It is not only The Economist’s name that people find baffling. Here are some other common questions.
First, why does it call itself a newspaper? Even when The Economist incorporated the Bankers’ Gazette and Railway Monitor from 1845 to 1932, it also described itself as “a political, literary and general newspaper”.
It still does so because, in addition to offering analysis and opinion, it tries in each issue to cover the main events—business and political—of the week. It goes to press on Thursdays and, printed simultaneously in six countries, is available in most of the world’s main cities the following day or soon after.
Readers everywhere get the same editorial matter. The advertisements differ. The running order of the sections, and sometimes the cover, also differ. But the words are the same, except that each week readers in Britain get a few extra pages devoted to British news.
Why is it anonymous? Many hands write The Economist, but it speaks with a collective voice. Leaders are discussed, often disputed, each week in meetings that are open to all members of the editorial staff. Journalists often co-operate on articles. And some articles are heavily edited. The main reason for anonymity, however, is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it. As Geoffrey Crowther, an editor from 1938 to 1956, put it, anonymity keeps the editor “not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself. You can call that ancestor-worship if you wish, but it gives to the paper an astonishing momentum of thought and principle.”
Who owns The Economist? Since 1928, half the shares have been owned by the Financial Times, a subsidiary of Pearson, the other half by a group of independent shareholders, including many members of the staff. The editor’s independence is guaranteed by the existence of a board of trustees; it formally appoints the editor, who can only be removed with its permission.
What, besides free trade and free markets, does The Economist believe in? “It is to the Radicals that The Economist still likes to think of itself as belonging. The extreme centre is the paper’s historical position.” That is as true today as when Crowther said it in 1955. The Economist considers itself the enemy of privilege, pomposity, and predictability. It has backed conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It has supported the Americans in Vietnam. But it has also endorsed Harold Wilson and Bill Clinton and espoused a variety of liberal causes: opposing capital punishment from its earliest days while favouring penal reform and decolonization, as well as—more recently—gun control and gay marriage.
Lastly, The Economist believes in plain language. Walter Bagehot, our most famous 19th-century editor, tried “to be conversational, to put things in the most direct and picturesque manner, as people would talk to each other in common speech, to remember and use expressive colloquialisms”. That remains the style of the paper today.
Established in 1843 to campaign on one of the great political issues of the day, The Economist remains, in the second half of its second century, true to the principles of its founder. James Wilson, a hat maker from the small Scottish town of Hawick, believed in free trade, internationalism, and minimum interference by government, especially in the affairs of the market. Though the protectionist Corn Laws which inspired Wilson to start The Economist were repealed in 1846, the newspaper has lived on, never abandoning its commitment to the classical 19th-century Liberal ideas of its founder.
The Corn Laws, which by taxing and restricting imports of corn made bread expensive and starvation common, were bad for Britain. Free trade, in Wilson’s view, was good for everyone. In his prospectus for The Economist, he wrote: “If we look abroad, we see within the range of our commercial intercourse whole islands and continents, on which the light of civilization has scarce yet dawned; and we seriously believe that free trade, free intercourse, will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization and morality throughout the world – yes, to extinguish slavery itself.”
Wilson’s outlook was, therefore, moral, even civilizing, but not moralistic. He believed “that reason is given to us to sit in judgment over the dictates of our feelings.” Reason convinced him in particular that Adam Smith was right, that through its invisible hand the market benefited profit-seeking individuals (of whom he was one) and society alike. He was himself a manufacturer and wanted especially to influence “men of business”. Accordingly, he insisted that all the arguments and propositions put forward in his paper should be subjected to the test of facts. That was why it was called The Economist.
Wilson was not The Economist’s greatest editor in terms of intellect. That title probably goes to his son-in-law, Walter Bagehot (pronounced Bajut), who was the paper’s third editor, from 1861 to 1877. Bagehot was a banker, but he is best remembered for his political writing and notably for his articles on the British constitution. The monarch, he argued, was head of the “dignified” parts of the constitution, those that “excite and preserve the reverence of the population”; the prime minister was head of the “efficient” parts, “those by which it, in fact, works and rules.” The distinction is often drawn, even today.
It was Bagehot who broadened the range of the paper into politics. He was also responsible for greatly strengthening the interest in America that The Economist has always shown. Under the editorship of Bagehot, who argued that “The object of The Economist is to throw white light on the subjects within its range”, the paper’s influence grew. One British foreign secretary, Lord Granville, said that whenever he felt uncertain, he liked to wait to see what the next issue of The Economist had to say. A later admirer of Bagehot’s was Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States from 1913 to 1921.
The paper, however, had to wait nearly half a century before getting another remarkable editor. He came in 1922, in the shape of Walter Layton, whose achievement, in the words of The Economist’s historian, Ruth Dudley Edwards*, was to have the paper “read widely in the corridors of power abroad as well as at home”, even if critics said it was “slightly on the dull side of solid”. That was certainly not a criticism that could be leveled at his successor, Geoffrey Crowther, who was probably The Economist’s greatest editor since Bagehot. His contribution was to develop and improve the coverage of foreign affairs, especially American ones, and of business. Its authoritativeness had never been higher.
From the earliest days, The Economist had looked abroad, both for subjects to write about and for circulation. Even in the 1840s, it had readers in Europe and the United States. By 1938, half its sales were abroad although, thanks to world war, not for long. Crowther’s great innovation was to start a section devoted to American affairs, which he did just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. “American Survey” (renamed “United States” in 1997) was aimed not at Americans but at British readers who, Crowther believed, needed to know more about their new allies. In time, however, it earned a following in the United States that became the base for the great rise in American circulation that began in the 1970s.
For most of its existence, The Economist has been content with a small circulation. When Bagehot gave up as an editor, it stood at 3,700, and by 1920 had climbed to only 6,000. After the second world war, it rose rapidly, but from a base of barely 18,000, and when Crowther left it stood at only 55,000, not reaching 100,000 until 1970. Today circulation is over 1.4m, more than four-fifths of it outside Britain. The American circulation accounts for over half of the total.
A recent editor, Rupert Pennant-Rea, once described The Economist as “a Friday viewspaper, where the readers, with higher than average incomes, better than average minds but with less than average time, can test their opinions against ours. We try to tell the world about the world, to persuade the expert and reach the amateur, with an injection of opinion and argument.” With readers such as these and aims such as these, The Economist was bound to find it progressively harder to increase its circulation in Britain. That became especially true in the 1960s and 1970s when British daily papers started to carry more of the interpretive, argumentative, and analytical articles that had traditionally been the preserve of the weeklies. The Economist has survived and indeed prospered, by building on the internationalism of its outlook and by selling abroad.
In this, it has been helped enormously by its coverage of business and economic affairs. Wilson believed that even statistics, so far from being dull, could “afford the deepest and often the most exciting interest.” To this day, readers such as Helmut Schmidt, chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982, agree. But few readers buy The Economist for one thing alone, and in recent years the paper has added sections devoted to Europe, Asia, Latin America, international issues, and science and technology. It has also expanded coverage of books and arts and introduced a new column on financial markets, Buttonwood.
Articles in The Economist are not signed, but they are not all the work of the editor alone. Initially, the paper was written largely in London, with reports from merchants abroad. Over the years, these gave way to stringers who sent their stories by sea or airmail, and then by telex and cable. Nowadays, in addition to a worldwide network of stringers, the paper has about 20 staff correspondents abroad. Contributors have ranged from Kim Philby, who spied for the Soviet Union, to H.H. Asquith, the paper’s chief leader writer before he became Britain’s prime minister, Garret FitzGerald, who became Ireland’s, and Luigi Einaudi, President of Italy from 1948 to 1955. Even the most illustrious of its staff, however, write anonymously: only special reports, the longish supplements published about 20 times a year on various issues or countries, are signed. In May 2001, a redesign introduced more navigational information for readers and full colour on all editorial pages.
* Click to buy from Amazon.com: “The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843-1993”, by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Published by Hamish Hamilton (1993) and Harvard Business School Press (1995).