Saturday, March 10, 2007

Why I no longer read The Economist

I was reading a post by Shel Israel of Naked Conversations fame entitled The Economist invites Blogger Ideas about how Tom Shelley of The Economist is soliciting people to "send in your idea (or ideas) about truly innovative services we could offer online. Your idea can be as simple or complex as you like. It could be a product, a service or a business model. Before you jot your idea down, think about how best to describe it (here are some hints for doing this). If you want to track our progress, please visit our blog, where we would love to hear from you."

As an aside, I would note that Shel makes a reference to "citizen journalists", which is a term that really bugs me. It is a vague term (look it up in the Wikipedia), but encompasses two radically different forms of "participatory" journalism: independent bloggers (like me) who are beholding to and dependent on nobody, as contrasted with people who have a desire to contribute free content to established media in return for little more than an opportunity to "get their name in the paper" and in the exchange lose control of their content to the media's "terms and conditions." I personally read the term "citizen journalist" as a reference to the latter form of indentured servitude, while I reserve "blogger" for the former. That said, labeling someone as a "citizen journalist" is rarely helpful.

But, I digress. Someday I'll do a separate post on this whole "citizen journalism" thing.

What I really wanted to talk about here is how Shel's commentary reminded me of all of the reasons I abandoned The Economist as both a reader and subscriber.

For me, just as for Shel, The Economist is the last paper magazine I stopped reading. Quite literally. I no longer subscribe to any print media. I still read tons of articles online, but print publications seem so quaint now. My specific reasons for dropping The Economist include:

  1. Their gung-ho support for invading Iraq, rather than simply objectively reporting the facts.
  2. I suspect that if I was reading the magazine today, I'd feel the same about staking out positions on Iran and Syria and terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
  3. Their staking out of specific positions on U.S. Fed monetary policy, rather than simply objectively reporting the facts.
  4. Their staking out specific positions on the U.S. economy and financial markets, rather than simply objectively reporting the facts. I always found their objective reporting to be quite enlightening and valuable, but whenever they jumped the track over into subjectivity land, the value, to me, went to zero if not deeply negative.
  5. Way back in 1998, they staked out a specific position in the Microsoft Antitrust trial, rather than simply objectively reporting the facts. Why should they even think of taking sides in any court case?
  6. As much value as I got out of each issue of the magazine, there was always something that smelled bad and strongly suggested that there was some sort of "agenda thing" going on behind the scenes at the magazine.
  7. Their patronizing tone towards America, Americans, and all things American. At one point I half convinced myself that they still think of America as "The Colonies" and are still deeply skeptical that "The American Experiment" has any chance of ultimately succeeding.
  8. Lack of bylines, which I equate with a lack of accountability.

On the plus side, I certainly read any number of great, short articles that brought topics to my attention that I hadn't heard of from the "traditional" media. You could always count on them to cover things either a little broader or a little deeper. I also appreciated the short, concise, and to the point nature of most articles. Alas, for them, with the advent of the Web, they no longer have a monopoly on novel or concise coverage.

The cumulative bad karma of The Economist simply overwhelmed the good, and that coupled with the vast, broad range of news, data, and analytic content available on the Web, brought my subscription and readership to an end.

I have to wonder about their demographics. In my own life, I have met only two people who subscribed to The Economist, and one was an older college professor who introduced the magazine to me on a plane flight back in the 1980's. I personally know of no "young people" who read or subscribe to The Economist. I have to wonder whether their readership might be in a state of perpetual decline.

I can appreciate their desire to dip their toe in the Blogosphere, but I'm afraid that this Project Red Stripe is likely to be too little too late.

My suggestion is that they split The Economist effort into two pieces: continue the print magazine in its current form to satisfy a loyal but dwindling audience, and spin off a wholly independent new media operation that has access to the print side's content, but has an absolute 100% focus on catering to the "deep thinkers" of the online generation. Jack up the subscription price to the level where it is economically viable, and let the subscriber base reach its own level of equilibrium. In any case, DO NOT hog-tie the new media folks with a need to get management approval before experimenting. Make sure the new media operation is fully, and separately funded and in no way dependent on the trajectory of the "legacy" magazine operation.

This does raise a key question: what news, editorial, data, analytical, or survey needs does the online generation feel are not yet met by current online media? Could the answer really be "None"? The ball is in The Economist's and Tom Shelley's court to demonstrate that "none" is not the actual answer.

My advice to Tom is that I, as a potential reader, am not looking for half-baked content from a bunch of half-assed bloggers and "citizen journalists", but for The Economist to dump all of the pretensions and biases that drove people like me away and substitute a brand new form of professional journalism that pulls fragmented or half-expressed thoughts from blogs and other online "citizen" content and synthesizes it all with professional objectiveness and balanced coverage into truly great articles that give readers "the best of the Blogosphere" and the best of professional journalism combined. All The Economist needs to do in return is simply engage in "fair use" and excerpt from blogs with proper citations. A little "link love" goes a very, very long way and doesn't cost The Economist a single dime, and it addresses the revenue sharing issue as well.

[Editorial note to Shel: You keep forgetting to capitalize "The" as in "The Economist."]

-- Jack Krupansky


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