re written with a weekly perspective, they’re meant to be stepping back. If you’re reading us digitally, then more than 20% of the stories are running early online and that’s been ticking up.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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About Peter Bale

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