The Economist's plan to save the world from populism

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

When James Wilson founded The Economist in 1843 his aim was to challenge a political and landowning class which was protecting its interests through tariffs on grain that were causing hunger and rioting across Britain.

Wilson was a radical. He was a champion of free trade. His great “newspaper”, launched alongside myriad others at a time of massive expansion of the printed word, has not only endured for 175 years but has evolved into a highly-profitable global product with influence at the highest levels in world politics and business.

Yet its purpose is widely misunderstood among those who have not yet joined its audience.

“There is a perception that The Economist is a rarified publication for nerds, elites and bankers,” says Kenneth Cukier, its senior editor. To some, its very name suggests it caters for ‘Davos Man’, the kind of gilded figure who hangs out at the annual World Economic Forum.

In 2018, that’s not a good place for a publication with big ambitions to broaden its appeal to smart young people.

Worse, with authoritarian leaders having seized the reins all around the world, there is a sense that The Economist’s mission of spreading liberal values – it fought for the end of slavery and has championed gay marriage and transgender rights – has somehow failed. Whereas this paper has always based its arguments on “empirical evidence”, Cukier notes, simplistic narratives and the undermining of trust in facts have allowed populism to become the order of the day. And in today’s United States, “liberalism is a four-letter word”.

Redefining liberalism

Which explains why The Economist has embarked on Open Future, one of the most important projects in its long history. Its mission is to save the world from populism by igniting a debate that will redefine the concept of “liberalism” for the modern age.

Open Future is defined as “a global conversation on the role of markets, technology and freedom in the 21st Century.” Cukier is its managing editor.

Much as he is excited by Open Future’s mix of online debates, live events, podcasts, films, graphic visualisations, social content, essay competitions and traditional print articles, he also concedes that the project was born in a newsroom that was in a state of shock from recent political trends.

“After Brexit and after Trump internally we had serious and very frank conversations with ourself as a staff, about our values and how the world has been moving in a direction that’s really against what we have stood for 175 years,” he says. It was “a blow to us” that the argument that The Economist had been making for generations in its unique and collaboratively-written editorial voice was apparently being lost. “At the time of our 150th anniversary (1993) it was the era of the triumph of the Western liberal model and Communism was toppled [but] 25 years later, the world looks different,” he says. “The view of capitalism being the dominant way in which countries grow rich and share the fruits of progress is now on the back foot and reviled as something bad and wrong.”

Eminent figures from business and politics, including “a former PM of a major European country”, urged The Economist to use its platforms to counter the popular mood. Editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes wrote a letter to readers ate the start of April, saying that Open Future was a plan to “remake the case” for liberal values. “Amid anger over inequality, immigration and cultural change, basic elements of the liberal credo, from globalisation to free speech, are assailed from right and left.”

She felt the need to note that the word ‘liberal’ has in America become associated with left-wing, big state politics. “That is not what we stand for,” she emphasised.

Cukier, an American based in London, says that the US – where The Economist has long enjoyed cachet among a niche readership but where the brand sees its biggest opportunities for growth – has been the trickiest market to make the case for a liberal revival. “Liberalism in Europe and around the world means one thing and in the United States it means something else,” he says. “We massage the message a little bit by talking about ‘classic liberal values” or ‘classic liberalism’ and we define it as a faith in open markets and individual rights.”

Open Future is now two months in and is working towards an international celebration of liberalism on 15 September, when The Economist will mark its 175th anniversary with a live Open Future Festival in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Giving a platform to critics

The Open Future concept is built on five pillars: Open Markets, Open Ideas, Open Society, Open Borders and Open Progress. Among the Open Borders topics currently being discussed in the forum are “How to Convince Sceptics of the Value of Immigration”, based on an essay by British political economist Philippe Legrain. Another piece opines: “ The Rohingya Crisis Bears All the Hallmarks of a Genocide.”

The Canadian psychologist and “12 Rules of Life” author Jordan Peterson has penned an essay on “what is wrong with modern liberalism”. Peterson is seen as a right-winger by many on the British left but, like The Economist, identifies as a liberal in the classic British tradition.

A fundamental element to Open Future is that it gives a platform to the voices of “both our critics and our supporters – but notably our critics”, says Cukier. “We want to bring out these issues and really discuss them in a serious and open-eyed way.” He wants to commission writers and debaters who take a different world view to that of the Economist. “My goal is to get really notable right-wing thinkers to contribute to us,” he adds. The Economist might be alarmed by populism, but Cukier is proud that several high-level Trump supporters have already contributed to Open Future.

Equally, the project has featured a “cute video” highlighting the strengths of Marxism. “We feel that his critique of capitalism was correct, but his remedy was bloody and terrible. We are resuscitating the phantom of Marx in a somewhat positive way and I think a lot of people are surprised by that. I’m sure that there’s some Oxford don in his sixties who is going to take umbrage at what we have done but for people in their teens and twenties who have not really given much thought to Karl Marx it’s a great entry way to his ideas.”

For all The Economist’s roots in free trade and free speech, Open Future debates have enabled Silicon Valley maverick Andrew Keen to call for regulation of the ‘tech titans’, and the academic Evan Smith to speak in support of ‘no platform’ policies on university campuses.

All this counter-intuitive content helps to dispel the notion of The Economist as a get-rich-quick guide that sits on the newsstand alongside the likes of Forbes and Fortune. “People who haven’t bothered to take the time to buy it, open it up and read it, see ‘The Economist’ and presume that it’s about economics and because it’s about economics it’s about money, and because it’s about money it’s about wealthy people. But if they opened it up they would realise it’s mostly about foreign policy and international relations,” Cukier says. It will also review the new Batman movie – “in an elegant, timeless and extremely thoughtful way” – and argue for the individual’s right to assisted suicide, a campaign which is “not typically the work of journalism”.

Taking Open Future to Cannes Lions

Plenty of people already understand The Economist’s mission. Its global circulation is 1,391,671 and profitability from sales and subscriptions is growing despite a price hike. Circulation in the UK is up nearly 8% year-on-year to 254,129, mostly due to a rise in digital subscriptions. This circulation growth has offset a fall in advertising revenue which The Economist’s chairman Rupert Pennant-Rea described as “painful”.

The Economist will be highlighting Open Future to the advertising community at this month’s Cannes Lions, where Ms Minton Beddoes will again put the spotlight on the powerhouses of Silicon Valley by hosting ‘The Economist BIG Debate’ on the theme: “Do tech giants support open societies or are they a threat to them?”

Cukier says The Economist’s commercial team have “rallied behind” Open Future, enthused by the projects use of diverse digital formats and the potential for working with new brands seeking a young audience. “We know Rolex wants to give us an ad and we will take that, but we weren’t so certain that we were a Red Bull brand.” Open Future hopes to attract commercial partnerships with publisher brands in conjunction with a new Author Q&A feature which combines a 1,000-word book excerpt with the author’s responses to five questions designed to distill the essence of the work.

This reinvention of The Economist across multiple platforms is not an attempt to mimic smart youth-orientated publishers such as NowThis and Mic, but to use modern formats to convey the core values that have been consistent throughout the paper’s history. Indeed, back in the 1960s The Economist was a lone voice calling for private companies to be allowed to revolutionise the telecoms industry. Even in 1843 when it was fighting the Corn Laws, Wilson’s original bête noire, it was tackling “the Cambridge Analytica of the era,” Cukier suggests. “Today we are worried about surveillance capitalism, back then we were worried about feeding people.”

Like the 19th century British landowners, the Davos men are called to account by The Economist, not celebrated for getting rich. “The Economist as the house journal of the 1% is a misperception. For years we never sent anyone to Davos, with one exception, our Economics Editor would go as an attendee. We didn’t send anyone because we didn’t feel that’s where news happens – that’s where parties happen,” Cukier says. “We are in the business of commenting on the world and sometimes speaking truth to power and if that’s offensive then so be it, they should be offended and they should change and be less offended.”

If Open Future can be successful in debating the challenges of the new century and, in doing so, bring a wider awareness of The Economist’s mission, it could live on beyond the 175th anniversary as a brand within a historic brand.

“The name ‘The Economist’ for some people is intimidating,” Cukier acknowledges. “So Open Future is a good unwrap for The Economist.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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