The Economist moves decisively digital while staying true to its values

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Tom Standage, deputy editor of The Economist, was long the strongest proponent of digital expansion at the venerable newspaper. However, that sometimes lonely mission has been turbo charged by a new editor-in-chief and chief executive who also see a big digital future.

The Economist is moving rapidly in digital publishing, expanding the percentage of stories that go digital-first and often before its Thursday magazine publishing deadline — though the magazine (which always calls itself a newspaper rather pointedly), whether print or online, is still the benchmark product. It’s also pushing into audio with a remarkably successful set of podcasts still couched in Economist values and tone.

“We have this unusual relationship with our readers that they are paying us to decide what’s important for them. They’re paying us for the curation,” Tom told me in our interview.

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

  • Great journalism needs a great product and engineering team: “Everyone expects products to work as well as Netflix or the customer service to be as good as Amazon.”
  • Journalists need to understand the business model: “Make sure you understand what the business model of the place where you’re working is … make sure you know it’s sustainable.”

In this interview, which I present as a Q&A so you can assess his answers and run with them as you see fit, Tom talks about building a culture of innovation and experimentation at The Economist. He also discusses how some of the deep culture in the organisation — such as a flat hierarchy and an atmosphere of critical thinking — has helped it in the digital age.

“I think 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,” he said.

Here’s the first installment of the interview with Tom, edited for clarity and brevity:

INMA: You credit the increased emphasis on digital to the current editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton-Beddoes (appointed in 2015) and The Economist Group Chief Executive Lara Boro (who joined from publishing and events business Informa PLC).

Tom Standage: There’s been real progress in the last two years, which I can’t take credit for. It was Zanny saying we are really going to push much faster. She massively expanded the number of senior editors with oversight of digital. What made the difference was people other than me telling the newsroom this was important. It was much more convincing than me doing it because they expect me to say it because I have always been an evangelist.

When you take someone who has previously been the foreign editor or a foreign correspondent and they are then responsible (for digital), that is what really made the difference. Zanny put a couple of really senior newsroom figures into digital and that increased the digital metabolism. We’ve also got a new CEO, and we’ve been throwing more investment at digital.

INMA: You mentioned your role historically, as an evangelist. Has that gotten easier?

Tom Standage: It has, for a number of reasons. The Economist didn’t have a lot of the handicaps that other publications did. We never had a separate digital newsroom so we never had an “us and them” print versus digital culture. The second thing was we never had an advertising-based business model, so we never had a “you must chase clicks because the business depends on it kind of approach.” And, we’ve always had a paywall since the ‘90s so we never had to change direction from trying to maximise traffic to running a paywall.

So, there’s a whole lot of bullets that we dodged. When you talk to anyone about culture change in newsrooms, there’s a group of tropes that come up and we didn’t suffer from those.

INMA: Presumably part of that has been a generational change?

Tom Standage: We did have some members of staff who thought that the Internet was just an annoying thing that was stopping them from doing their jobs, but I don’t think anyone thinks that anymore. We have a much younger, digitally savvy staff who expect digital to be part of their jobs. Of course it is and they don’t question that anymore. Obviously, in the getting on for 25 years I’ve been at The Economist, I have seen those attitudes shift quite dramatically.

INMA: You said Lara Boro transformed the understanding of digital products.

Tom Standage: She came in and said we had underinvested in our technology … and she said, “The journalism is really good, but the products are selling it short and you need to invest more in the product.” Everyone these days expects products to work as well as Netflix or the customer service to be as good as Amazon, and everything to be doable online. We had a sprawling ... portfolio of lots of different apps. If you were a subscriber, you had to download something like seven apps and go to six different Web sites in order to see everything you were entitled to.

Lara’s point was, and she’s absolutely right, “This is dumb.” Because we are doing worse than we could be on retention because content that could be retaining people, they may not be aware of it. So we’ve been cleaning house, amalgamating things, improving things. We have a much better product and technology organisation.

INMA: Your audio and podcasts were a bit of a hidden gem that now seem essential.

Tom Standage: There were subscribers who didn’t know we did Espresso and that as a subscriber, you have access to Espresso. I used to go to conferences and people would say, “The Economist ought to do podcasts.” If you went into an Apple store in 2008 to see an iPod, Apple was putting The Economist podcast on the iPod as a demonstration of what a podcast was. We’ve always been doing these things, but our product and our tech stack was selling us a bit short.

The podcast audience is perfect for us because in America, it’s people who over-index for a higher level of education, they’re more likely to be engaged with the news, and they’re more likely to have an internationalist outlook. So the people who listen to podcasts are exactly the people that are most likely to sign up [for subscriptions].

INMA: The Intelligence daily podcast is a big example of that success, right?

Tom Standage: My estimate was that it would pay for itself and it might make a small profit, but it’s been huge. It’s now had a billion downloads. We’re not saying this is material to our business model, because our revenues are around £350 million and our profits are about £46 million. It’s nice, but it’s not the center of our business. Our business model is still reader revenue from subscriptions. But the fact that The Intelligence pays for itself and makes a good profit on top, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

INMA: Has it been hard to turn The Economist into an audio outfit and keep its culture?

Tom Standage: The big reason people say that they cancel is that there’s more content than they can possibly consume. So audio has always been a way to allow people to consume The Economist while doing something else. That’s always been why we’ve been such a fan of it. The audio edition and podcasts are a very effective way for us to put our brand and our style of journalism in front of people who might otherwise not experience it. So yes, we love audio. We’re big fans.

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About Peter Bale

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