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Why I ended my subscription to The Economist

The Economist has reputedly over 1.6 million subscribers globally. After May 2024, it has one less. My cancellation brings to an end over 35 years of reading The Economist. Originally the subscription was a present for a relative who passed on the pre-digital print version to me weekly, after she died, I continued until recently.

Wanna-be?

Founded in 1843 by Scottish economist James Wilson The Economist describes itself as a ‘newspaper’ rather than a magazine. With its fire engine red masthead, sometimes striking covers and distinctive typeface, The Economist is a publishing success.

Its ubiquity was brought home to me some two decades ago in Madagascar – a location not noted for availability of the printed word in any form. Our travels required frequent transits through the capital – Antananarivo. At the threadbare international airport, a teenage vendor inevitably had copies of The Economist. We came to recognise each other and he would supply the newspaper, both the latest edition and back issues that I had missed.

Today, via its print and digital editions, it claims a readership of 6.5 million. For much of its history, it had a modest circulation. The expansion seems to date from the 1980s.

But throughout its history, The Economist’s reach has been less important than its readership. Its target audience has always been the elite, originally the higher circles of the landed and monied interests.

Politicians, such as Franklin D Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, George W Bush and Angela Merkel, and business leaders were/are regular readers. In a profile in the New York Times Magazine, Bill Gates, then a young prodigy, claimed that he did not have a TV because it would prevent him from his cover-to-cover reading of The Economist each week.

Half the readership is estimated to be in North America, a fifth in the UK, and the rest split around the world, concentrated in Europe. Less than 30 percent of its readership is women.

Its audience would self-describe as: management or professional, high income and high influence. James Fallows had a different take. Readers, particularly American and non-UK buyers, were buying into certain myths. One was snobbery – anything English must be better.  Another was status anxiety. Readership, like other luxury brands, offered differentiation. Aspirants imitated their rich and influential role models.

Throughout its history, The Economist’s marketing has used these subliminal concerns. One ad read: “I never read The Economist.” The speaker is: “Management trainee – aged 44.” Another ad proclaimed: “It’s lonely at the top, but at least there’s something to read.”

Oxbridge Blues

My earnest and careful readership did not deliver the coveted affluence and influence. Over time, disappointment permeated my view of the newspaper which has prominent critics – Alexander Zevin’s book Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist as well as pieces from Fallow, Adam Tooze and Pankaj Mishra.

The initial attraction, other than imbuing me with the sought-after intellectual rank, was The Economist’s coverage of global affairs beyond that featured in other media. But it was, I discovered, an economics oriented version of the Reader’s Digest. It enabled you to say you were across issues when, in reality, you were not. It was an older version of scrolling through headlines or a newsfeed.

There were other weaknesses.

As a weekly published each Friday, it is ideal for Rip van Winkle readers who are asleep for most of the time awaking intermittently on publication day. While less problematic when news sources were slower, instant news and 24/7 media cycles can make The Economist appear dated. A multiplicity of newsletters that subscribers can sign up for provide more timely coverage. But this means large portions of the weekly edition is often redundant appealing mainly to readers with memory issues.

The content is allegedly the work of around seventy journalists mostly working out of London, although increased data and graphical intensity may have increased numbers in recent years. The model presents available information in The Economist style rather than original reporting. It is a human version of artificial intelligence (AI).

The Economist has a limiting homogeneity, in part, because of the remarkable longevity of its editors. In its 180+ year history, there have been only 17 editors. Articles lack the customary authorial by-line.  The anonymity is puzzling as the correspondents and writers are actually listed on its website.

John Ralston Saul in his 2002 The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense questioned the attempt to fake the appearance of a single sagacious personality. He thought that hiding the names of the authors was designed “to create the illusion that they dispense disinterested truth rather than opinion”.

Michael Lewis suggested that the anonymity covered the callow youth of The Economist’s staff. He told Fallows that it is “written by young people pretending to be old people”. If readers, especially Americans, “got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves”.

The journalists are predominantly white and mainly educated at Oxford, especially Magdalen College, and Cambridge. Qualifications seem heavily skewed towards “a First at Oxbridge”. This selection bias is similar to the British intelligence services (remember Philby, MacLean and Burgess) and the civil service (described by Dominic Cummings  as a ‘horror show’ or ‘weirdos and misfits’). This lack of diversity is apparently advantageous producing an uniform point of view, even if it is wrong.

The style is Oxbridge undergraduate – obscure vocabulary, tendentious wordplay, self-conscious understatement, unconvincing self-disparagement, mordant wit and irony. Leaders offer strong opinion consistent with the gospel. Stories desperately seek informative and quirky anecdotes to highlight the author’s cleverness. The Obituary section strives constantly to surprise the reader with the obscure departed. The tone is frequently condescending and clubby – the reader, a part of a select group, is being let in on precious secrets.

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