Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe
Tom Standage: One of the many hats I wear at The Economist is to look after our future gazing products, and our future gazing output. And the main things that fall into that category are two annuals; The World If, which appears in July, and The World In that appears in November.
So The World In 2021 has just come out, and that’s our look at the year ahead. And in addition to those two annualss, we have a monthly podcast called The World Ahead. In all of these cases, what we’re trying to do is draw on the expertise of both our journalists and external guests to try and figure out what the future looks like.
The World If does this in quite a fun way. It essentially takes the form of Economist reports that have fallen out of the future. So it’s great fun, because you get to write an article about how the carbon storage industry emerges in the 2040s, and how the oil companies all turned into these companies that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it under the ground.
So yes, The World If this year appeared in July and had a whole load of scenarios around climate change set in the years anywhere between 2022 and 2050. So that’s great fun to do. Then The World In has a different focus. It’s always just focused on the coming calendar year, that’s the annual that’s just appeared.
And obviously, we’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen in 2021 with vaccines, and the economic recovery, and what does it mean with Joe Biden and so forth? So yes, my my sort of purview covers all of these future gazing products.
Chris: So I suppose that the question is, how does that tie into what The Economist is doing more widely in terms of providing a bit of a snapshot on the world?
We publish every day now on digital channels, but the core weekly product, which says, ‘What’s happening in the world? How can you make sense of it? What does it mean about what’s coming next?’ and so on, the traditional role of that product was that it was something you read over the weekend, and it helps you catch up with what’s going on in the world.
And it also prepares you for the week ahead. So the idea is that you don’t get caught out in the lift on Monday morning, when your boss says, ‘Oh, what about the Venezuelan economy, eh?’ So I think that’s how a lot of our readers have traditionally seen it.
I remember once a McKinsey consultant said, ‘In my business, we’ve all got to read The Economist, it’s like the theory of mutually assured destruction, you don’t want to be the only person in the meeting, who hasn’t read The Economist that week, and then whatever else starts talking about whatever, you look dumb.’
So in that sense, it was a sort of, get you ready for and help you feel like you’re staying on top of things. And I think the fact that the paper is, as we call it, the fact that the paper is ‘finishable,’ I mean, if you subscribe to The New York Times, say, you’ll get lots of fantastic coverage, but there’s more than any human can read.
And the weekly is meant to be a bundle that you can consider reading every piece. You may not read every piece, but it is a way of getting your arms around the news and feeling like you’re on top of it. And then when you get to the end of it, you’ve got that feeling, that finish-ability, you’ve got the feeling of getting to the end, and you’ve got permission to go and do something else, until work starts again.
What ‘The World In…’ is doing is essentially the same job but on an annual level rather than a weekly level. So it’s like it’s an end of the year read, that’s trying to point out all of the things that we think are important and worth watching out for next year. What are the issues, what the arguments going to be? Who are the people to watch? What are the trends? What are the themes?
So it’s really doing the same job as the paper, but it’s doing it on this annual level rather than something that you read once a week.
I suppose that mission’s been completely vindicated these past few years by this trend towards slow journalism and digestible newsletter formats, which really do provide a primer for what’s most important over the coming week. It sounds like you were in the right place at the right time to capitalise on that?
Yes, I think we’ve always…I mean, I’ve been banging on about finishability, and the noisier and the more frenetic the news environment gets, the more demand I think there is for trustworthy content, but also content that steps back and says, ‘What’s really going on here, what really matters?’ and so on.
So I think we have benefited from the fact that the pace of the news environment and that all of these new channels has meant that you really can get stuff instantly. We’re not competing. We’re not a breaking news organisation, we’re not competing with the papers that try to break news, and be the first to report that this state has been certified for Joe Biden or whatever.
There’s lots and lots of news organisations that will do that. And where we think we can carve out our own distinctive space and have carved out our own distinctive space is the analysis, and the step back analysis. We have stepped up the pace with which we do that, it’s not three days later.
Obviously when we were just a print weekly publication, that was the case. So I remember for example, when the Bataclan attacks happened in Paris a few years ago, we did the classic Economist piece that we would have done in print the following week, we just did it that day, or the following morning, I think it was. We did a news piece that day, and then we did the analysis of what does this tell you, that step back.
And it was that analysis piece that did much better, because the news piece that told you what happened, there were lots of other news organisations you could go to for that, and there was lots of competition for eyeballs on those sorts of pieces, just to be really mercenary about it.
But where we could really differentiate ourselves is in that analysis, and what does this mean? Place this in its political and historical context, what does this tell you about what’s going to happen next, and so on.
So I know that’s come to be known as ‘slow journalism’. But I think that sort of step back, big picture stuff, that’s the part of the map that we’ve always played in. So yes, to some extent, other people have come down to recognising the value of that.
I received a copy of The World In 2020 last year, which was fantastic as a product. Also, I really appreciated that it came with a cookie, that was great! But I was really struck by how eclectic all the content was within it, there was as you mentioned, pieces about climate change, and there was a piece on alcohol free booze, which was extremely prescient based on what’s happened this year. So I wonder how your team really decides on what to focus on?
Well, the idea is to have as broad a possible menu of ideas for next year. So some of the pieces are identifying existing trends we think are going to continue, in some cases, they are putting a person or an idea on your radar.
And then we also have very small pieces called ‘what if?’ which allow us in 100 words to suggest something that’s low probability, but high impact, so essentially, we’ve got a range there, implicitly. Then we’ve also got, because this is put together by the same journalists who write the weekly and write for our digital channels, we’ve also got that range of opinions and experiences and expertise.
And then the interesting thing about The World In is that we also have external contributors from the world of finance, and business and politics, and so on. So the idea really is to have as broad a possible range of options, just to really plant all of these possibilities in the mind of the reader. And we lay the whole thing out in the same structure as the weekly paper.
Again, one of the unusual things about The Economist, if you look at the weekly for example, there is an Americas section that covers the Americas outside the United States, so Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada, all those, the Middle East and Africa section. Because these sections are always there, they’re ring-fenced, and it’s not the case like it would be on a daily newspaper that a celebrity story will push a foreign story out of the paper. So there’s always coverage of all of these things.
And the way that The World In annual works is that we also have these sections. And so each of the section editors and their correspondents are asked, ‘Well, what’s big on your radar?’ So I’m not thinking about, I don’t follow politics in sub-Saharan Africa particularly closely, but we have people who do and when you say to them, ‘What are the big themes for the coming year in that field?’ they have opinions about that. And so that is what ends up in the pages.
So the fact that I as the editor, I’m not an expert on that, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean that we only focus on things that I’m interested in. We get the expertise of all of our staff there. And then we also get to invite we say, who would be a good person to hear from? Who is an interesting character, etc, etc. And then we go out and invite people to write for us.
That also gives us another range of perspectives and another range of inputs. Really what we’re trying to do is provide this sort of smorgasbord of ideas, and to be as interesting as possible. We get some things right, we get some things wrong, and we accept that. But we’re doing the best we can to put things on your radar that you should be aware of for next year.
And of course, 2020 has been [salutary] for all of us in the business of thinking about the future because obviously we’ve all been blindsided by the pandemic.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a bit chastening for everybody who decided that they knew what was going to be the, you mentioned that kind of gray rhino situation, just the fact that it arrived slightly sooner than people expected really did chasten quite a lot of people.
Yes, absolutely, including us. In fact one of the things I have to do as editor is write a box that says, ‘How did we do’ every year. So I wrote that box, and it was quite interesting because we got a few things right about the world before the pandemic struck. So we tipped Keir Starmer in the post election Labour leadership, and then we also got the Taiwanese election result right, and so on.
But then, of course, the pandemic kicks in and everything else is wrong. We expected a wobbly economy, we didn’t expect the biggest contraction since the depression. We expected US/China tensions over Chinese exports, but not of the viral variety. So it was chastening in that sense.
We made a couple of predictions about online activity, so we said that American politicians are going to wake up to TikTok, because it’s a Chinese company, American teenagers are obsessed with it, and just at the beginning of last year, a few American senators were just starting to realise that this might be a problem, and they might start worrying about it. So we were right on that.
And then the other thing is we we did a piece last year on the metaverse of how close are various gaming platforms to being like a virtual reality universe depicted in sci fi. We said that Fortnite was one of the contenders for being being the closest.
What have we seen this year? We’ve seen concerts in Fortnite by Travis Scott, and others as well. We’ve seen all kinds of stuff. I mean, one of the really exciting and interesting, innovative things has been the way people have put on their wedding receptions, or their high school graduations, and things like that in Animal Crossing, or Roblox or Minecraft, and because everyone’s been forced to retreat into virtual environments where they can’t go out to the physical world. So we got that right too, we sort of tipped that.
But the funniest thing is that I did an interview with an AI for The World In 2020, so last year. My background is in computer science, and I originally wanted to go and build AI’s in the 90s. But AI didn’t work in the 90s, so I went into journalism instead.
So this was a fun thing to do, which was, I rigged up GPT-2, which is this AI language model, so that I could ask a question to do an interview with it. And so I did an interview with it, and asked it about whether AI was going to take all of our jobs, and then I asked it for a few predictions for 2021.
And it said that the world economy would see volatility, that there would be big changes in China, and that Donald Trump would lose the election. It was spot on.
The funny thing about this is that futurologists, they tend to bang on about the fourth industrial revolution and how the machines are going to come and take all of our jobs – which they never have, by the way – and so what I find quite amusing is that the futurologist are perhaps worried about the wrong people’s jobs! Perhaps they should be worried about their own.
But obviously my interview with AI was a joke and was not meant to be taken seriously. But the irony is that it’s ended up actually doing a better job than the human forecasters.
I follow this woman just out of pure curiosity, she’s called The Asparo-mancer, and she predicts the future using asparagus. And she predicted that Trump was going to win a second term, and obviously that hasn’t come true. So now I don’t know what to believe!
You can’t trust asparagus. You’re going to have to switch to tea leaves.
Well, you mentioned AI then, and I just wondered, where do new editorial products come from internally at The Economist? I remember you used to do hackathons, I don’t know if you still do them?
We have a slightly more formal process now. So since our new CEO came in a bit more than a year ago, there’s been a big expansion, a big investment in our product and technology organisations.
So historically, we didn’t have a large product organisation – I don’t think we had one at all for a while – we were quite late to that I think. News organisations generally struggle with, where do you put product? What’s the relationship between editorial, product and technology? So you’ve got this confounding factor that you don’t have in a classic tech startup, for example, that you’ve got, where does editorial fit in?
So historically, quite a lot of ideas for new products came from editorial. So things like Espresso was an idea that I had. I prototyped it, and then took the idea to the board, and we got funding, and we launched it in six months, and it was an internal startup.
And it was great fun to do that. But ultimately, you need to have innovation as a ‘business as usual’ process going on. And that’s really where we’re getting to now. We have a much more professionalised approach to developing and testing new products now.
There’s a bunch of them that we’ve got underway right now that we’re working on and developing, some of which I’m involved in, but it’s great, because there’s a much larger number of people working on those things now. And I feel that we’re doing it in a much more rigorous way that we were in the past when it tended to be more sort of, either I or someone else in editorial would come up with an idea and we’d say, ‘Well, what about this, let’s give it a try.’
And just generally media organisations tend to have a rather strange approach to innovation. Just during my career, I’ve seen famous disasters of new products. Remember Portfolio Magazine, for example? Just before the global financial crisis, one of the big American publishers hired the creme of American business journalism to launch a business magazine, and it died almost instantly. There was Tina Brown’s magazine Talk?
And essentially what tends to happen in media is that somebody says, ‘I think there is demand for this product’. They go and hire people and build it, and they launch it and hope for the best.
A tech company would never do that. A tech company would say, ‘Well, let’s build a minimum viable product, and let’s go out and do some testing. And we’ll set up a newsletter and see how many people sign up for it, and then etc, etc, etc.’
So there are ways that tech companies measure this, and I’ve been very struck as someone who’s covered tech, that there’s this sort of gulf between the way that they develop new products or the way they iterate, and the way that editorial and publishing organisations tend to, they think iteration is just publishing a new edition. They don’t actually evolve the product.
And so I think importing that best practice from the tech industry, and the other area where we’ve been investing at The Economist has been in customer service and the manage your account side of things.
People expect digital customer service – the benchmark there is Amazon – people want everything to be as good as Amazon in every in every respect. My wife is a doctor in the National Health Service, and she says that people expect to be able to book an appointment with their doctor like it’s as easy as buying something on Amazon, and when it’s not as easy as using Amazon, they go, ‘Well, this is rubbish!’ And rightly so! But when somebody does something that well…
So I’m with Bulb Energy. Now, all of these energy companies have really just the same people on the back end with the power stations. But the difference with Bulb is that it’s got modern customer service and a modern user interface and a good app on the front end. And boy, it’s amazing. It just makes such a difference. And you go, why aren’t other utilities like this? This is fantastic.
So I think when the bar is that high, which it is, then that’s the standard you need to meet. And so we’ve been investing in just improving our technology infrastructure, too.
So there’s a lot of that kind of thing that we’re doing, where we know we’ve got catching up to do and improving the experience of our apps and our website and so on. So watch this space, because there is a lot more investment going on there. And we’re improving in those those areas very rapidly.
Really providing new touch points for those audiences.
Exactly, and recognising that the nature of consumption is shifting. There are people who, I mean, we’ve got the audio edition too, we’ve had that for many years. But clearly audio has come up the field, and a lot of people do like to get their news through podcasts.
We’ve got this very successful daily podcast, The Intelligence as well, and that’s been doing extremely well.
I suppose I’m really interested to get your take on this. What is your fondest hope for news and current affairs titles over the next 10 years or so? Is it really rebuilding trust in audiences? Is it building innovation into the workflow as you mentioned? What are your great hopes for news and current affairs titles?
Well, I think it’s all of these things. I mean, the main objective is that we’ve got to get to a point where high quality journalism is sustainable. And we happen to have a model that is sustainable, because we charge a high price for what we consider to be a high quality, high value product. We have enough people who agree with that, and are willing to pay that price.
So we’ve always had a very large chunk of our revenue has been based on subscriptions, and subscription revenue from readers. They pay us for our journalism, that’s been the mainstay of our business model.
Now, at times, there have been great periods where it’s been very lucrative to make money from advertising. So around the turn of the century, with dotcom advertising and so on, and telecoms advertising. But our business model has never been a business model based on advertising. So we have not had to go through the pivot of switching from a primarily advertising-based revenue model to a primarily subscription-based reader model.
So we’ve taken the advertising revenue when it’s been more abundant, but ultimately, we’ve really always been about being reader-funded. And it just affected the level of our profitability when the amount of advertising goes up and down. We’ve made sure that our finances with with our subscription based model are solid, even if advertising goes away, basically, which it is; traditional display advertising is clearly in long run decline. And that doesn’t affect us.
And we see that other publications are having to cross the chasm of getting to different business models that are funded in different ways. And some of them are clearly doing a great job of that; the New York Times springs to mind, the Guardian as well with a different approach, which I didn’t think would work, but I was wrong, and I’m happy to say I was wrong! Asking people for money, it turns out that works. That’s great.
So I think the real question is, how can we build models that are sustainable? Because without that, we have nothing. And then, clearly also, it’s got to be, if people are going to pay for it, it has to be stuff that they think is giving them value. And how do we protect the function of journalism, and providing trustworthy information in a society where people do seem to want to just be told more of what they already believe?
There are various people grappling with that problem. I think we’re in the position of – and I’m the first to put my hand up and say, in large part because of luck – this idea of being a British publication that has most of its readers in North America, and always having had a business model that was based on subscriptions, those turned out to be the right things to have done by accident. So we’re in a happy position where we don’t have to switch our position on those things.
And then also providing a global perspective, well, as the world has become more globalised and interconnected, that’s something that there’s been more demand for. So we’ve been on the right side of history on a lot of these trends, in large part by accident.
And the question is, how can we get more publishers into a position of long term sustainability? And I think that’s, if I could wave a magic wand, that’s the question I would like to try and answer.
I don’t think the answer is to complain that the tech giants are taking all our money, because I just think that frankly, it’s a misreading of history. But it’s also an incredibly sort of entitled position that that money rightfully belongs to news organisations. And it doesn’t.
News organisations establish these incredibly lucrative monopolies starting in the mid 19th century based on advertising, because bandwidth was expensive, was limited. There was no way to distribute news over wide areas cheaply. So you’ve got these local monopolies, firstly in newspapers, and then radio around cities, within countries, that was incredibly lucrative.
That came to an end because of the internet. And saying, ‘Well, that’s not fair. We’d like to turn back the clock, and those pesky internet companies have taken away money that rightfully belongs to us, the news media,’ I just can’t stand it. And so I don’t think this kind of ‘Let’s pass laws that require Google to give us money when they put stuff on Google News,’ that’s just not…if that’s the best we can do…
So we need to find different models, and we need to actually try and innovate. And maybe the the tech companies could be our partners in that rather than just treating them as adversaries who stole our lunch. But I just don’t think that is the route to long term sustainability and I just roll my eyes when I see things like these laws in Australia, where they’re trying to charge, and they’re trying to put these tax.
The tech giants are giant on the radar of the news organisations. For us, they’re these enormous beasts that have come into our world and changed everything. For the tech giants, news organisations are a tiny flea on the back of an elephant. They’ve got much bigger fish to fry and much bigger things to worry about. And so they can sort of shut us up by throwing money at us occasionally and saying, ‘Oh look, we’re investing in this, that the other.’ But it’s nothing for them.
There are various ways that they have their own struggles that they’re involved in with regulators and with governments, which are actually much more of a concern to them. So we’re an irritation to them.
And we’ve just basically got to figure out models within the publishing and news industries that are sustainable, that don’t rely on handouts from tech companies, because that’s not the answer.