'<em>The Economist</em>' model is one to follow

"The Economist: Magazine of the past, present, and future."

"The Economist: Magazine of the past, present, and future."

A catchy slogan, no? The Economist itself can feel free to use it, for a small fee. But it probably does not need to. Because those looking for "the way forward," "the new model," or "the next big thing" in the uncertain world of magazines need look no further than the haughty stalwart that is the most successful British media export since Ali G.

Many visionaries would scoff at the notion that The Economist -a 160-year-old title that proudly touts its role in the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846 - could have any new ideas to offer. But look at the facts. The magazine's worldwide circulation stands at more than 1.1 million, including 600,000 in the US. That figure, which is expected to rise when new numbers are released next month, represents nearly a doubling of total circulation in little more than a decade.

The Economist is judicious when changing editors; it has only averaged one for every 10 years of its existence. It hires staff with expertise, pays them well, and has enough cultural cachet to reward them not with bylines (which don't exist), but simply with the knowledge that they contributed something to the publication. Its writers have held other jobs, too, including banker, spy, prime minister, and president.

It is the savviest publication in existence when it comes to representing the American political center, even though it is not an American magazine. The Economist does not pander to lowbrow, embarrassing caricatures of American desires gleaned from focus groups. Instead, it proudly soldiers on with its incongruous mix of coverage, from the biggest global stories of the day to enlightening vignettes that seem downright weird.

While Time and Newsweek were putting out their annual "Have We Learned Anything New About Moses in the Last 12 Months?" holiday issues, The Economist was musing for dozens of pages on the nature of consciousness, the art of conversation, and the legacy of England's 19th century sugar boycotts.

The fact that the editorial stance of the magazine is to say what it means is surprisingly jarring to US readers used to popular publications that have been hammered marshmallow-soft by the various protestations of Fox News and liberal bloggers.

The Economist eschews equivocation, which is refreshing whether you agree with its actual point or not. An article about Somalia contains only a single quote, which characterizes the local warlords as "absolute bastards." A headline to the lead article about Europe helpfully points out to the time-starved reader, "The European Union's two newest members, Bulgaria and Romania, are both economically and politically backward."

In America, any such politically incorrect analysis would be made only for effect, to reinforce a political attack - "and Bulgarians and Romanians are ugly," it would add. But The Economist writes forcefully not to get a rise out of its readers, but to give them something with actual value: a well-considered viewpoint.

"We write about the world each week because it matters, not when it matters," says Paul Rossi, The Economist's North American publisher. "Every week, we cover the Middle East; other magazines cover it when it's news. So I think we come at the market with a product that's different."

Its young and affluent readership pulls in advertisers and allows for a high cover price, as well.

"When we sell a copy of the magazine, we actually make money," Rossi says. "One of the things that allows us to do is reinvest in marketing... that's driving growth."

The Wall Street Journal's recent relaunch, which emphasized "value-added" reporting, is remarkably reflective of what The Economist has always been doing. And those are two of the most successful print media properties in the world. Competitors should put two and two together.

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