The Economist’s ‘Snob Appeal’

The Economist magazine continues to increase its readership in a post print world.

In a first year International Studies class at Simon Fraser, I will always remember the prof presenting The Economist’s “Big Mac Index”. I think it stood out so much for me because I had just come back from living in Ethiopia, and was able to directly relate it to my experiences and observations there. Often in that course, and in other courses I found the professors and TA’s often quoting The Economist. So, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that when I began looking for new sources of international news earlier this year, The Economist stood out for me. Why was I attracted to it? Because it is intellectual, it focuses on the issues of the world and not the gossip about celebrities that seems to pervade so many other magazines. It likely has the largest number of foreign correspondents in the news industry and hence a very broad picture of international affairs. It is also respectable, and regularly quoted by academics. So, I figured that if I wanted to broaden my understanding of the state of the world, then The Economist should be my first stop; it had a voice that spoke to my interests.


In a post print world, “[w]hile American magazines, particularly newsweeklies, combat crashing circulations, bleak advertising sales and major financial losses, The Economist, which is not even American in origin, is the only newsweekly with a rising circulation in the United States” (Gottipati). Why? In a world where the news is all around us for free, why is the high priced print circulation of The Economist rising? Clearly there a number of reasons for this, but in the interest of my exploration of voice I will focus on the voice of The Economist and the effect that that is having in it’s rising sales.

First of all, for those unfamiliar with the magazine/newspaper, the name “The Economist” may be misleading. Although it certainly does focus on financial and economic news, a huge portion of the magazine, possibly the majority, focus’ on domestic politics and international relations/geopolitics. As Sruthi Gottipati states in his article How Does The Economist Do It, if we were to personify the magazine “she would be a jet-setting foreign correspondent with a nose for political news. She’d be cerebral, but witty. And she’d have a global sensibility, feeling equally comfortable in Buenos Aires, Beijing and Bangalore.” And there we have the newspaper’s first aspect of voice—it’s global perspective (a voice that speaks clearly to people like me).

What is unique about The Economist’s voice is not only its global perspective and increasing foreign correspondents, but also the way in which it presents the voices of its individual journalists. But that’s just it; it doesn’t present the voices of its individual journalists. There are no by-lines to accompany each article and allow the reader to identify the journalist. As a result the publication assumes a kind of omniscient role over its voice; it becomes the voice of an institution that speaks to us instead of the voice of individuals. This allows the magazine to become an opinion-based publication as a whole—appearing unified in its vision to the readers.

Dave Beal tells us that: “The Economist was founded in 1843 as a foe of England’s Corn Laws, tariffs on cheap food imported from abroad. Ever since, staunch support of free trade has been one of the magazine’s central tenets.” From this perspective, one can see that the nature of The Economist is almost that of lobbying for their views, very much in the same way that Canadian foreign diplomats often speak of projecting Canadian values and ideals abroad. The Economist is simply a business that is sharing their own views on the issues at hand.

On The Economist’s website, they describe themselves as offering “authoritative insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science and technology” the key word here being “opinion”. I know for myself, that this voice is attractive because it provides me with both a view of the state of the world, as well as an analytical viewpoint that I can choose to agree or disagree with. The opinions are obvious enough that for the most part I feel I am able to separate them from the facts. At the same time, however, I do not necessarily appreciate the omission of by-lines.

Another attraction to the publication is often referred to as the “snob appeal”. As Gottipati states: “Its price, its tone calculated to flatter its readers, its claim to cover the world, its overall intelligence — its English accent, as it were — all these things contribute to its special appeal.” The magazine certainly assumes a certain level of intelligence and basic understandings of politics and economics. This level of intelligent analysis and in depth global coverage is certainly something that must appeal to its readership, otherwise they wouldn’t be reading it. So the voice in this case is an intelligent educated one, speaking in the jargon of the educated to the educated. The result of this is that the readers are able to connect with the voice of the magazine because it is being written specifically for them, and shares similar understandings.

So, what is The Economist’s voice? It is intelligent, opinionated, and global. This makes it a very interesting read for a certain demographic of people that connect with this very specific voice. I would argue that it is because of its uniqueness of presentation that people are attracted to it. I believe that people also are attracted to the intelligent analysis, which is often lacking in so many other news sources. Not only are people attracted to the opinion, but also to the way that it is presented as opinion, and not as fact like many other news networks. When The Economist presents their opinion they generally make it evident that they are doing so by saying things such as: ‘The Economist has always argued that…’ etc.

Voice is the message. If it were not for The Economist’s intelligent, opinionated and global voice, I would argue that they would not have the same readership. Voice—the way in which the present the content—is what draws people in. Perhaps it makes more sense to say that voice is the medium and content the message. Regardless, The Economist serves as an excellent example of the importance of and impact that voice has.

It will be interesting to see how long the Economist’s print regime holds up in this post print world. I know that I for one cherish my astronomically priced subscription.


Works Cited

The Economist Newspaper Limited. The Economist Online. TE, 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.

Gottipati, Sruthi. “How Does The Economist Do It?The New York Review of Magazines. NYRM, 12 May 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.

Beal, Dave. “Economist editor Micklethwait brings his global perspective to the Twin N.p. 29 April 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.