Magazine A-List 2008

Magazine of the Year: The Economist

North American Edition's Ad Pages, Circulation Rise as Other Newsweeklies' Sink

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- Five years ago, The Economist published an article headlined "House of Cards," surveying rising home prices from Washington to Sydney. Doesn't this heated market, the article asked, look just a bit dangerous?

A bursting housing bubble wouldn't just sap the value of your home, The Economist warned. "Worse," it said, "there is a risk that house prices will take such a tumble that they take whole economies with them."

This year, with the U.S. financial markets in their worst turmoil since 2001, the big newsweeklies still dominate.

But some important things have changed along the way. The internet challenged the purpose of weekly news magazines. U.S. News, partly as a result, has decided to publish every other week, plus special issues, starting next year. Time and Newsweek, the most massive news magazines, have deliberately reduced their circulations to save money. And The Economist has amplified its erudite voice with no loss of fidelity.It's perhaps too bad then that readers in the U.S. favored Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report so heavily. Five years ago, their combined paid circulations topped 9 million. The Economist's North American edition was selling fewer than 500,000.
Numbers men: North American Publisher Paul Rossi (l.) and Editor in Chief John Micklethwait are bringing a worldly perspective to a growing number of Economist readers.
Numbers men: North American Publisher Paul Rossi (l.) and Editor in Chief John Micklethwait are bringing a worldly perspective to a growing number of Economist readers. Credit: Colin Bell

Beating Big 3
The Big 3 newsweeklies this year reported combined paid circulation below 8 million, while North America's Economist neared 750,000, perhaps on its way toward 1 million.

The sales of ad pages have mirrored those trends, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Time's ad pages from January through August plummeted to 954, down 25.2% from the equivalent period last year. Newsweek's ad pages sank 24.8% to 829. U.S. News fell 33.7% to 684.

From last January through mid-August, on the other hand, the North American edition of The Economist expanded ad pages 7.2% to 1,497.

Economist cover
  • Publisher Paul Rossi overhauled marketing to get the book into more hands.

  • Editor in Chief John Micklethwait spots overseas trends before they appear on the American radar.
  • "Yes, it's a weekly, but it has a different take on the news," says Beth Fidoten, senior VP-account director for print at mega-media agency Initiative, New York. "It's much more of an international perspective, and it's very macro."

    It's also riding the currents that are relentlessly pushing business and global perspectives to the forefront, Ms. Fidoten says. "I think it has a bit of nerd chic to it -- economic nerd chic," she says. "When in the recent past have there been best-sellers like 'Freakonomics'? The whole global scene is much more important. Look at things like Angelina Jolie being a U.N. ambassador. It really plays into trends going into the culture right now."

    Success, however, usually has plenty of parents -- and that's true of The Economist in North America.

    Crossing the Atlantic
    David Hanger spent 36 years building The Economist, an obscure British title when he began there in 1968, until he retired as publisher in January 2005.

    His successor, Andrew Rashbass, a former managing director of, created a business structure that was far less centralized in London. And that enabled Paul Rossi, who was promoted to North American publisher that April, to direct the program that's now paying off so well.

    "We did a lot of work to look at the potential of The Economist in the U.S.," Mr. Rossi says.

    "It became very clear to us that we have a product that people like and that there was a lot of opportunity for the product," he says. "The audience that should be reading The Economist was substantially bigger than the one we were reaching. The problem was a marketing one, not a product or a marketplace one."

    "We had to get the product into more people's hands and to position it in a way that made it accessible," Mr. Rossi adds. "We overhauled our marketing and our sales at that point."

    By now you've seen the advertising campaign that followed. In a series of multimedia blitzes on U.S. cities, The Economist has promoted itself like no other magazine.

    "Leader's digest," it proclaimed on cheeky subway signs and elsewhere.

    "Weapons of mass deduction."

    "Immaculate perception."

    "Topical solution."

    The cheek is part of the brand.

    The campaign, handled by AMV BBDO, London, and BBDO Worldwide, New York, has succeeded. The Economist sold 9.9% more copies on newsstands in the first half of this year than in the first half of 2007, averaging 66,888 copies sold per issue. Time, by way of comparison, averaged 95,950 on the newsstands, down 7%, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations filings.

    Upward trajectory
    The Economist also found its way into some retail outlets frequented by its potential readers, including Whole Foods and Costco. This year, The Economist has cracked 100,000 in newsstand sales for the first time, an unthinkable feat back when it published "House of Cards." In 2003, in fact, The Economist's newsstand sales averaged just 45,081, according to Harrington Associates, the single-copy specialists."

    Subscriptions to The Economist are also growing nicely these days, averaging 680,366 in the first half, up 7.4% from the equivalent period last year. Time's paid subscriptions held flat at nearly 3.2 million.
    Paul Rossi and John Micklethwait
    Photo:Colin Bell

    The Economist's editorial approach has remained consistent while others try to reimagine themselves.

    As many media outlets have played up their writers and pundits as personal brands, sometimes putting their names in huge fonts and heavy type, The Economist has continued to eschew bylines.

    It continues to send reporters to overseas bureaus. It covers seething conflicts in places like Russia and Georgia before they become hot wars. It follows the trends that increasingly shape life in the U.S. before Americans declare them important.

    Middle East, Middle America
    "There are people actually feeling as if the outside world has seldom been more important to America," says John Micklethwait, editor in chief. "Something like the Middle East may have felt a long, long way away in August 2001. Now it feels much closer."

    Mr. Rossi has tried to leverage the resources of the Economist Group to further his ad programs.

    The group's intelligence unit provided much of the foundation for an online game called "Energyville," which The Economist developed for Chevron to help demonstrate the complexity of the global energy system. Chevron said nearly 500,000 people have played the game in more than 215 countries since its introduction in September 2007.

    The Economist has reported encouraging trends for its website to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, though Nielsen Online says traffic to has been falling below Nielsen's threshold to get good estimates -- a threshold that varies.

    The Economist told the audit bureau that its site drew 3.4 million unique visitors in the month of July, up 45% from a year earlier.

    Those advances, plus 69 new advertisers in the magazine this year through August, come during a trying period for the economy generally and for many magazines in particular.

    Ms. Fidoten, the Initiative print buyer, said: "It just shows you that the right product marketed in the right way can have a very good success story even in a time that's not the easiest."

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