Rumours of the impending death of print media have been greatly exaggerated — from the perspective of The Economist Group, at least.
“I would be shocked if we did not have a print product in 10 years’ time, absolutely shocked,” says Chris Stibbs, its chief executive. “We don’t sell a single copy that doesn’t make a profit.”
The publication had recently emerged from a period of transition, following a change in ownership last August when Pearson sold its 50-per cent stake to the title’s other shareholders. Exor, a holding company for the Agnelli family, emerged as the largest shareholder, prompting questions over whether the publication would be able to maintain its famed editorial independence. Fears, Stibbs says, were completely unfounded.
“We have had a change in ownership, but no change in control,” he says, pointing to new rules that ensure the board of trustees cannot be monopolised by any party. “Exor has stepped in and now owns 43 per cent of the company, but it can only have 20 per cent of the voting rights.”
Besides the change in ownership, in the past 18 months, The Economist has taken on a new editor-in-chief (the first woman to hold that role) and launched The Economist Films, a specialised unit that produces documentaries.
“When I first took up this job, I was faced with the challenge: how do I marry 175 years of heritage with being a modern brand?” Stibbs says. “I now don’t see that as the biggest challenge. You have to be true to what you are, but you also have to be innovative and relevant. The content we produce is as relevant as ever, if not more relevant than it has ever been.”
Stibbs was on a whirlwind tour that took in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing as well as Hong Kong, an itinerary he says he has grown very familiar with — testament to the growing importance of China to the publication’s business.
“The thing in China is that everybody is obsessed on going global. That is when we become relevant, that’s what we do.”
The Economist Group’s view is that the structural and macroeconomic factors have combined to mean “this is our time” for China. “There is an absolutely genuine interest in what is going on in the rest of the world. But Chinese publishers don’t have an understanding of 205 other countries in the world.”
However, China is by no means the extent of Stibbs’ ambitions in Asia, and he sees potential for growth in Korea and particularly Japan.
“The thing about Japan is it is the world’s second- or third-largest media market, but it is dominated by domestic publishers. Yet it is certainly not a new thing for Japanese companies to be investing outwards,” he says. “There is a market for us, but it is a Japanese-language market.”
But he adds, “At this point in time the market is heavily skewed towards print. I can’t get my head around launching a new print product in this day and age, so the question is: what will the market be like in years to come?”
As CEO, Stibbs views his role as a combination of innovator and change agent with the guardian of the publication’s impressive legacy. A key part of that has involved balancing the need to seek out new revenue without compromising editorial standards and the traditional “church-and-state” separation of editorial and advertising.
“We will never do native advertising in its most cynical form, by introducing advertising into the editorial work,” Stibbs says. “We all understand that you don’t undermine your credibility. We don’t worry about it because we never cross that line.”
However, that does not mean the publication needs to be “constrained by a single model”, leaving room for collaboration with sponsors, so long as editors maintain complete “independence of mind”.
The group’s new documentaries studio, The Economist Films, for example, has produced dozens of short documentaries in partnership with or sponsored by brands. Stibbs believes this has delivered resources that enabled the publication to cover important stories with greater depth and in more meaningful formats that it wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. That has included issues for which The Economist actively campaigns in what it terms “advocacy” journalism — such as the fight for right to die and the decriminalisation of cannabis in the US.
“We are not saying, ‘Give us your content and we will stick it online,’” Stibbs says. “We can tell exactly the same story, but on different formats we can do it in a different way. In a digital world we can reach people wherever they are.”
Stibbs describes this as a “journey of exploration” and praises the guidance of Zanny Minton Beddoes, who was promoted to editor-in-chief last February, after more than two decades with the publication. “She has been a breath of fresh air,” he says, “That’s not because she is female, but becase she is just a fantastic editor.”
Beddoes, he says, is taking a decisive lead in forging a new path for the publication.
“We have to lead the way. We have reinvented how we market The Economist,” Stibbs says. “We won’t follow what other people do, we will do what we see is right.”