I reached out to Andreas Kluth, Bay Area Technology Correspondent of Economist.com, after listening to one of his podcasts. Later, I learned that it was the first one he did. It did not surprise me that I had not noticed the podcast had been recorded a while back - digital records have a long memory, and the content was still very new and applicable.
Andreas introduced me to Daniel Franklin, Executive Editor of The Economist and Editor-in-Chief of Economist.com. They both speak many languages - an already impressive skill - and have been very responsive and most kind with their time. They would have reason to be busy - this is one of the world top publications.
Four million readers for print and over three million unique visitors online, 54% from North America, 17% from continental Europe, 16% from Asia Pacific and 9% from the UK. Worldwide, the page views are 24,654,517. This is also a great example of an online press kit.
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As a long time reader of The Economist print edition, and then online, I find that the value I derive from the publication is two-fold. The special reports have been a fundamental resource over the years. Looking at a topic and developing it through research and stories makes it come alive, actionable. The other value point I derive is from the lessons learned-type of articles, often those that highlight a leader who has had an impact (positive or otherwise). Do you have a sense of why your readers choose The Economist online?
Andreas: Daniel would know much more about our online readers than I do. I know that initially (i.e., in the Web 1.0 era) our online readers were our print readers, for the simple reason that we only ALLOWED our subscribers full access. Wow! It still stuns me.
Then again, ALL newspapers did that, because what did we know? These days, there are almost certainly also many people online who don't get the print issue, which I've always welcomed and argued for, because those people link to our articles, and incoming links are Google PageRank votes, et cetera.
Demographically, I expect that our online readers are slightly younger, but even our print subscribers have a relatively young average age--early thirties. We skew male and educated.
Daniel: Online our readers often come to us in a slightly different mode than in print: they are more likely to be looking for something specific, searching for a particular article or seeking our view on a certain subject, whether it's an important news story or some background on a subject of interest to them.
With the print paper, they typically make time to sit back and read the weekly view of the world; online, they are often at their desks, during the working week. Of course, there are also many readers who come to the website for an early glimpse of what's in the weekly Economist, since we publish online by around 7pm London time on Thursdays, before the print edition reaches newsstands or subscribers.
Has the "voice" of The Economist evolved online in your view? Is it an extension of the print publication, how do they integrate them for your readers/listeners? I'm interested in how you determine your reach and audience composition, and whether this suffers from the print edition. Are you talking to the same audience? If not, how is the content different?
Andreas: We always imagine the same audience when we write (or talk, in the case of podcasts): educated, cosmopolitan, open-minded, intelligent, demanding, et cetera. So we don't have a different voice online than in print. In fact, most content online IS the print edition, with the addition of web-native analysis on breaking news, but even that is written by the print journalists.
So, for example, I would write the stories on Microsoft-Yahoo in the print edition, but if there is big news on the weekend, I might pump out some web-only analysis as well. But I always assume the same audience. That said, there are some subtleties online: Our tradition is not to have bylines, and we are famous for that anonymity.
But you can't do an anonymous podcast, say. So the web cracks open our anonymity, and we are always thinking about where that might lead us in future and whether it might create tensions. Another issue is how informal to make the tone of the blogs--clearly an evolving space--and future content types, such as video.
Daniel: Yes, it's the same audience we're writing for--exactly as Andreas describes, educated, internationally minded, smart and curious about the world--but there are a couple of important points about this audience online. First, it's potentially much larger than the one we have in print.
The growth of The Economist in recent years suggests that there's a big and expanding universe of people who fit this profile, and the internet offers a fantastic chance to reach them and introduce them to our content - to spread the word, literally. Second (and crucially), online the audience itself can become part of the conversation, contributing views and ideas. We think our readers are particularly interesting and therefore have a lot to contribute.
We have opened all our content to comments, and it's clear that there's a pent-up demand to "join the conversation", as Andreas might put it. We have launched a series of online, Oxford-style debates to tap into this. We are also encouraging our readers to contribute ideas on how this aspect of our site could evolve, through the publisher's blog.
If you were to ask yourself about the current direction of the publication out loud, where would you observe it moving towards? Are you using a content strategy to attract readership, or are you building content on the basis of where readers find attraction (metrics)?
Andreas: That's a question you best ask John Micklethwait, our editor-in-chief. I can only give you my own opinion, based on my ten years at The Economist: We, the journalists, ignore metrics utterly and just write the best, most fun or most challenging, stories we can think of. Everything else follows.
The site redesign feels less cluttered and still manages to convey depth - it even retained a very strong component from the original brand. Was there an event or piece of research that prompted the make over? Was it just a natural evolution of your online presence?
Andreas: For this one I defer to Daniel. Bur for your own edification, try to find that page where we invited readers to comment on the redesign. Fascinating reading. It was a controversial redesign. All I can say, there will be many more changes over time. I think we're just entering Web 2.0 on our site.
Daniel: In fact this latest redesign was rather modest in scope - a new homepage and some tightening of the navigation - but it's had quite a big impact. It helps to bring us more up to date and make it easier for readers to find more content. But it's only a start. I see it as just part of a much larger process of redesigning the whole site.
Everyone is after the same attention pool, which keeps shrinking. Online is fast becoming a very competitive business model -- how do you keep the value from turning into commodity?
Andreas: I'm not sure I totally understand this question, but I'll try. The shrinking attention pool is the bull's eye we're aiming for. In fact, though, we have had that same problem for a century and a half. Our proposition has always been that, in a world of too much information, we bring you the world in a digestible and yet challenging format. So some of my colleagues, such as Tom Standage, like to say that the more "noise" out there the better for us.
The more bloggers and news sources, the more SOME readers will yearn for a few places that do the heavy lifting on their behalf. We have a good shot at being one of those places. That said, I'm not sure I agree that "online is fast becoming a competitive business model." the problem (for others more than for us) is that online is not becoming a competitive business model FAST ENOUGH.
If the NYT's advertisers valued the SAME reader as much online as in print, the NYT would be swimming in money. But the advertisers still have to make the migration that readers have in large part already made. For us, though, that is not such a problem, because we are unusual in that our print subs are still growing furiously, so there is no crisis driving us from behind.
How do you create a culture of participation? Do consider yourselves members of a community? In a podcast you participated to I heard you talk about authority. In my view new media is about linking (see post I wrote about it here). Is The Economist tracking the links it gets? Are you linking back?
Andreas: Couldn't agree more. A couple of years ago, after that Special Report on New Media that you saw, I flew to an offsite management meeting outside of London to give a presentation about our future. One of the points I made and still try to drive home is that links are our new currency. (Which is why, at that time, I advised making the whole site free. Today the site is free, so everyone can link to it). I want as many people coming in "from underneath and sideways" as come in through the front door (the home page). That means they come in through links.
In future, I would expect that most people will come to us from their RSS readers, email and IM links, and of course Google results. Fantastic! My dream is that when a student is doing a research paper on, say, World War II, the first link on his Google search is our original archive article from the week when Hitler invaded Poland. Or something like that. But you can only get that magic when all our articles are deeply, richly linked. And part of that is linking OUT.
As Dave Winer says, the more you send them away, the more they come back. I think we can do much better in that way. I'd love to have every article full of outgoing links to the specific pages that support the point being made....
You raise another point, which is "community". yes, we have found that our readers identify strongly with our brand almost as if it made them a personality type, a bit as Mac people are NOT Windows people, for example. In short, we already ARE a social network (in the old-fashioned sense) and could well become an online social network as well. That does not mean that we will open a Facebook challenger. But social networking is becoming part of all successful sites, and we won't be an exception. Stay tuned....
Daniel: Just a footnote on Facebook. The Economist has a fan club on Facebook, now with nearly 15,000 members, called "Sir - I am rather fond of your publication The Economist". It points to the sense of community that can grow up spontaneously around our brand. This is something we can tap into online.
What is The Economist definition of success?
Andreas: Funny you should ask that. I'm writing my first book right now, and it's about success and failure in life, and how they're both impostors, as Kipling said. But that's on a personal note.
Wearing The Economist's hat, as corny as it sounds, I would guess that John M might actually answer with our motto: "to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress." Success would be to keep winning that contest. Ideally, while being read by ever more people and charging ever more to advertisers trying to reach those people. In short, nothing "new".
In the advertising business, creatives keep swipe files for inspiration. Musicians have artists who have helped sharpen their style. What influences you?
Andreas: All the great writers I have every read, and all the great conversationalists, thinkers, and questioners and storytellers. I personally think that we at The Economist can do better in story-telling, so I try to inject more people and wit and humour and anecdote into my articles than some of my colleagues do. My favourite writer and page in our magazine is probably Ann Wroe and her Obituary column, which does all those things very well.
Is there still a place for traditional editors in the 21st century? I believe we do need editors.
Andreas: For a while I was afraid that there might NOT be, but now I think the editors will be needed more than ever. Check out, for instance, TED . I was talking to Chris Anderson (no relation to my former colleague who is now editor of Wired) who is TED's "curator". TED is, in a way, like The Economist.
It aims at the most demanding people in the world and tries to challenge them. It does this by curating content. There is a role for algorithms, but human beings will always want to be exposed to ideas that the people they trust find most interesting. It's as simple as that. And a few editors will become those trusted curators. Media brands are nothing more than the reputation of the curators behind them. It will be a golden age of editors/curators.
Anything I have not asked you'd like to comment on?
Andreas: Actually, I don't know what you're planning to write, so I don't know. We could go on forever. So much to discuss.
And so we could. Thank you Andreas and Daniel. This has been a most interesting exploration behind the scenes at Economist.com.
What would you, as reader and listener, suggest as the next implementation for Economist.com?
[UPDATE: Videographics are a new feature of Economist.com where the static charts of the print edition are brought to life. This is an image, go to Economist.com for the video.]