John Micklethwait Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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As an editor of The Economist and as a practiced journalist (you covered the United States for The Economist), talk a little about what you see as the skills of a good journalist. Is the nature of journalism changing in this globalized age that you're always talking about? What does it take to do it?
I don't think the basic skills have changed at all in the sense of [having] the desire to uncover some kind of truth, for lack of -- I mean, I don't want to get too pompous about it, but the desire to be able to describe what is going on. That is one part of it, and to do it accurately and fairly.
The second thing is the ability to do it in a way that draws people in to tell the story. You can add other things, like particularly at The Economist we are an opinion-led newspaper, so the ability to be able to come up with opinions that change people's minds. All those things, I think, are constant. What is different -- I don't think it's so much globalization, I think it's much more technology. There's the internet: there's no doubt that to be a good blogger you have to have some journalistic skills, but not everything. There are plenty of good journalists who are good bloggers and vice versa, but it probably is a different skill. We're just beginning to see all that.
Give us a mission statement for The Economist. What is your ethos? What do you see yourself as offering the world in terms of perspective that others don't do as well?
We talk about ourselves being a global views paper, which is not a bad description, global in the sense that we don't carry the flag for any particular country. We're based in Britain and we certainly have a British voice at times, but we never look at the world through British eyes, we always try to look at it through global eyes. We have the same product worldwide. And that, I think, is a big thing. Nobody else really does that. We editionalize in a tiny way. We have two extra pages in Britain that nobody else gets, otherwise it's the same product everywhere, sometimes with a different cover but it's the same product. So, we do take the global thing seriously.
The views part of it is [that] we do have opinions and we put them across. We were thinking about this the other day; the aim is to be a "critical insider," if I can put it that way. You want to give people the impression that you've gone through a lot of things, that you've filtered out (because that's part of our value to people) a lot of the stuff which people don't need to know, and you've tried to push it in on the stuff that they do need to know. We don't have lengthy quotes from people, we try to zero in on stuff, and yet, at the same time, to be an independent, critical [voice.] You know, we are behoven to nobody, there's nobody who owns us, nobody who pushes us in a particular direction. We make up our own mind about it, and we will keep doing that.
And your perspective is a classical liberal one.
Very much so.
Talk a little about that. It's those values that come out ...
I think that's the core of The Economist. When you think about The Economist you think about -- well, most people tend to think about it in terms of free trade. We were set up to fight the Corn Laws, the main protectionist thing at the time, which, incidentally the abolition of welcomed the first great Asia globalization. So, the economic side of liberalism everybody knows about. The other side of liberalism, the social side of liberalism, is also there from the very beginning. We fought for prison reform, we fought against capital punishment, we fought against slavery. That has been the way we've kept going ever since.
What's interesting about The Economist is we have a message which doesn't actually sing to any particular party, particularly in America. We often agree with the Republicans when they're in their small-government mode on economic issues, and incidentally, what can be more absurd from a classical liberal point of view than the definition of a big-government liberal? The word "liberal" has gotten hopelessly mixed up in America. On social issues we tend to often agree with the Democrats on things like gay marriage, virtually anything to do with giving individuals freedom over what they do, and also on things like Guantanamo. Those are issues which we've campaigned on early because we see them as part of the same thing. So, we do have a very strong point of view, it is a liberal point of view, it's a classical liberal point of view, and actually one of the strangest things about America is -- I often feel very annoyed and frustrated by the use of the word "liberal." It's gotten completely, hopelessly messed up in America.
Think liberal, think San Francisco, right?
One bit of San Francisco we would regard as wonderfully liberal, the kind of social, cultural side of it. The less liberal side is the huge city government. That's another issue.
Your market is global but interestingly enough, your American market is much larger than the market in Britain, from what I read.
Three million copies every week, and of that around 600,000, just a bit over, in fact, is in America. About 170,000 is in Britain. So, you can see from that -- and you can see from that, also, the reason why we don't particularly take a British view of things because it's a relatively small part of our overall circulation.
Help us understand how The Economist generates, say, a major piece on the environment, for example. What is involved in your role as the editor in making that happen, and how does the piece come together?
We're still relatively bottom up to the extent that people come back and they say, "I have an idea about something." We're not a large staff. That's the other point about The Economist. Depending on how you measure it, say roughly eighty journalists working there, which for the size of product we produce is actually quite small, certainly compared with a lot of our competitors. From that point of view, the idea that somebody at the top can say, "We should definitely write about this" is limited. There are times where I think something's important and we should go do it, might bully, or cajole, or plead, or try and persuade people to do it. But on the whole, what you want is ideas coming out from the bottom, and the skill of editing, such that it is, is to decide which ones to push, which ones to put on your cover, which ones to say, "No, that doesn't really work, you haven't quite persuaded me that ... " Maybe it's to do with global warming, or the other way around, or whichever side of it is. Most of the stuff we've done on the environment over the past year or so has been from the people who write about the environment. My deputy, Anna Duncan, has always taken a strong interest in it. She wrote a big survey or special report on it last year. But that was her going -- I mean, we commissioned her to do it, but it was she who drove that and then we pushed things off the back of it. There are things on the environment we've always said we've wanted. We've always said we wanted to have a carbon tax, but we accept that many people don't like that, not least in the American petroleum industry.
And your global staff is what? Is eighty the staff in London?
No, eighty is the global staff, roughly.
Oh, the whole ... ? I see.
It's about fifty journalists in London, and then you have groups of people, probably about fifteen in America and the same -- a bit more, again, around the rest of the world. What we've tried to do is to open up offices around the world at slightly the same time as the rest of the media industry have been closing theirs.
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