Business as usual as Economist editor steps down?

Weekly newspaper The Economist is bucking industry trends by achieving a worldwide circulation of nearly 1.1 million, at a time when readers are increasingly turning to daily sources for news and analysis.

Rivals such as Time and Newsweek are struggling, but Economist outgoing editor Bill Emmott has been lauded for the success of the publication’s international focus and positioning that has enabled it to extend into new territories, including North America, which now accounts for half the total circulation, and mainland Europe. In fact, during his 12-year tenure, Emmott doubled the magazine’s circulation.

But he is off to write books, and the mantle is being passed to US editor John Micklethwait. His appointment appears to have been broadly welcomed by industry observers, who see it as a sign that editorial standards will remain the same.

Oliver Forder, who heads The Economist account at Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, points out that the publication was redesigned in 2001, so it is extremely unlikely the format or editorial style will be changed. He adds: “Micklethwait might have a different style, but as the US editor, his hallmark has already been all over the publication. I imagine there might be some changes, but it will never change its principles of free trade, capitalism and globalisation.”

Micklethwait, who takes over with immediate effect, is the publication’s sixteenth editor in its 163-year history. Like Emmott, Micklethwait is a graduate of Oxford’s Magdalen College, and he started his career at Chase Manhattan Bank before joining The Economist in 1987. He has held a variety of roles at the publication, including editing the business section and setting up its Los Angeles office.

The challenges facing Micklethwait as he takes the reins will be to retain the magazine’s reputation for strong, high-quality editorial, and continue extending the publication to new territories, including Asia. Emmott believed that if the circulation continued to grow at its current rate of 7% to 8% a year, it could reach 2 million readers worldwide by 2016.

While there is little doubt that the publication will eventually have to progress towards new platforms, observers have mixed feelings on how quickly this should be tackled. MediaCom international director Fraser Riddell says: “The interesting thing about The Economist is that it has been growing and is in a good state, without having to address the internet and new platforms.”

Other observers point out that its website has been successful, but due to the analytical style of content, readers don’t necessarily need it delivered to them on a daily basis. Riddell adds: “The Economist is about the quality of editorial and analysis. The front page is always a bit of a laugh, as the news round-up is so out of date. But the readers don’t rate it for that.” But Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP Group, and a well-known proponent of new media, says: “I read fewer weeklies and fortnightly publications. I read dailies more, more breaking news, such as ft.lex. Why should I wait another week, or day for that matter, when I can get news and analysis immediately?”

Sorrell believes “the online side is critical”. However, he admits The Economist has so far proved him wrong. With its strong circulation and profits of &£25m in 2005, it clearly still has some distance to go in the traditional media market. At this stage, insiders say, Micklethwait would be “foolish” to change something that is going from strength to strength.

Caroline Parry