After 171 Years, The Economist Publishes Its First Foreign-Language Edition

The Weekly's App Reaches Out to New Readers in Chinese, and That's a Tricky Business

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The Economist Global Business Review
The Economist Global Business Review

The Economist has avoided publishing foreign-language editions in the past, considering them too pricey and impractical. The 171-year-old weekly is getting in the game now with a bilingual app aimed at Chinese speakers.

The Economist's Global Business Review publishes in both Chinese and English, so readers can toggle between versions – handy for people who want to improve their English but aren't fluent. It offers 30 articles a month on business, finance and technology, translated from the original edition.

Hyundai is sponsoring the launch, meaning the app will be free in April and May. After that subscriptions run about $75 a year or $8 a month, though a small amount of content will remain free. The Economist says it's also exploring the market for languages including Portuguese, Japanese and Korean.

As the publishing industry contracts, plenty of outlets have tried to find new readers and revenues through Chinese-language editions, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times among them. Both have since had their English- and Chinese-language sites blocked by the mainland's Great Firewall. Access to Reuters and its Chinese-language content was shut down just last month. There are ways to get around the firewall, such as using a virtual private network or VPN, but it's a hassle, and the government also cracks down on VPNs.

It's not always clear why China targets some sites and apps and leaves others alone (the government doesn't put out a press release); sometimes sites are blocked partially or temporarily.

The English-language web version of The Economist appears to be working fine on the mainland, as does the bilingual iOS app (Android is coming soon). It targets Chinese-speaking readers in locations including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, but obviously much of the audience will be on the mainland. China has 649 million internet users.

"We don't know how the Chinese authorities will respond, and obviously that's up to them," Tom Standage, deputy editor of The Economist, wrote in an email. He noted that if the app adds other languages in the future, it would offer the same stories.

"So the selection of stories has not been chosen with the sensitivities or indeed interests of a particular country in mind," he wrote. "Of course, some business stories have political angles to them, and that may cause problems in some markets. If it does, then so be it; but we are not going to censor ourselves or try to second-guess how the authorities in particular countries might react."

The publication is keeping costs manageable for the project, which offers translations of existing articles but no original content. The goal down the line is to get 80% of revenues from subscriptions, though advertising will play a bigger role at first, said Tim Pinnegar, managing director-Asia Pacific for The Economist Group.

Hyundai's launch ad is a full-screen animated video. The publication is seeking sponsors for later on, with luxury brands, watches, fashion, B-to-B brands, consulting companies and banks among the possibilities. The target audience will be "Chinese-speaking globally curious achievers" who are over 30 or 35 years old and on the fast track to senior roles, he said.

There's clearly a market for The Economist's stories in Chinese already: For years, a loose network of web users has been translating its stories and sharing them online, unofficially.

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