Tom Standage – Digital Editor, The Economist, spoke at the Business and Practice of Journalism seminar on Wednesday 7 May 2014.
“We’re the view from the moon.” That’s The Economist’s biggest selling point, according to Digital Editor Tom Standage. He said the increasing demand for a less parochial serving of news is what sets his ‘newspaper’ apart in a crowded global market. “We’re for aliens that speak English,” he laughed.
After studying engineering and computer science at Oxford University, Standage began his career as a freelance technology writer before joining The Guardian as it was setting up its first website. “I wrote a script to render the headlines in the right font, because I wanted it to look and feel like The Guardian,” he said. From there he wrote for the Daily Telegraph before joining The Economist as a science writer, business editor, and eventually Digital Editor.
Standage says being global and being a weekly has allowed The Economist to make a relatively seamless transition to the web. Their 1.6 million subscribers ensure they’re profitable; the company posted an operating profit of £68 million last year.
The Economist’s digital strategy is neither to push nor prevent traditional print readers from migrating to their digital offer. “We’re agnostic about whether they take print or digital in their subscription. It’s just ‘you decide’,” he said. Most revenue comes from subscribers and not ads. “We’ll take the print-advertising money while it’s there, but our success is not predicated on ads,” he explained.
Standage points to several digital innovations as hallmarks of The Economist’s success online. “Our Daily Charts blog includes quite jolly charts on both serious issues and things like which country has had the most plastic surgery (http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2012/04/daily-chart-13). “We shouldn’t be a brand that does well on social media but these charts are working very well for us.”
The other innovation Standage is proud of is The Economist’s “essays” including one on democracy (http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do). These are long-form interactive essays with embedded pictures, graphs, and charts. He says unlike The New York Times which had many journalists and developers working for months on their famed Snowfall presentation (http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek) or The Guardian with Firestorm (http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/may/26/firestorm-bushfire-dunalley-holmes-family), The Economist prefers to turn out shorter presentations more often.
Standage was critical of media companies such as The Atlantic, Quartz, and BuzzFeed which use native ads with a similar look and feel to editorial content. He said The Economist labels their ads and places them in a separate area of the website to general content. The Economist does have blogs that are sponsored (such as the one sponsored by GE) but Standage insists readers do realise the content is still independent of GE and written by a journalist.
Video continues to be a challenge for The Economist and Standage admitted most of their “abstract, complex ideas don’t lend themselves to video treatments.” He also stressed that transparency is more important than objectivity. “You can be as biased as you like as long as you tell people your biases,” he said. “We were founded in 1843 to campaign for free trade, and we always tell you where we’re coming from.”