Bill Emmott, the 49-year-old editor of The Economist magazine who announced his resignation last month after 13 years at the helm, was interviewed on the BBC World Service yesterday. One of the most successful editors ever who doubled the circulation of his news weekly from 500,000 copies to more than a million today when newspaper circulations are declining, he was naturally asked what led to his remarkable achievement.
Globalisation and the spread of the English language helped his magazine grow, he said. Businessmen and executives everywhere now have to keep up with world markets and foreign affairs, and The Economist provides both business and political analysis. As a weekly, it is cheaper and more concise than a daily like The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times and almost as authoritative.
But The Economist also goofs. It predicted oil prices could go down to $10 a barrel, Emmott recalled when asked what was his biggest mistake. It was also wrong when it urged Clinton to step down during the Monica Lewinsky affair and out of sync with the majority of American voters when it — unexpectedly, I thought — failed to endorse Bush against Kerry in the 2004 election.
It may have been out of step with American voters but has been a hit with American readers. Unusally, for a British publication, America is its biggest market. It sells more than 500,000 copies in the USA alone and just about 150,000 in Britain.
And the fact that it sells more than 300,000 copies in the rest of the world shows its huge international reach. Along with the BBC and The Guardian and the British Council, The Economist gives Britain an international audience that Tony Blair and his government would have never been able to reach on their own.
The Economist, of course, is far to the right of the BBC and The Guardian, but it would be wrong to say it’s more American in its outlook. It doesn’t have anyone like Nicholas Kristof or Paul Krugman, who certainly can’t be called un-American.
There was a time when I used to look forward to every issue of The Economist, but no longer. It can be quite predictable. But it has a dry wit, a voice of its own, and, though a bit of a one-trick pony, is very good on its own turf. It never captured my imagination like the Time magazine of the ’70s and ’80s, nor does it appeal to the senses like Vanity Fair, but one has to admire the intelligence at work though it’s a bit like Mrs Thatcher the milk snatcher and absolutely wedded to the bottomline.
It’s cold but intelligent. Not that it is always persuasive. It failed to sway foreign investors when it suggested years ago India might be a safer place to invest in than China because India was a stable democracy with well-regulated markets. But foreigners are beginning to warm up to India too. The Economist was just ahead of its time.