The Economist: Voice of the New Global Elite
August 25, 2012
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, if you had asked a typical senior American corporate type or public official what his or her weekly reading consisted of, the answer would usually have run something like this: “Time,Newsweek and maybe U.S. News & World Report . . . oh, yes, and the Economist.” Today, instead of being an afterthought, theEconomist probably would head the list. It might even be the only publication mentioned. U.S. News & World Reportceased being a full-scale newsmagazine years ago. Newsweek, since 2010 the feeble foster child of Tina Brown’s flamboyant Daily Beast website, has lost much of its influence and most of its original staffers and subscribers. Even mighty Time, once the educated American middle class’s undisputed arbiter of all things political, economic, social and cultural, has suffered massive staff and circulation hemorrhaging and is in the throes of a seemingly endless search for a new identity.Time knows it isn’t what it used to be but still can’t make up its mind what it should become.
All of this would seem to be conclusive evidence that the era of the weekly newsmagazine is over, rendered obsolete by burgeoning electronic media and 24/7 cable-news coverage and commentary. But if the once-great redwoods of American weekly journalism are all dead, dying or seriously ill, a smaller, older English oak survives and flourishes, possibly because it has never tried to be anything other than itself: a literate, informed (and occasionally smug) publication aimed at a literate, informed (and occasionally smug) readership. First published in 1843, which makes it eighty years older than Time and ninety years older than Newsweek, theEconomist remains true to the statement of purpose printed in its first issue, still proudly run each week at the foot of its contents page: a pledge of commitment to the “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
The age of Victorian optimism is long gone, and the sun has forever set on the British Empire. But the Economist goes on, the exemplar of that old Victorian determination to get things done and do them right. Today, it is arguably more influential, more widely read and more prestigious than at any other time in its 169-year history and in a way that is unlike any other magazine. Why is this so? And how well does the quality of its content live up to theEconomist’s lofty status?
Answering the first question is easier than answering the second. More than any other serious news journal since the invention of the Gutenberg press in the fifteenth century, the Economistis the beneficiary of a unique, global linguistic confluence: the universal dominance of the English language. This triumph was made possible by an event unprecedented in world history: one language being shared by two successive global superpowers that, between them, have led the shaping of the modern world from the dawn of parliamentary politics and the Industrial Revolution all the way to the present day. Power has shifted from one country to the other, and may do so again, but the English language remains paramount. Starting in Great Britain, it began a triumphant march that would see it become the mother tongue of countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all originally colonized and populated by people of Anglo-Saxon heritage. But it didn’t end there. English also is the language of the educated elite in Asian, African, Pacific and West Indian countries once part of the vast British Empire. To cite one small piece of evidence, many of today’s best-written (and best-selling) English-language novels are written by English-speaking Indians, Pakistanis, Caribbeans and Africans, all linguistic beneficiaries of a now-defunct British Empire and a still-expanding global market for English-language fiction.
Meanwhile, even as England—first overextended and then exhausted by two world wars—ceased to be a superpower, a new English-speaking colossus, the United States, filled the void, not just because of its military and economic might but also because of its scientific and technological supremacy. Around the world, English (now with an American inflection) expanded ever further as the international language of science, commerce, academia, sea and air transport, diplomacy and, thanks to globalized media, even popular culture. At the same time, millions of foreign students, especially promising or privileged ones, have completed their educations at prestigious American and English universities after having learned English at home as a second language.
One result is a growing worldwide elite audience of English speakers and readers—about 1.5 million subscribers—for whom the Economist is the perfect fit, comprehensively covering as it does both the United States and the United Kingdom and offering more thorough coverage of the rest of the world than any rival English-language periodical. The Economist has become the premiere worldwide newsweekly for the new global elite…