John Micklethwait Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Globalism and the Conservative Movement in the United States: Conversation with John Micklethwait, Editor in Chief, The Economist; February 6, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Technology in Journalism

Let's go back to this question about technology, because it would seem you're in the forefront in giving us informed views about this process of globalization, the impact of technology. At some point, will technology impact the way you do what you do? We see it happening in America, the blogs, the video, and so on. Or would your niche be to pretty much stay the way you are?

There are two parts to that. Yes, it's obviously already [impacted what we do]. We already have blogs. We have three as of today. One, we have an economics blog, we have one on American politics, and we've now got sort of a letters blog whereby we're printing all the letters people send in, even though not printing them all, we're putting them all up on the web. And we'll introduce [a blog] quite soon on Europe.

So, we do do stuff on this, we have daily columns online. One of the things I've tried to do is to bring in a much livelier daily online comment coverage, so every day you're going to get a fresh piece of news analysis, up to the same standard as the rest of the paper. You're going to get a column which changes each day, so for example, the one on greenery this morning but tomorrow there'd be one on the art market, the day after there'd be one on policy, and they revolve on a weekly basis. So, you have all those elements. We have a foreign correspondent's diary and actually have a podcast which has done amazingly well and shot up to the top of the charts. All those things are there, and there're things we're trying to do.

In terms of do we think the technological change is going to take away our print franchise, the answer on that is we're -- how can I put it? -- paranoidally optimistic about it, to the extent that when I first came in I talked a great deal about there being a hurricane coming towards our industry, it was going to slam into newspapers. It's transparently done that [and] it looks as if it is going to come onto magazines afterwards.

For various reasons, the particular thing which The Economist does, the particular breadth of coverage we do, and the particular depth of coverage we do is actually quite difficult to replicate on the internet, and there's also the serendipity of flicking through things. What we worried about was that young people, like many of your students, wouldn't want that kind of experience in print, they'd want to have it online. But actually, we did a lot of research but we never mentioned the word "The Economist," we just asked people how they took in information. But once you've got to that type of thing, in particular a weekend read, particularly somebody taking that degree of breadth and that degree of depth, there isn't really a net experience that people want to have. So from that perspective, so far at least, we're relatively optimistic about print.

I should add two immediate caveats. One, all the research and stuff we've looked at could turn out to be wrong, so we don't know about that. Secondly, it could turn out that the advertisers do move away from the print towards the web and that has an impact that, unlike the big answer to the second one of those is unlike everybody else, we actually make money out of circulation. So, we could survive on circulation alone. We wouldn't be very rich but we could run a magazine just purely on that.

You were here -- you started, I believe, your Economist bureau in Los Angeles, and other places, and then you covered the country for a while. What's the difference between British and American journalism? American journalism has undergone a lot of criticism after the Iraq war.

I think America flagellates itself slightly too much about that. I've had a lot of questions about that today, actually, wandering around talking to people about newspapers and magazines in particular. I think there's an element in America where people are saying, "Look, we're in terrible trouble, our newspapers are making mistakes." Actually I think American media, despite some appalling layoffs and things going on, has in some ways never been healthier. You have all these papers, you have the television, and now you've got the online media, as well. You put all that together, I think it's a richer, more vibrant set of things than before.

There are question marks which apply just as much to Britain as [America]. If you are asking a journalist -- I'm inventing this person -- imagine, for the sake of argument, I work for the Los Angeles Times and I'm expected (and I have no idea whether the Los Angeles Times does specifically request this of journalists) but I'm expected to contribute towards a podcast, to do a bit of a blog, and to cover my beat. Well, there's going to be some element of stretching within that, so there may be [questions of] quality.

On the whole, though, one of the useful things about blogs, and all those things, is they are disciplining papers. One difference between American and British papers, you can argue in many ways, American papers have generally had a higher standard. If you look at things like sourcing, American papers tend to be better in terms of the process they go through. The only advantage which the British have had over Americans is the existence of a magazine called Private Eye, which comes out every two weeks and basically ridicules journalists on a regular basis, and I think actually rather wittily. It's quite an important thing. In America, if you're a journalist you are a writer, you are a figure of great authority. In Britain, if you're a journalist you're a hack. You're the lowest of the low, ridiculed week in, week out by this satirical thing, which points out relentlessly the only reason why so-and-so wrote about this is because, well, you know, his mother lives there also; and the various sort of not entirely fulsome lives of journalists are catalogued there. They'll probably write something about me in the next couple weeks and I'll resent it deeply, but the reason why that's good is it takes away some of the self-importance of journalists, which I think journalists are inclined to do.

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