Tagline: It doesn’t have one. The Economist is too mature for taglines.
Who is this magazine for? I’ve subscribed to The Economist for a while. If you asked me why, I’d find it difficult to give you a convincing answer. I might construct a laboured argument about it providing an international perspective you don’t get from the newspapers or the telly. I could contend that the fact it distils a week of news in a style well suited to the time-poor, effort-poor metropolitan lifestyle I claim to lead. But that wouldn’t really be true.
In fact, the reason I started buying The Economist was based on a lie. The mag, you see, has always boasted a jaunty front cover. Nothing funny in the sense that normal people would recognise by laughing, but at best gently satirical in a way that might be rewarded with an ‘aahhh’ and a round of applause from a Radio 3 audience.
Marvellous, I thought, a substantial but humorous take on the week’s news. It might cost me a fiver, but what could be better for that seven-hour train journey? And then of course, you actually read the mag and realise it’s not funny at all. It’s not even trying! It’s like going on a Match date where the girl who claims to be into Daft Punk and boutique coffee, turns out to be primarily enthralled about her job in business process design.
The Economist has far higher aspirations than being a gag mag. This is a current affairs magazine that courts a readership of influence, doubtless with quite a lot of success. In my day job, I have met some important people, giving them the benefit of my keen insight as I hand them their change and Egg McMuffin. What these movers and shakers want boils down to two things: to appear clever, and not to look stupid. In acting as both a scout and distiller, The Economist strives to serve them with both, albeit through the eyes of a 28-year old graduate economist who writes with the pen of a bewigged Victorian industrialist.
What did you get for your £5? The Economist has a well-worn roll call of articles. It kicks off with a rattle through the week’s top stories, invariably finishing with one which it considers to be on the ‘lighter side’. This edition’s fluff is riffing off references to ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ in relation to Uber, a link that accurately sets the magazine’s cultural compass at fifteen years before the present day.
Persistently sprinkled throughout The Economist are examples of what I’m afraid I’ll have to describe as intellectual whimsy – the kind of witticisms that are written by people who are desperate to appear in dictionary of quotations one day. This crapulent behaviour tends to jar against the seriousness of the content. If, for example, a well-known hotel near Green Park were bought in a deal of questionable legality by the Russian head of state, the resultant Economist article would – without any shadow of a doubt – be titled ‘Putin on the Ritz’.
The news in brief is followed by a series of leader articles, with most of the magazine split along geographical lines: Britain, Europe, US, Asia, and so on. The mag concludes with finance, science, book reviews and some lovely data tables.
The Economist is venerable enough to have developed some admirable quirks, but two stand out. The first is the lack of bylines. In a digital age where the most inconsequential Buzzfeed guffpiece is accompanied by the gurning mugshot and Twitter handle of some jobbing hack, this is actually rather refreshing.
The second is a tendency to focus thoughtfully on things at the fringe of the public discourse – stuff like the decline of CCTV and the collapse of Argentina’s Kirchner administration – that you’re pleased that someone cares about, even if you can’t quite face reading 2,000 words about it.
Features: Unlike most of the other mags I’ve reviewed here, The Economist has a fairly clear political stance. Insofar as I understand it, libertarianism is the order of the day – smallish state, personal freedoms, big business is OK, and all that jazz.
That angle is applied with great confidence to the issues of the day. Europe is perpetually about to dive headlong down the toilet. Immigration, technology and free markets drive efficiency, so let’s not fiddle with them too much. And for Christ’s sake, let’s not do anything drastic – instability messes with stock portfolios and who wants that?
The problem with The Economist is that if you read it once, you’d think: ‘Goodness, they are smart people, and they’ve used numbers and everything. They must know what they’re talking about.’ The reality is the mag gets stuff wrong all the time. It confidently predicted Greece would leave the Euro. To date it has not, much to the disappointment of everyone who found a handful of drachmas in the crevice of an old suitcase.
In one piece about smartphones, the mag blithely predicts they will dominate global technology for years to come, even though the rise and fall of equally unstoppable PCs is shown on the very same page.
It’s not just bollocks as such – they get some things right too – but it is a function of The Economist’s tendency to follow trend lines with the self-assurance of the totally unaccountable. Being a confident conservative is a perfectly defensible position until things change. Problem is, that tends to happen quite a bit.
Adverts: The Economist may be the only magazine I’ve read where the adverts are markedly less enticing than the articles. In keeping with their pitch to the ‘movers and shakers’ market, they tend to be for consultancies and investment companies.
The mag also runs quite a few job adverts. These tend to be for positions of such existential boredom that if you met the jobholder at a party, you would say ‘Oh! Right!.. Mmmm… Well. Say, have you tried the punch?’. Programme Officer, Technical Assistance Unit, I’m looking at you.
Letters page: The Economist letters page serves one function – for self-important but irrelevant people to contribute their opinions. True of all letters pages you may say, but here the platform is given to those who once moved and shaked. Nobody really reads The Economist’s letters page, but it serves well as a retirement colony for former executives and senior public servants.
This week, the ‘British Ambassador to Russia from 2004 – 2008’, Sir Tony Brenton, gives his views on his former host nation. Or to put it in a shorter, more accurate way, a retired man enjoys a brief rant.
Probably one of the UK’s best newspapers, The Economist has the self-confidence and wit of a polished student politician. And an equal amount of responsibility.
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