Why 1m readers (and a few Illuminati conspiracists) buy into The Economist’s predictions

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.

'The World In' editors Tom Standage and Daniel Franklin pose with this year's cover / Photo: Nathaniel Rosa

The publication of The Economist’s annual future-gazing magazine ‘The World In…’ is eagerly anticipated not only by a growing army of loyal readers but by the conspiracy theorists who every year analyse its cover for what they believe to be coded messaging from the Illuminati.

This year’s edition, launched this week at an event in London’s Soho, draws on the theme of 2020 Vision and is modelled on a Snellen eye test chart. Except that the lettering forms words including ‘Climate’, ‘Recession’, ‘Mars’ and ‘Russia’.

Daniel Franklin, who has edited the publication for the past 17 years, is well aware that the conspiracists will draw their own dark conclusions from the design. “There are people out there who think that we not only know the future but control it,” he says. “They started thinking that we were somehow the Illuminati at work on this and reading all sorts of things into the imagery on the covers. No doubt they will find different meanings in the letters too.”

The World in 2019 celebrated the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and its cover was inspired by his distinctive sketching. It showed Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man wearing virtual reality goggles. One blogger, LibertyAcademy, described the design as “an attempt to let us all know who’s really in charge while trying to confuse us at the same time”. The words “facial recognition”, written backwards in Leonardo’s famous mirror writing, were included because “the elite want to overtly tell us that they are watching our every move”. When the cover for The World in 2017 was based on Tarot cards it was later noted that one drawing, showing mass protestors drawn in yellow, had been an eerily accurate premonition of the rise of the Gilets Jaunes. As another conspiracist put it: “The people at The Economist know things that most people don’t.”

On that latter point, at least, Franklin and his colleagues might not dissent. By drawing on the journalistic muscle of its newsroom and the insights of its business division, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The World In franchise has a better chance than most of accurately predicting the political, economic and cultural developments that will shape the world in 2020.

Futurology and trend-spotting is today a bona fide career path in sectors ranging from advertising to banking. But 34 years ago, when The World In was first mooted at an editorial meeting on the 13th floor of the building The Economist then occupied in St James’s Square, London, the concept was not only unusual, it was downright controversial.

“I think it was a very original idea at that point and, journalists being sceptical, a lot of people said: ‘We don’t do this, we write about what’s happened – not what’s going to happen’,” recalls Franklin, who was present at the meeting as a junior member of The Economist’s Eastern European affairs team. But the dissenters were slowly won round. “Some of those most sceptical voices became some of our most loyal contributors.”

Although early editions were “slightly held at arm’s length” from the famous weekly title (founded in 1843), The World In gradually became “more core” to The Economist brand, Franklin says. The World In 2019 generated a circulation of more than 1m, of which 709,011 came from print copies (547,793 of those were for the Americas edition). US subscribers to The Economist receive The World In as part of their package. The World In 2019 was viewed digitally by a further 297,539 readers who downloaded it from The Economist app (digital subscribers can do this for free).

The World In allows staff writers a level of personal recognition that they are denied in the mothership weekly ‘newspaper’ (as it is always called), where articles are published anonymously and in a consistent editorial tone. This year’s edition name-checks a diversity of authors from The Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes to US Midwest correspondent Adam Roberts, China business correspondent Stephanie Studer and ‘Bagehot’ columnist Adrian Wooldridge.

Franklin says bylines are an indication that articles express “personal views” and he encourages writers to be bold in their predictions. “You don’t want to say anything downright stupid but I routinely edit out ‘mays’ and ‘mights’ and try to say ‘will’ whenever we can bear it because it’s more interesting and I like to think that people are prepared to go with where their hunch is.”

Readers, he says, understand that this is an inexact science. “People read it with the spirit of ‘It might be right, it might be wrong but it’s telling me something interesting.’”

While 80% of the content is generated in-house, The World In also commissions pieces from prominent “outside voices”, ranging from Demis Hassabis, the chief executive of artificial intelligence powerhouse DeepMind, to Huawei chief executive and founder Ren Zhengfei and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who writes about countering violent extremism.

The World In 2020 has a cover price of £9.99. Themes include the growing tension between the “Anglosphere” and “Sinosphere”, fears over a new arms race and multiple missions to Mars.

Pressed to predict the result of the US presidential election, Franklin prevaricates. “There are too many variables to be able to say,” he claims. But GPT-2 (an AI model) was interviewed for the magazine by Franklin’s deputy Tom Standage and said of Donald Trump’s prospects: “I think he will not win a second term.”

The magazine dwells on its hits and misses from the previous year, including its prediction of a surge in veganism and its failure to foresee the rise of pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong.

Although the outlook for 2020 is mostly grim, Franklin says it’s not his intention to dampen festive cheer. “I hope that it’s not overall a gloomy publication.” At the launch he pointed out to the audience that the edition includes items on fun 2020 innovations from flying cars to skateboarding debuting as an Olympic sport. There will be “lots to enjoy”, he said.

Having existed as a seasonal product The World In has recently expanded to an all-year sub brand. First it introduced a summer feature called The World If, which is distributed within the weekly title and based on speculative scenarios, such as what might happen if Facebook closed down. Franklin says the format allows writers to be even bolder in their futurism. “If you do scenarios you are asking for disruptive thoughts, therefore freeing yourself up to range much more widely,” he says. “You are not held down by reality, you can think the unthinkable more readily.”

More recently, using the umbrella brand The World Ahead, The Economist has extended its predictive activities into new formats, including video and audio. A podcast series will explore different themes of the world in 2020, while a film series will imagine life in 2040.

Mark Beard, The Economist Group senior vice president, global head of subscriptions marketing, and the publisher of The World In series, says this multi-platform, all-year approach “enables us to bolster our position as the leading source of analysis on these future-facing issues”. The World Ahead franchise is “a profitable standalone business in its own right”, he says.

Advertising clients - which this year include UBS, Samsung and Societe Generale - take the chance to position themselves as long-term thinkers and changemakers who care about what the future holds for their consumers and their children. “The World In really does position advertisers as having a spirit of innovation and optimism and seeing a future that they can be part of and indeed impact,” says Beard. The product is insulated from the vagaries of the weekly news cycle and the print edition is likely to sit on coffee tables for weeks or months, increasing ad visibility.

Franklin is standing down from the role this year but will continue in his other post as The Economist’s diplomatic editor. Standage, who moves up to become the new editor of The World In, is a “master at spotting trends”, says his predecessor.

The World In 2020 sits on newsstands from early November to the end of February. It is the culmination of an editorial process that begins with a springtime “brainstorm” over tea and chocolate éclairs, after which the first editorial plan is drawn up around known events such as global summits and major anniversaries. “It changes a fair amount between then and when we come out, you have to be flexible up to the last minute,” Franklin says.

Such a hefty document, predicting upturns and downturns in national fortunes, has the power to concern governments. But criticisms are not made lightly. Back in 2001, the magazine drew on the expertise of the Economist Intelligence Unit to designate Afghanistan as the world’s worst country. “We picked Afghanistan because it had this nasty Taliban regime and this chap called Osama bin Laden who was threatening to blow things up,” Franklin says of a magazine that came out nearly a year before the attacks on the World Trade Center. “This was actually looking ahead to the year when it all happened. No doubt the Afghan government wasn’t happy about at the time but it proved very accurate.” The conspiracy theorists will make of that what they will.

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

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