The Economist: Everyone Copies It, But Does Anyone Translate It?

Can The Economist be stopped? Or then again, can The Economist be started?

That’s not a good lead. It’s hard to remember what a good lead is after spending an evening with The Economist. Here are some of the opening sentences of articles in the March 10 issue:

“Texans are addicted to aggressive driving.”

“Any number of leading Republicans have been damaged by the Iraq war.”

“Nazis came in all shapes and sizes.”

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. On March 16, The Economist will be joined on newsstands by a redesigned Time magazine. Throughout the process, there’s been a consistent message about the direction that Time’s managing editor, Richard Stengel, is taking things. “The Economist,” New York magazine reported, “is a model Stengel admires and wants to inform the new Time.”

“The magazine Mr. Stengel is building seems to be the journalistic offspring of magazines like The Atlantic and The Economist,” David Carr wrote in The New York Times.

In conceptual-genetics terms, that would make the new Time an inbred back-cross. The owner of The Atlantic, David Bradley, has already revamped his own title, talking all the while about his desire to emulate The Economist.

But then, so does everyone. When U.S. News redesigned itself two years ago, The Economist was the in-house role model. It has become like Harold Hayes’ Esquire, an unquestioned aspirational reference point, in public and private. Or both: In September, Women’s Wear Daily reported that New York editor Adam Moss, acting as a consultant, had advised Business Week to try making covers more like The Economist’s. At a retreat, Los Angeles Times editors were advised to give stories a more Economist-like feel.

Are any of them reading The Economist? The cover of the March 10 issue is a Cultural Revolution–era Chinese propaganda poster, showing a strapping peasant steering a tractor with one hand and holding a book aloft in the other. The book, originally Mao’s Little Red Book, has been modified so that the cover reads “Property Deed” in English. The revolutionary slogan on the peasant’s coveralls is still in Chinese.

China, you see, is having a revolution. Or at least things are changing there, and China is famous for having had a revolution or two before. Hence the headline: “China’s next revolution.”

The Economist is priced at $5.99. A magazine for more than $5 is like a sandwich for more than $10: It needs to be appetizing enough to make the sale, and filling enough that you don’t feel ripped off afterward.

Along the bottom of the front cover, in tiny type, the price of the magazine is given for 16 different countries and/or currencies: 23.90 Brazilian reals, 1,100 Japanese yen, 3.60 British pounds. According to an online exchange calculator, that’s $11.39, $9.36 and $6.95, respectively. Perhaps Americans should be exporting The Economist.

At this point, I noticed I was failing to open the magazine.

Inside: China! The “Leaders” section begins addressing the subject by citing Confucius—“Some 2,500 years ago, one of Confucius’ big ideas was … ”—and closes by citing Marx, or what Marx “would surely see,” “[w]ere the latter writing today.” What would Marx see? A “bourgeois revolution led by the emerging property-owning middle class” and “the potential for the simmering resentment in the countryside to boil over.”

“Americans imagine that The Economist is better written,” Mr. Stengel said, “because they impute an English accent to what they read.”

At least, that’s what Mr. Stengel said in 1991, in a piece by James Fallows in The Washington Post. The title was “The Economics of Colonial Cringe,” and it was a comprehensive indictment of The Economist as a pseudo-intellectual con job, based on “Anglophilic snobbery and Oxbridge-style swagger.”

Mr. Fallows now works for Mr. Bradley’s Atlantic. He has archived the Post story on his personal Web site, with a referring note saying he is now friends with Economist writers. “Still … ,” the note concludes.

Indeed: still. Quite. The smug glibness that Mr. Fallows diagnosed 16 years ago is still there—adjectives and adverbs deployed in place of evidence: “rightly,” “admirable,” “impressive,” “encouraging,” “predictable,” “worrying.” “Here,” one story begins, “are three pieces of conventional political wisdom what are almost all certainly wrong.” Almost all certainly. Elsewhere, an obituary of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declares that “Mr. Schlesinger was too young to remember the New Deal.” Mr. Schlesinger, by the piece’s own internal evidence, was born in 1917.

But The Economist is less provocative than it is aggressively boring: “The last time he ran for president John McCain spent months rolling around New Hampshire in a bus, the Straight Talk Express.” “In the absence of reliable, up-to-date information, markets go awry.” The layout is even duller—thick columns of type wrapping from page to page, like a cross between the old New Republic and the telephone book. The back page is filled with currency tables (for those who would convert the 16 different cover prices longhand). The only nod to magazine aesthetics is the sheen of the paper stock.

Stupefaction is its own form of power. “When a Garuda Indonesia airliner crashed and burst into flames at Yogyakarta airport in central Java on March 7th it naturally saddened the nation.”

Taken seriously, the content becomes inscrutable. A dispatch about Cote d’Ivoire declares that a peace agreement had settled the “vital” issue of “identification”: “Millions of Ivorians do not have identity papers, so northerners like [rebel leader Guillaume] Soro and his fighters have been obstructed from getting the Ivorian citizenship that is rightfully theirs.” Are identity papers the same thing as citizenship? How did millions of people come to be without them? The story, unperturbed, moves on, like a scene from a commuter-train window.

The audience for this is not people who care about the world, but people who believe it is important to care about the world. When other magazines say they want to be like The Economist, they do not mean they wish to be serious. They mean they wish, by whatever means, to be taken seriously.

Can Washington Post Style Make Leap?

Writers for The Washington Post’s Style section—famed as a showcase for broadsheet-literary journalists—are taking video training to prepare for a coming Web redesign. So far, 15 to 20 staffers have been trained, according to executive editor Jim Brady.

The new electronic version of Style is due out in six to eight weeks, Mr. Brady said.

“In addition to traditional storytelling, Style should be a home for invention and experimentation,” Post managing editor Philip Bennett said.

In 1969, when editor Benjamin Bradlee launched the daily section, storytelling was the innovation. Style replaced the antiquated women’s section with The Post’s version of New Journalism, complete with first-person writing and lengthy personality profiles.

Mr. Bradlee, now The Post’s vice president at large, counts Style among his greatest accomplishments. “As far as journalism is concerned, maybe Watergate—but I think Style would have a more permanent impact,” Mr. Bradlee said.

But the present-day section has been in distress, marginalized by changing times and the rise of the Web. Partly, it’s a victim of its own success, as its once-singular voice has spread throughout the rest of the paper and into the wide world. And partly its long-form approach is at odds with The Post’s space-and-cost-cutting imperatives, and with the paper’s news-first Web strategy.

Last year, the Style staff was moved out of the fifth-floor newsroom and down to the fourth floor—where the food, health, and home sections reside.

“Style was being amputated from the news sections that mattered,” said a Post staffer, who described the mood created by the new setup as “funereal.”

Executive editor Len Downie and Mr. Bennett heightened the gloom with a memo this past fall that raised the prospect of moving general-assignment reporters, who contribute greatly to Style, to specific beats. Last month came another memo: “Every story must earn every inch.”

“I think that freaked a lot of people out,” said Mary Hadar, the Style editor from 1983 to 1995.

“People are always nervous every time the executive editor sends out a memo,” said current Style editor Deborah Heard. “I have had conversations about what this means for the section, and the bottom line is that we’ll continue to do long stories if the stories are worth it.”

Style, Mr. Bennett said, “lives under the burden of a strong and dynamic legacy. It has an extra burden to find new ways to be itself, but also to adapt to the changes in the culture and the newsroom.”

There is a pervasive belief among the staff that the section hasn’t translated well to, where politics and metro stories usually get top billing.

“I would say that of all the daily sections on the Web, we have the least presence,” a Style staffer said. “There’s this whole sense that we’re being left behind.”

Ms. Heard said Style has lagged behind the other sections online “due to the philosophy that the company adopted when our Web site was created—that hard news drives it.”

And The Post’s Web site—run out of separate offices across the Potomac—tends not to replicate the form of the print edition.

“Section fronts are kind of lost, in a way,” Mr. Brady said. That, not the length of articles, is the problem for Style online, he added.

“Style exists in the newspaper sometimes as an anti-section, playing against the front page,” Mr. Bennett said. “It’s hard to do that on the Web.”

The relaunch is meant to give Style a more coherent electronic form. “We’re trying to build out a Style front, to aggregate it a lot better,” Mr. Brady said.

But what will be aggregated? Two months ago, the paper set up a committee of staffers under editor Marcia Davis, who is also the liaison with the Web side, to come up with ideas for improving the section.

“It’s undergoing an identity crisis,” said a staffer. “There’s more entertainment and reviews mixed in.”

Will Style keep fading into the entertainment-lifestyle crowd? Will multimedia become the Newer Journalism it needs to keep its identity?

Bring on the video blogs! “They’re really learning by going out and shooting something,” Mr. Brady said. “Our attitude is that Style is such a great storytelling section; this is another way to tell a story.”

—Michael Calderone The Economist: Everyone Copies It,  But Does Anyone Translate It?