New Man at an Old Mag

Editor Bill Emmott lets his actions speak at Britain's Economist

BILL EMMOTT, the new editor of The Economist, is unwilling to say much for public consumption at this stage. But what he is prepared to say reflects the exacting standards that have made the magazine a striking journalistic, financial, and global success.

"I will be keeping the [Economist] resolutely upmarket at a time when other publications are tending to move down-market," he said as he moved into the editorial chair at the Economist's high-tech London headquarters in downtown St. James's.

A colleague explained that Mr. Emmott, who was formerly business editor, preferred to remain publicly reticent and let "what he does with the [magazine] speak for itself."

But he forecast that the new man at the helm would "continue to modernize and foster high-grade political and economic debate on both sides of the Atlantic."

The Economist's mixture of editorial boldness, thoughtful discussion of issues, and technical innovation has generated a global readership and boosted weekly sales earlier this year to more than half a million, with half a dozen printing plants around the world. Its success is even more remarkable because the Economist's style of journalism is not everyone's cup of tea.

Outside the London offices, a waterfall 30 feet high will mark the 150th anniversary, in September, of the magazine's founding. The cascade sparked disagreement even before the water began to flow.

Angela Cromer, the sculptor, calls it "Undercurrents," and says it represents the forces of change that shape the news. But a former Economist journalist who left because he found it too "university common room" and "very stuffy" said a better name is "Babbling Brook" - to "reflect the style of the editorials."

Such waspishness has its American counterpart. James Fallows, Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly, earlier this year assailed the Economist for its "Oxford Union argumentative style" that involved "a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact."

No matter how much controversy the Economist generates, however, it is undeniably successful. Emmott, who was appointed editor in April, has taken over a publication with an expanding readership (most of it outside Britain) and an enviable reputation as an opinion-former.

Marjorie Scardino, an American who in March became chief executive, says the Economist could carry no advertisements and still make money. In fact, it carries many ads, and currently is No. 5 in terms of magazine advertising pages in the US.

The paper also has a history of drawing its writers from top universities and launching senior editors into the stratosphere of politics, finance, and journalism. Emmott, who has a first-class degree from Oxford University, moved into the editor's office after Rupert Pennant-Rea left it to become deputy governor of the Bank of England.

Andrew Knight, Mr. Pennant-Rea's predecessor, is chairman of Rupert Murdoch's News International. Andrew Neil, editor of the London Sunday Times, and Jonathan Fenby, newly appointed editor of the Observer, both cut their journalistic teeth on the Economist. Sarah Hogg was its economics editor before Prime Minister John Major chose her to head his policy unit.

It is not surprising that, with talent of such high caliber at its disposal, the Economist has acquired a reputation for sticking its neck out.

Economist editorials, or "leaders," were campaigning for privatization years before Margaret Thatcher made it the centerpiece of her economic policies. Reaganomics was still high fashion in the US when the magazine began to inveigh against budget deficits.

Occasionally it gets things heroically wrong. Right up to Britain's departure from the European Community's Exchange Rate Mechanism last September, the Economist was singing the ERM's praises.

A staff member who has helped to write many editorials said, only half-jokingly: "The Economist writing formula is to simplify the problem and exaggerate the solution."

It certainly is not reticent. Under the headline "John Major's last year?" in its May 15 issue, for example, it warned the prime minister that unless he drastically improved his performance, "the knives will glint, understandably."

According to Melanie McDonagh, who worked at the Economist for a time as a journalistic trainee, keeping writers' names off articles is a mixed blessing. Journalists may be unhappy at not getting credit for their efforts, but it is possible for an authoritative editorial to be written by "a 25-year-old who is still wet behind the ears."

Chances are it will also be heavily rewritten. Knight says that before he moved to News International he was the highest-paid sub-editor in British journalism. A staff writer described the rewrite process: "You have to get used to having your material massaged and worked over," especially at first. "After a while you adapt, but you can still get a shock when you see what is published."

At 225,000, the Economist's North American circulation is more than twice that of Britain's. Michael Leapman, a British media analyst, thinks the great popularity of the Economist in the US is "rather odd" but knows of no plan to alter the magazine's publishing base.

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