The Economist, for which I have been writing since 1989, is the single most successful media product in the world. We receive no government subsidy. We are highly profitable. We offer excellent pay and conditions to our staff. We sell 1.6m copies a week. The average reader spends nearly an hour each week reading what we write — far more than other magazines and newspapers can boast.
So today I want to tell you a bit about why the Economist is successful, why I have been proud to spend most of my working life there, and what lessons we offer for you, as you end your time at this wonderful university and begin your careers in the wider world.
If you look at the Economist’s annual report, you will see the accounts, with the income and expenditure and the assets and liabilities. Those are important, and we are in good shape by those measures. But what you will not see is the most important asset we have, which is credibility.
Credibility is the foundation of our success. Our readers trust us. That is why they buy and read the Economist every week. Our advertisers trust us. That is why they—still, in these difficult times—spend millions of pounds, dollars, euros and yen every year in buying advertising in the hope of attracting our readers’ attention.
But credibility is important elsewhere too. Our sources trust our reporters. We are unusual in the Economist in the access we have to decision-makers. Our reporters can call up officials, business executives, academics, cultural figures—pretty much anyone, in fact, and ask to talk. They take our calls—even when they normally don’t talk to the media. They know that if they talk to us on background, we will honour that agreement.
Our sources also trust us to write sensibly about what they say. They know that we don’t chase cheap headlines, or write sensationalist stories. They know that if they admit to getting something wrong, we will not seize on this as evidence of scandal. Our job is to understand what is really happening, in order to explain it to our readers. My most useful question when I am conducting interviews is this “can you help me understand”.
Our sources also trust us to be knowledgeable. Some of our specialist correspondents have been covering their areas of interest for many years, even decades. Sometimes they know more about their subjects than the people they are interviewing.
The other vital trust is between the journalists who work on the paper. Reporters trust their editors not to introduce errors. Editors trust their reporters to do their job properly.
So how do you foster that credibility, that social capital which makes an organisation so successful?
Here are some of the key features.
It is easy to trust colleagues when you respect their abilities. A good wordsmith with a well-stocked mind is a good colleague, whether he is working for you, or you for him, or you are collaborating on a joint project
So we are very selective about whom we hire. We hate firing people and do so very rarely. It is very hard to get a job at the Economist, but once you get one, you are likely to stay for a long time.
So perhaps the most important single criteria is the ability to write. You do not need to be a native speaker of English. My colleagues are Chinese, German, Polish, French, Dutch and even American. But you do need to have total fluency in English, and most importantly a feel for language and story-telling. Our readers trust us to produce a paper that they can read for fun. They want information and analysis, but they do not want more homework. If we don’t entertain our readers, then we disappoint them.
Literacy is important but so is numeracy. We expect our journalists to have a working knowledge of statistics. If you don’t understand a normal distribution a standard deviation, and the difference between correlation and causation, you are unlikely to get a job on the Economist.
We also like our journalists to have real knowledge of something, gained from their academic studies or a previous job. Once you have deep expertise in one subject, it helps you recognise authenticity in other subjects. You don’t have to be an economist, though the editor of the paper by tradition (and necessity) has in recent years always been an academically trained economist. But we also have people on the paper who have studied maths and science, history, classics, literature, languages, philosophy—almost everything, in fact, except journalism.
The third crucial element is curiosity. People become journalists for many reasons, but the three biggest ones are a craving for fame, a creative urge, and a desire to understand the world. All three of those are good motivators, but the last two of those, creativity and curiosity, are by far the most important.
Another foundation of trust is a strong common culture. We foster that in all sorts of big and small ways.. Our stories are anonymous, as they have been ever since we were founded in 1843. That filters out those whose prime motivation is fame. They tend to be the most difficult colleagues. You can achieve professional renown at the Economist, but it takes time and effort. If you really want to be famous , other media such as television will work better for you.
Anonymity makes collaboration easy. A story may be pulled together from reports by three or four journalists, edited by another, rewritten by a yet another person. We all take pride in the result.
We meet together every Monday and Friday, we eat together on Wednesday lunchtime. We discuss together all the time.
To use a touch of modern management jargon, we are a flat organisation.. We have no room for hierarchy based on status. Everyone is on Christian name terms. Everyone is allowed to have their say. Doors are almost always open. All that matters is the facts and the reasoning. A new journalist in her first week can tell the editor that she is wrong—and win the argument.
We are also a highly self-critical organisation. Every Friday we do a post-mortem, looking at the previous week’s issue. We take our readers’ letters very seriously. Our writers try to respond to each one, at least with a brief personal acknowledgment. If we get things wrong, which inevitably we do, we publish corrections. That builds trust. Our readers don’t expect us to be perfect, but they do expect us to be honest.
So we are collaborative and self-critical. But the third element of our common culture is competition. Just as we believe that competition raises standards in the market economy, we apply the same principles at home. The biggest competition is for space. We have lots of journalists, and we don’t have room to print all their stories every week. So they have to compete. They have to think up ideas that will attract their editors’ interests. And they have to deliver their stories on time, at the right length, properly reported and written.
The editor is competing for pages. If you look at the Economist, you will see that the sections vary in length each week. Sometimes this is because of the news—we have to take pages from business to give to finance, or from Europe to give to the Middle East, or vice versa. But it also reflects editors’ ability to make the case for extra space. If you as an editor, say of the Europe section, have a really compelling case for more space, you may get an extra page, taken away from someone whose story list seemed a bit less brilliant.
We also have internal competition on accuracy. Uniquely in the British-based media, we have a team of fact-checkers. Every fact in every article we print is checked. Our journalists aim to have a piece in which nothing is wrong. Our fact checkers like to catch them out. If you habitually confuse millions and billions, or cannot spell the names of the people and organisations which you are writing about, you are unlikely to thrive at the Economist.
Our writers and editors compete to impress the editor in both quality and quantity. In the end, the better you do, the more likely you are to get an even better job, or a pay rise. But perhaps more importantly, we compete for the readers’ attention. We produce detailed metrics every week showing which stories have done best online.
Yet this competition is not ruthless. It is more like competition within a family than on a sports field. We want everyone at the Economist to succeed. If someone seems unsuited to the job they are in, we try to find something else that they can do. Here again trust plays an important role. We are willing to experiment, perhaps take a risk in doing a job that will stretch our abilities in the knowledge that if things go wrong, we will be looked after.
So that is our common culture, based on collaboration, competition, and self-criticism.
Two other elements are important too. Conviction and controversy. The Economist stands clearly for some important philosophical principles. We believe in liberalism, of the old-fashioned sort. Our intellectual inspiration is from philosophers such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and David Ricardo. We are not free-market fundamentalists and we are not libertarians in the modern American sense. We have read the Wealth of Nations, but we have also read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith’s other great work, in which he outlines the moral basis for a free-market economy. The invisible hand works much better than relying on planning or benevolence. But the participants in a free market economy are still moral actors.
Some people find this hard to grasp. Set the rules, and then get on with making money, with no holds barred. The only job of a company is to make money for its shareholders. Set the rules and let the free market rip. Yet a moment’s thought shows this is incomplete. Even the most fervent free-marketeer would not believe in settling business disputes by seeing who can bribe the judge most effectively. No business can survive if its employees are maximising their welfare by stealing from it. Honesty, on a personal and institutional level, is an essential part of a a successful economy.
So though we celebrate the dynamism of markets, we also care about the context in which they operate. We want strong and effective states, which guarantee the security of their citizens at home and abroad. The freedom of the individual is our prime concern, but that flourishes not in Somali-style anarchy, but in a context of justice, kindness and dignity.
Not all our staff agree with everything. Our paper has championed gay marriage and assisted dying. But not all our journalists take the same approach to these great social-liberal causes of the current age. Our election endorsements are fiercely debated, but in the end a large number of our journalists may disagree with our choice. They will be disappointed, but they know that they need to sharpen their arguments for next time.
I want to finish up on the subject of Europe’s security crisis. The Economist consistently championed the cause of the captive nations of Europe during the Cold War. We were the first paper to run a critical cover story on Mikhail Gorbachev, after his use of violence to force Lithuanians into the Soviet Army. We were delighted to see Russia emerge as a democratic country, but we were deeply sceptical about Vladimir Putin and have been consistently critical of his trademark mixture of repression at home and aggression abroad. We have supported sanctions against his regime, urged NATO to take the defence of its eastern borders seriously, and strongly backed Ukraine resistance to the attack on Crimea and your eastern territories.
We do not see much reason for cheer now. I am sorry, on a personal note, that Ukraine is paying the price for the West’s weakness. If we had a strong Russia policy, none of this would have happened. We would not have seen the attack on Estonia in 2007, on Georgia in 2008, , the menacing military manoeuvres of 2009 the mischief-making in Moldova, the penetration of the Western Balkans and Central Europe, or the war you are experiencing here in Ukraine.
The West is waking up, but it is waking up far too slowly and fitfully. Russia is winning not because it is strong, but because it is strong willed. The West is losing not because it is weak, but because it is weak-willed. I will continue to do my best, both at the Economist and in other writings, to sound the alarm. In the meantime I can only thank you Ukrainians for your fortitude and commitment to our European values. We have so much to learn from you.
But back to the Economist. The secret of our success is Credibility, and it rests of othe features that also begine with “C”: Competence, curiosity, collaboration, competition, criticism, a strong common culture and lastly conviction. I commend these values to you as you leave UCU. They have served me well, and I hope they will serve you too.
By Edward Lucas,
Senior editor for The Economist and
Senior vice-president of Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)