The Economist's economists

After 13 years writing mainly on economics on the staff of the Guardian and 20 on the Economist, Frances Cairncross left at the end of August to become the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford. Here, she describes life at the Economist — and the way 1960s architecture helped to create one of the world’s most international magazines.

The culture shock of arriving to work for the Economist after 13 years on the Guardian was almost indescribable. But the 20 years that followed, and that finished when I left at the end of August this year to become Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, have been the most rewarding and interesting of my journalistic life.

The culture shock was, with hindsight, wholly predictable. the Guardian’s approach to journalism was in some ways diametrically opposite to that of the Economist. It was a paper where journalists wrote pretty well what they pleased, even if they contradicted each other and the paper’s editorial line. And what was written was printed — more or less unchanged. I had acquired a reputation as an editor who ‘changed copy’ — necessary, given the quality of some of the freelances who submitted articles, but not in the Guardian tradition.

On the Economist, by contrast, changing copy is an important part of the paper’s secret. Every newspaper has a Style Book, setting out rules for the use of English, but most British papers largely ignore it. On the Economist, it is a mini-Bible. But, in addition, section editors hone and refine text, clarifying arguments and emphasising tepid conclusions — sometimes to the fury of the journalist whose precious words are altered. The overall result is a paper that manages to combine clarity with remarkable conciseness. I sometimes feel that Economist articles are like those freeze-dried meals that climbers take on expeditions: pour water over them and a piece a few hundred words long would swell to fill the entire page that another paper might well use to say just the same things.

There were also similarities between the two publications. Both were — still are — papers with clear views of how the world should be. They are, of course, radically different views. The Economist’s views spring, of course, from its devotion to liberal economics, the primacy of the market, the benefit of choice and individual freedom. Whereas such 19th century liberalism also marked the Guardian in its Manchester days, the paper had discovered socialism by the time I arrived.

But the real difference is the willingness of the Economist to say how it thinks its nirvana should be achieved. For seven years of my time at the Guardian, I wrote leaders, which often attacked the government for some policy or other, but rarely offered a clear alternative. On the Economist, I quickly learned that to attack and criticise was not enough. A leader always had to advocate an alternative approach. For British intellectuals, squeamish about simpliste solutions, this ‘It’s all perfectly easy really’ approach often grates. For Americans, who like solutions much more than problems, it delights.

Indeed, I’m convinced that it helps to explain the paper’s extraordinary circulation success in the United States. When I joined, in 1984, the Economist sold a total of 253,000 copies worldwide, of which 101,000, or 40 per cent, sold in North America. Today, the overall figure has almost quadrupled, to nearly 1m, of which 461,000 copies or 49 per cent sell in North America. No other foreign publication enjoys anything like such success in the American market; indeed, many Americans assume the magazine is an American product.

These huge American sales have important implications for the publication. They have taught me always to ‘think global’. A story about Britain is of interest in the United States only if it says something of wide relevance. That is frequently possible: although America generates far more new academic ideas, commercial ventures and public policies than any other nation on earth, Britain often comes second. It is, after all, the nation that invented privatisation; home to some of the world’s largest financial markets; and the only country (apart from America) with any universities in the world’s top ten.

Britain has another advantage as a source of ideas for Americans. It is a good vantage point from which to survey events and ideas in the rest of the world, and pass them through to an intelligent American audience. It can often compare what is happening in several different parts of the world, rather than merely focusing on one country at a time. Some of the most important social trends, such as the rise in life expectancy, the fall in fertility, the increase in international migration, and the move from country to city and from city to suburbia — all seem to be extraordinarily cross-cultural.

But the Economist’s international stance is not, in my view, purely demand-led. It is also supply-driven. That is the impact of its extraordinary building: an ivory tower, standing back from St James’s Street, designed by Peter and Alison Smithson and built in 1964. The building is impractical: its central core is made up of three large lifts, a service lift and two emergency staircases. The journalists’ offices crouch round the rim, with splendid views over London. Because, as everyone knows, an efficient office cannot be laid out on more than two or three floors without the people on the highest floor losing touch with those on lowest, the editorial department is on two-and-a-half floors of the tower. It is almost impossible to squeeze in more bodies — so when staff numbers swell, more overseas offices have to open. Over the years, the Economist has reached a point where it probably has a higher proportion of editorial staff in foreign bureaus than any other publication in the world.

For anyone with a background in economics, there can be few more delightful places to work. But every so often, even the paper’s many economically literate staff notice the limitations of the discipline. Some years ago Jonathan Rauch, an American journalist, spent some months working at the paper. In his leaving speech, he recalled a debate at the Monday morning leader conference on whether or not it was right that people should be allowed to sell their kidneys. The argument fell between those who thought it right to sell and those who thought kidneys should only be donated. The then editor, Rupert Pennant Rea, eventually burst out — ‘But Jonathan, you don’t understand. A gift is just a sale at zero price!’


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