Rigorous empirical analysis, informed liberal values, clear reasoned argument.
Zanny Minton Beddoes is The Economist’s 17th Editor-in-Chief, the first woman ever to hold this job.
How has your life changed since you started as Editor?
My days have become more scheduled, that is one of the biggest changes. From 8.30am to 7.30pm I tend to have an enormous number of meetings, and I also travel a lot. There are endless meetings, except on Wednesday when I actually actively edit, so I keep that day completely clear. We have editorial meetings on Monday mornings and Friday mornings.
What is your job as Editor?
My job is bold, mind-stretching journalism and a finishable summary of the week’s news that is outstandingly well written. I think that every week every reader should find something in every section that is mind stretching, unexpected, surprising, challenging, beyond being simply a summary of the week’s news.
How do you decide what is relevant?
In our editorial meetings we decide on what we think are the issues of the week that we want to comment on. On Monday morning people pitch ideas, they lay out what they want to say and we have a big discussion about it. Together with my deputy I choose which ones we want. The stories are then written and I edit them. In this decision there is a fine balance between our assessment of the most important issues of the week and writing about issues our readers may not have thought about.
What is the cultural scope of the newspaper?
We cover politics, international affairs and science. We are much more than just business and finance. Personally I come from the world of economics and business and finance, but the stereotype that we are a boring business and finance newspaper is inaccurate. Hopefully we have the most engaging analysis on a broad and eclectic range of subjects, written in the best possible prose.
Who are your readers?
I think of our readers as the globally curious, wherever they might be. The typical Economist reader is someone interested in the world outside their country’s borders, forward thinking, who likes challenging journalism, and with the liberal values we espouse. There are 72 million people who fit the demographic of what we think a potential Economist reader is.
What is your circulation?
We have 1.6 million circulation of the traditional weekly product so there’s a lot more people who would want to engage with us. Of our subscribers some have print only subscriptions, some digital only, many take premium which is the two together. While this is the basic subscription model we need to extend our reach. We don’t know how people will get their news in five years’ time. The industry is changing so fast that I think we have to make sure that our very strong brand has a presence in all channels.
Does each issue sell the same amount?
Subscriptions are much more important in the overall. For us newsstand sales are small relative to subscriptions. “What does Hillary stand for?” sold well, the one about men as “The weaker sex” sold very well.
Is the number of your readers increasing?
I have only done the job for five months, but circulation has increased. I am focussing on attracting more of the many people who would enjoy The Economist but who don’t read it yet. I think that women are as interested in the best journalism as men, but I am not targeting particular types of readers. To the extent that we have relatively few women readers, this is because in some quarters we have an inaccurate reputation, as just a business and finance magazine. We are a much broader newspaper than that.
What is new at The Economist?
We are active on social media and Twitter. We set up Espresso, our daily edition for smartphones, a shift that predates my own editorship. Last week I was in New York for the launch of Economist Films and then we launched in London too. We launched Global Business Review, the English and Chinese bilingual digital app. We have set up a new department of number crunching researchers and our data analysis is dramatically improved, presented in cool, interactive charts.
With all these initiatives is The Economist now much more than a weekly?
The main product is still the weekly, that drives the culture of the place. We are gradually venturing into daily and online-only content. One of my managerial challenges is how to integrate all this into the culture of the paper. Economist Films has separate staff, but even there our journalists are working with them on each film. For example, the technology correspondent will write for the paper, for Espresso, for online-only; it’s the same person. We mustn’t overload people and must ensure they have enough time to think. There’s a lot of balancing involved in this.
How do you decide your cover stories?
We are a point of reference for our readers, which is why we had ISIS on the cover and the world economy was on the cover last week. The covers I have done, for example “The weaker sex” (the world is a grim place nowadays for an unskilled man), “Artificial intelligence”, the importance of debt, family companies, these are big issues, often in addition to the news. We try to come up with things that people haven’t read elsewhere before and that challenge them.
How do you decide your priorities for the covers?
We have to take a view on what is likely to happen, to give context and a broad way of thinking about what’s going on. Then I can also have different covers in different parts of the world, even if the content of the editorials is exactly the same. So, for instance, “Firing up America”, the cover about America’s Hispanics, was the same week as the “Made in China” cover. So in Europe “Made in China” was on the cover, and in America “Firing up America”. Inside there were the same two one page editorials, whose order was different.
In these times you are certainly not short of news.
The challenge of the cover is if a news story is big enough and important enough and do we have something sufficiently interesting to say on it that we should put it on the cover. Or should we be highlighting something that is perhaps not in the news, but people should be thinking about? Like artificial intelligence. And we did some economic calculations on the very technical but hugely important issue of subsidising debt.
What is the average age of your readers?
The average age is early to mid-40s.
When you decide on a subject do you have a point of view you give your readers and do they follow it?
We clearly have a point of view, we have our very powerful and fiercely held liberal views. We were founded 172 years ago to fight the Corn Laws! We are infused with a very strong belief in the need to champion and interpret political, social and free market values for the 21st Century. The basic value set is that we believe in liberalism. I want people to be engaged by our arguments, I have no expectation that people will always agree with them, but even those who disagree should find our analyses sufficiently rigorous that they make them think.
What issues do you highlight?
We did a big piece on Russia’s economy, saying that it was much weaker than it looked and a crisis likely. I think that was a reasonable but bold conclusion based on our analysis. Last week we said the US economy was in better shape than many people thought, so the cover said that it was going to accelerate again and we said that US interest rates will go up this year. We draw a conclusion from our rigorous empirical analysis, informed by our liberal values and a clear reasoned argument. If we are wrong that’s fine. We famously had a cover where we said that oil would go to $5 a barrel, clearly wrong, but a projection that was perfectly reasonable based on the analysis of the time.
If most people have a subscription why do you consider the cover to be so important?
It is very important in terms of setting the priorities of the paper for that week, and the cover editorial is by far our most widely read piece, so it does matter. My job is to make sure that collectively we have the right balance between having our best analysis of the issues of the week and these mind stretching articles that surprise readers. We can’t just be a summary of the week’s news, we have to be that, but we also have to be more than that. I want the person who is globally curious to find something that stretches their mind in every section, that’s my goal. Because otherwise why read us?
How about your people, your journalists?
Our great strength is our people, their writing. We have 165 staff at The Economist around the world, including editors, correspondents, designers and assistants and so on. 93 are journalists, of which around 60 are based here in London.
Is it important that nobody signs the articles that appear in The Economist?
Yes, it is an important part of our tradition of liberal values, ever since 1843. The collective sense of values of The Economist would be undermined if you got rid of the anonymity. There’s a really powerful sense of esprit de corps here, it’s a special culture and people work here because they enjoy being with other bright, curious and cultured minds. I think that anonymity is an important part of that.
But sometimes your individual journalists are known, for instance when they appear on TV?
I don’t want them hidden. I think it’s fantastic to have our journalists on TV, for them to be visible out in the world, but the paper is collective thinking, because people trust the opinion of the team, the collective voice of The Economist.
You studied at Oxford and Harvard and lived in America for many years. How has this division between England and America been for you?
I lived most of my adult life in America, and after Harvard I was with the IMF. I was in America for eighteen years, from the age of 20 to 47, so I have experience of both sides of the Atlantic and my kids have dual nationality. London is a truly global city, more global than any city in America. New York is a very globalised American city.
What is different about journalism in England and America?
In America journalism is known as the Fourth Estate. Journalists, particularly traditional mainstream journalists, there is a very serious split between opinion and news journalism. In England opinion and news is more intermingled. In the journalism business in the US the traditional and regional newspapers’ business model is being highly disrupted by new technology.
Is your experience of being Editor positive?
I am having a great time. It’s a fantastic job. I love being in London and this is an extraordinary institution with unbelievably talented people. Having the chance to help shape it is an extraordinary opportunity. It’s great!
16th June, 2015