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The Economist stays on the cutting edge

August 13, 2009

Michael Hirschorn, in The Atlantic, had a great article recently about how news magazines are dying a slow and painful death, with one very prominent exception: The Economist.

Unlike its rivals, The Economist has been unaffected by the explosion of digital media; if anything, the digital revolution has cemented its relevance. The Economist has become an arbiter of right-thinking opinion (free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism) at a time when arbiters in general are in ill favor. It is a general-interest magazine for an ever-increasing audience, the self-styled global elite, at a time when general-interest anything is having a hard time interesting anybody. And it sells more than 75,000 copies a week on U.S. newsstands for $6.99 (!) at a time when we’re told information wants to be free and newsstands are disappearing.

Hirschorn seems to think that the reasons for The Economist‘s continued success are a combination of quality of reporting and, oddly, the publication’s total lack of online savvy. Because the magazine’s website was so behind the curve, it “remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly.” Meanwhile, other news magazines provide tons of free content, which draws viewers but not revenue.

The idea that The Economist is so far behind is a bit suspect, though. They’ve been making podcasts for a while now, downloadable for free for subscribers or a considerable fee for non-subscribers, in which you can listen to stories read aloud in their entirety. This feature is built out pretty well and, at least anecdotally, seems to be pretty popular.

Now, there’s Economist Direct, in which UK residents can order a copy of the current issue of the magazine (online or by text message) and have it delivered to their door the next day, for the newsstand cover price. I’m curious to see if this becomes a parallel to the experience of Amazon Prime (free two-day shipping on everything) radically changing participants’ consumption patterns.

Flying Whale

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