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Why Time and Newsweek's attempts to emulate the Economist will not work

Why Time and Newsweek's attempts to emulate the Economist will not work

Vanity Fair writer Matt Pressman discussed what he believes are the reasons "why Time and Newsweek will never be the Economist." He thinks that emulating the Economist has been a goal of American news magazines for three years now, and that this aim is now spreading to other magazine genres. Newsweek just experienced its first revenue drop for some time and is planning to abandon the mass market in order to focus on a select audience, possibly reducing its advertising income but upping its subscription prices: an effort which does appear to be inspired by the Economist's success and is definitely intended to target its audience.

The Economist stands out glaringly in the news industry as an example of a publication that is actually doing better and better. Its circulation has increased "sharply" in the last four years, according to the New York Times, with subscriptions up 60% and newsstand sales rising by 50%. Crucially, it makes more money from readers than advertisers, unlike most of the media.

Hence a desire to imitate it in an attempt to achieve similar success is "a logical impulse," feels Pressman. And he admits that raising prices to something similar to the Economist's level might be a good idea, but apart from that, "the news weeklies can never be like The Economist, no matter how hard they try." A primary reason, he believes, is that they just do not understand what the Economist is, seeing it as an opinion journal, when in fact it also provides essential original reporting, and clearly explains complex issues.

Another factor is that the Economist has managed to become "the other must-read for financial types," after the Wall Street Journal, as its articles offer "actionable information designed to help investors figure out what to do with their money," particularly those about the developing world. Pressman does not think that Time or Newsweek can win over this crowd. He also believes that more generally, "there's a limited market for what The Economist offers, and they've already claimed the vast majority of it... There are only so many Americans who actually care about international news." And it is necessary to take into account the fact that the Economist's US circulation is actually still far below that of Time, for example.

Pressman's number one reason why the American magazines will never reach the heights of the Economist, however, is that "they can't match the snob appeal." Several critics have claimed over the years that Americans "just carry the magazine around to look sophisticated," and Pressman puts this appeal down to the fact that it is a foreign import with "delightful British spellings and expressions", its "distinguished pedigree", its higher price and its "inscrutable title."

The Economist's reputation is undoubtedly a key factor in its continued success, but evidently its high journalistic standards, with articles that effectively combine depth and clarity, must not be ignored. After all, these are the factors which gave it such a reputation in the first place: it is not unfounded. Another point in its favour, and a relatively unique aspect of the publication, is its impression of a unified voice, given by the fact that it does not supply journalist's by-lines. This arguably increases the credibility of articles, as they appear authored as much by the magazine as by individuals.

Source: Vanity Fair, New York Times


Emma Goodman


2009-04-21 16:47

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