Described by themselves as a newspaper, the Economist is a news weekly similar to Newsweek or Time published every Thursday from London.
Always a surprising and stimulating read, the writers are refreshingly opinionated and argue a case eloquently. Belying their name, which could imply a right wing viewpoint expressed in a dry tone, the editorial policy is firmly centrist and liberal (in its non-US meaning). As Geoffrey Crowther, the then editor put it in 1955,
"It is to the Radicals that The Economist still likes to think of itself as belonging. The extreme centre is the paper's historical position."
The writing is accessible and entertaining, which has a lot to do with their policy of not assuming knowledge of a subject. They don't patronise the reader, but use colloquial language and explain jargon. For example, they would always say "Merrill Lynch, an investment bank" or "the oil cartel OPEC".
The articles are well-researched and always in great depth and will often take an unexpected point of view on the issues of the day. The science and technology sections are particularly interesting, with recent highlights including a 20 page feature on the current thinking on cosmology, string theory and other such hardcore subjects. The overwhelming drive seems to be to inform the reader on the details of all of the pressing issues of the day, not just those events featured on CNN.
Founded in 1843 by James Wilson, a Scottish hat maker, its first grand cause was opposing the protectionist Corn Laws in force in Britain at the time. A staunch defense of issues such as free trade has continued to this day, and despite supporting George Bush in his election ("the best of two bad choices"), they have condemned his recent anti-trade moves in the imposition of steel tariffs. As well as obvious economic issues such as these, it takes a strong editorial stance on many more unlikely issues. An opponent of the death penalty since before it was abolished in the UK and a consistent supporter of gun control, they have recently backed such causes as gay marriage and the legalisation of cannabis, while historically supporting Margaret Thatcher and the Vietnam War, and writing a vigorous rebuttal of Naomi Klein's celebrated anti-globalisation treatise No Logo, cheekily entitled Pro Logo.
This refusal to conform to traditional left/right politics is one of the paper's distinguishing features, and it stems in part from one of its other more unusual practices. In contrast to the increasing trend for celebrity journalists and columnists, all articles and leaders in the Economist are anonymous. They justify this in two ways. Firstly they emphasise the fact all articles are a collabarative effort. Even leaders, traditionally the editor's soapbox, are written by the whole editorial team, including contributions from corresponents around the world. Secondly, they justify it by pointing out that it should be the words, not the person writing them that matters. The main leader column is still written under the name of the paper's most famous editor, Walter Bagehot, who ran it from 1861 to 1877.
More recently they came close to sparking a diplomatic incident with their stance during the Italian elections. The week before the polls, they ran a cover story entitled Why Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy in which they detail the many reasons why the media magnate, monopolist and 'alleged' crook, should not be running one of the largest economies in the world. When he was duly elected, his supporters launched a stinging counter attack, accusing the paper of being variously communist, in the pockets of the British establishment (laughable, considering some of the attacks it has launched against them), and pandering to the business interests of its owners.
Leaving aside the many vindications of its views that the Italian prime minister has since provided, such has his absurd and offensive attacks on Islam, and his moves to assert control of Rai the public broadcaster, giving him an effective monopoly of all TV stations in the country, his comments on the Economist's ownership bear comment. Since 1928, the paper has been half-owned by the Financial Times, now controlled by the Pearson group. The other half is owned by various independent shareholders. Editorial independence is protected by the board of trustees, who appoint the editor and have right of veto on any sacking of the senior staff.
The Economist pushes itself as a newspaper for the more intelligent and broad-minded reader, and their recent award-winning advertising has emphasised this quality. Pushing the line that reading the Economist makes you a more interesting and knowledgable person, the campaign swept the board at the 2001 London International Advertising Awards. They parodied the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire with the slogan "Can I phone the Economist please Chris", and their plain red billboards, often without even their name, asked questions such as "Would anyone want to pick your brain?". Ad agency Abbott Meade Vickers BBDO used slogans such as "In 100% of opinion polls, Economist readers had one", and "Great minds like a think" to great effect.
I've been reading the Economist for nearly two years, after swapping from Newsweek when it had annoyed me one time too many, I've always found myself informed and entertained when I sat down to read it every Friday. From hard science that beats New Scientist at its own game, to absurdly well-informed accounts of the issues in South African or Japanese politics, I have found it the most consistent source of high quality writing among the publications I read. I'd urge anyone interested in getting an intelligent alternative perspective on the world's events to give it a try. The cartoons are funny too.
Rewritten, 28 May, 2002.