The Economist’s Success Is Not a Marketing Story

It’s a miserable time for the press, so it’s somewhat annoying to see The New York Times’s take this morning on one of the very few success stories of recent years, The Economist.

By now, if you follow the media media, you’ve heard about how, while other publications’ ad sales have collapsed, The Economist has sailed through the recession. Its ad revenue actually jumped by a quarter during 2008. Its success goes back further: Its circulation is up ten times since 1982 and sits at 875,000 tend-to-be-well-off-and/or-influential readers.

But to hear the Times tell it, the Economist’s success is in its marketing, not its journalism.

The newsweekly, a bible of global affairs for those who wear aspirations of worldliness on their sleeves, did not become a status symbol overnight. It took 25 years of clever advertising that tugs at the insecurities and ambitions of the status-seeking reader to help the magazine get there.

A standout among its less successful peers in the shrinking world of weekly news magazines, the true genius of The Economist, in fact, may have as much to do with its marketing as with its authoritative and often sardonic tone on exotic subjects, like a constitutional referendum in Kenya and the history of the vice presidency in Brazil.

We’re also told it’s the “foreign flavor,” “status-symbol appeal,” and the “hip factor.”

Uh, no. Let me stand up for the journalists here: Most people read The Economist because it’s a great magazine and the single best place to keep up on what’s going on in the world. They don’t read it because it’s been cleverly marketed to them.

Marketing helps get people in the door of a publication. It doesn’t keep them there.

Is The New York Times the third-biggest paper in the country because of those ads with yuppie dipsticks sitting around the breakfast-table extolling the Sunday Times or is it because it’s the greatest newspaper in the world (sorry, Economist, despite your self-identification, you’re a magazine)? Okay, maybe that’s not fair: The Economist’s marketing is clearly better than the Times’s. But I think you see my point.

And the one anecdote the Times uses to back up its marketing-success thesis is pretty weak stuff (emphasis mine):

But it has clearly become a hip product in some circles. Until recently, The Economist could be bought at, of all places, Freemans Sporting Club, a high-end Greenwich Village boutique that sells $189 plaid button-downs and $396 suede boots. Explained the store’s manager, Jesse Johnson, “We started carrying it because we just felt it was relevant to have.” The store stopped carrying it, Mr. Johnson added, because it was not selling as well as he had hoped.

If it backs up its assertion, it’s the fact that 45 percent of its subscribers subscribe for less than six months. But I’d reckon that’s as much a function of its sky-high renewal costs as anything.

And the NYT buries the real news here: That the Economist isn’t doing quite as hot as we thought:

Newsstand sales, an important indicator of a magazine’s success and a big profit center, have been in sharp decline in recent years — falling 27 percent from more than 71,000 in 2008.

We’re not told how subscriptions are doing. We should have been.

To the extent that The Economist is a marketing story, it’s as much a journalistic marketing one, in a sense, than one from the ad folks. Its excellent covers, produced by its journalists to “market” that issue, draw more readers in than whatever hipster cachet it might have.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.