The Economist

There was a time when Americans readily looked across the Atlantic for direction in matters of taste. But, while modern Yankees by and large leave affected British accents to misaligned stars like Madonna, and leftovers of the British Invasion now require walkers to perform, there still exist strongholds of British style and sensibility that Americans seek out for guidance. For news and analysis, there's the BBC and the Financial Times, but this is "Mag Rack," so The Economist wins our scrutiny by default.

Founded in London in 1843 by a Scottish hat maker, The Economist just named its 16th editor, John Micklethwait. Micklethwait replaces Bill Emmott, who managed to double the magazine's circulation during his 13-year tour.

Like its imported brethren--particularly the Beeb--The Economist's embracive coverage of world events large and small has resonated more deeply with Americans since 9/11. Consumers still guzzle glossy treatment of celebrity nuptials and cable coverage of missing-and-presumed-dead white women, but nearly a half million Americans--569,000 in North America--now look to The Economist for sober and arguably complete coverage of world events that can no longer be dismissed as unrelated to their lives.

With its typically balanced short essay form, the magazine's April 22-28 issue presents readers with just over 1,000 words on why the Democratic party might--or might not--successfully exploit the Bush Administration's awful approval ratings, noting that Republicans, among other faults, have lost their "ideological shine" now that "the party of stream-lined government has been gorging on legislative pork." Unfortunately for Democrats, "if the Republicans reek of decay, the Democrats ooze dysfunctionality." Touching on the past week's other hot points--Israeli-Iranian-Palestinian relations, the hype over higher gas prices, exactly what President Bush should demand from China regarding humans rights and trade issues--The Economist doesn't hide its own convictions. Its views are those of free-trading, globalization-advocating, moneyed interests who have a stake in the status quo. Even Fortune magazine, for example, might hesitate before describing the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate regulations as "burdensome post-Enron rules," as The Economist does.

It's almost beside the point that a country-hopping journalist friend who I respect greatly told me straight-faced that The Economist's authoritative assessment of complex events is constantly wrong. The mag's voice is knowing and self-assured, and Americans are buying it--literally. In 2004 and 2005--at a time when the circulation of rival financial magazines was all but flat--The Economist's was up over 12 percent. Indeed, it now sells more than three times as many copies in America as in Britain.

The magazine--The Economist actually calls itself a newspaper--still draws far fewer U.S. ad dollars than top-tier money mags: $72 million compared to BusinessWeek's $332 million in 2005, for example. But amid declining ad revenue for magazines in general and the financial category in particular, The Economist managed to actually raise its ad revenue by 11 percent last year.

One aspect of The Economist's appeal, and one it definitely plays up, is as a sort of luxury item. It gives a reader--any reader--a taste of the good life. (I'd call it Vogue For Men, but that name was recently taken.) For one instant, readers can imagine themselves nestled in their private jets, all calls on hold, checking The Economist's "Executive Focus" recruitment pages for career opportunities, and thinking, "The Bush administration is seeking treasury advisers in Iraq? Too risky. The World Conservation Union needs a new director general? Too maudlin." They can read letters to the editor from Fortune 100 CEOs and British MPs ("Sir -- Your analysis of the failings in British policy on climate change misses one key point..."), and take heart in the magazine's conviction that the world has more than enough oil to fuel their multinational corporations for years to come.

Like the handling of an Aston Martin racer or the bespoke tailoring of a Savile Row suit, The Economist's worth can be found in its attention to detail. Putting fantasies of luxury aside, The Economist is in fact a finely crafted instrument for processing political and financial news events, with writers clearly outlining often highly complex subjects for readers, many of whom probably do have a sizable stake in long-term gas prices.

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