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News in the digital age, and how The Economist fits in

03 Jun 2015

Seminar ReportIt’s electrifying and slightly frightening to hear this man speaking. Tom Standage is a very fast talker, and he packs huge amounts of information into a one-hour-lecture. That’s probably an appropriate way to speak as a deputy editor of the Economist - “readers pay us to save time”, as Standage says. Every week, they get the news distilled and simplified, with all the unimportant left out, “a finite bundle in a world of infinite streams.” But what happens in between the weekly editions? And what would the Economist look like if it was a daily newspaper? Standage came up with “Espresso”, an app which was launched a year ago and has been downloaded 800,000 times since, with a weekly reach of 200,000 and a daily reach of 120,000. It aims at a similar reader experience as the magazine – “that jigsaw-piece-falling-into-place-feeling” – even though distillation has to go much farther. Everything has to be reduced to so-called “chunks”, 150-word pieces. The ancient rule of the Economist’s writing – “simplify, then exaggerate” – is taken to a new level, and Standage likes the result. He calls it “economisty”. Luckily for the Economist, it has been getting its main revenue not from ads but subscription - the only business model which works in the Internet, Standage says. “Espresso” increases subscription revenue by attracting new readers: At a price of US$50 a year, it offers a first stepping stone for those who hesitate to pay US$130 a year for the magazine’s digital version. Another feature of the Economist has turned from an advantage into a liability in the digital age. The magazine prides itself in having a strong “Chinese wall” between editorial and commercial departments – “the strongest in the business I know of”, says Standage. The departments are even physically separated, and Standage has spent much time travelling between St James Street (where the editors sit) and Canary Wharf (where management is located). But developing new digital projects required bringing together journalists, computer specialists and marketing experts. In Standage’s words, it meant poking holes into the wall without destroying it altogether. The question remains whether journalists will like the idea of writing “chunks” instead of articles, and how to survive in the digital age if you don’t have a subscriber-based, premium-segment business model.  Such questions were asked and then answered, with witty remarks and lots of detail and historical analogies – Standage is the author of six books, the latest one about the history of social media.  It is hard to imagine how his ideas will ever fit into a “chunk” on his Espresso app.

Written by Christian Esch

Tom Standage, Digital editor and deputy editor, the Economist, spoke at the Business and Practice of Journalism seminar at Green Templeton College on Wednesday 20 May 2015.