Adam Roberts, Digital Editor at The Economist, joined WAN-IFRA’s recent Media Leaders Summit Middle East 2023 to talk about the challenges of transforming a 180-year-old global legacy brand into a digital first one, while maintaining its trademark high quality standards.

Below is an excerpt from a conversation between Alan Hunter, co-founder, HBM Advisory, UK, and Roberts. It has been edited for brevity and grammar.

What does being digital-first mean in practical terms for The Economist?

We have a reputation for authority and global coverage that you can bring across to any new set of readers in any new format, which we have been experimenting with and hopefully are succeeding in.

There are great resources we can draw from. There are digitised archives we can dip into. We can go back to pre-US civil war days if we want. We have a global network of correspondents. We have established subscribers in literally every country in the world. 

There are great strengths but they don’t come without the weaknesses. We have a workplace culture that even today is focussed on the idea that we are a weekly newspaper. A lot of people producing that content still have to be persuaded that people read us everyday, not just once a week. 

The first copy of The Economist did not have even a single picture or an advertisement. We only got the cover image of the economist in the past 50 years or so. So, to think of evolving from here is my big challenge. 

My colleagues are quite literate when it comes to numbers and data, which gives me enormous leverage. 

We have a fact-checking research department that will check every single thing that we publish. A lot of the way we write or speak about the world, is hugely focussed on facts. 

The last two years have been grim and internally, dealing with cultural change has been the hardest. 

The editor-in-chief with not just the digital team but the department heads to talk about the daily lineup. The weekly Economist now has a daily rhythm. 

I have letters from people who have been reading The Economist for 50-60 years. They are shifting with us but some of them still like print. You’re really not going to damage the loyal print reader, you just have to start building your loyal digital readers. 

How different is digital journalism at The Economist compared to its print journalism?

Most of it is not different. We try to have exactly the same authority and journalists working on the digital pieces as the print ones. We are shifting the pace of publications, so we’re bringing forward a lot of the print weekly publications to be released during the course of the week. 

We’re demanding all the different parts of The Economist to hit the same standards and efforts. That said, there are some formats that are much more suited to print – podcasts, films or dynamic charts. However, there’s also ambassadorial content that might reach younger readers or people who are not our established subscribers, to make us more accessible. 

We’re quite an intimidating brand. Data has shown that this accessible content that is digital-exclusive works well in bringing in new subscribers. 

On the subject of data, do you use search trends and social performance to influence the content you’re producing?

The Economist has a purpose. 

We were founded in 1843 because we believed in free markets and free trade. Now, we’ve accumulated other values, including democracy and being against authoritarianism. We will publish stories even if we don’t think they’re going to be popular, because you don’t always know what you need to know. 

At the same time, we want our stories to be well read, and so we’re trying to use audience data in a slightly sophisticated manner. We have been playing around with the time of publishing, the webheads, the way we push that content out to different platforms or the time of the day when we do so. 

We’re proud of being British, but our biggest audience is in the US, and we’re really keen to grow an Asian audience. Our fourth biggest audience is in India, and we have lots of readers in Australia. Data has helped us do that.

That said, we are also aggressive about saying that we’re not led by the nose on the data. Data doesn’t help your brand become distinct and better. It only tells you what everyone else is doing. So, you must be careful about letting the data lead you entirely down your journalistic path.

You talked about developing audiences. Is the Espresso app still at the heart of your audience development process? 

We launched Espresso in 2014, based on an idea that we could build an audience with a daily habit of coming to read Economist-level analysis that was part of our ambassadorial content. 

It has content that is quickly consumable and informative. The idea was to have this app grow a separate tier of subscribers to The Economist. 

We brought Espresso into the core Economist app, put it on the website, on Spotify, a newsletter, and we’ve had a bunch of actors recording it thrice a day, because we update the app more often. Ironically, it’s on all these other platforms that it’s far more successful than in the app. 

This tells us something about the changing habits of the core Economist subscriber, that they are breaking the weekly habit. For the engagement, for the stickiness, and the fact we’re 100 percent betting on a subscriber model, we need that daily engagement. 

But we’re not stopping with Espresso. We’re making a big push into podcasts as we realise that younger readers are less keen to read and want content in other formats. 

We have two paths with the podcast – a group of weekly podcasts and our daily podcast called The Intelligence. It’s been around for a while and is building up a significantly large audience. 

Do you see podcasts as a way of making money in their own right, or are they a marketing tool for the economist for subscriptions as a whole?

There is such a commitment among younger people for podcasts, we think there might be a way of getting people to pay for it. We are going to experiment with subscription podcast costing – send the speedboats out and see what the people want. 

But it’s very, very tricky to get right. The challenge of podcasts is also that it changes the institutional voice of The Economist, suddenly making it more personal. Now the anonymity is breaking away. 

You’ve had a presence on Snapchat for quite some time. And now on TikTok. How are these efforts going?

We’re pushing ahead with TikTok. They work for the moment, but we never went down the path of trying to tweak everything to suit Facebook’s algorithms. However, they bring in a decent number of referrals. Instagram has been hugely successful in building an audience there.

TikTok is going to be more valuable because it teaches us more about film. We’re experimenting and trying to work out what film could mean for our brand. The sort of things we’re doing for TikTok could very well turn out to be the answer for everything else we want to do on film.

So, it’s another sandpit to play in, even if commercially it doesn’t yet deliver the goods. We’ll see what we can extract from these experiments but be ready to kill them off if we don’t think they work. 

Social media, for us, is flatter than newsletters right now. Our growth through newsletters has been quite striking, which may possibly reflect a slightly older subscriber base. 

There’s been a lot of conversation about reaching new audiences. Have you found that the digital audience has different kinds of interests and are a different demographic compared to print subscribers?

We would love for the digital audience to be younger and more diverse. Digital is obviously going to help us with our global push. 

One of the great costs of the old Economist was printing and distributing bits of paper around the world. The less we have to do that, the quicker readers in Australia or Dubai can get our content, and the readership can shift as the technology shifts. 

That said, what we really want is people who are interested in the world and I don’t think you can stereotype people. We’re careful not to go down the path of trying to segment our audience too much and define their interests. But we do see trends.

In our pursuit of becoming more diverse, we’re bubbling up with more interesting stories. The dream is to broaden the subscriber base. I don’t think we’re fully there yet.

Looking at the data about your audiences, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about them?

I’m particularly focused on geographical distribution, partly because we try to be more frequent and regular in our updates.

We want to know where our audiences are located in the world and what time they are consuming different kinds of Economist offerings. 

I think we’re slightly weird in being a small publication with a global audience. We’re very British-focus but we’re also trying to puzzle out what our audience wants on the other side of the world. 

Is there content that has performed well when it wasn’t expected to? 

You’re absolutely right. Like everyone, the Ukraine war became an obsession for us and still is. However, we had not expected quite such a nerdy obsession with military hardware but it turns out we have a hugely committed group of subscribers who are very excited about this stuff. 

In two weeks time, we launched a new newsletter called the War Room, our defence newsletter. Because this newsletter is so popular among that core group of enthusiasts, it has had a flywheel effect of it then being picked up, for example, by Google Discover, leading a much larger audience to it. This acts as ambassadorial content for us.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing The Economist on the business side of things?

If there’s something that keeps me up at night, it’s the multiple challenges of making product move quicker, in a way that suits both the editorial and commercial side of the business. 

On the audience side, you’re competing with the entire Internet. But you’re also competing with the entire internet for the engineers and the people to build your product. 

We need product engineers but we also need people with exactly the same skills to help us do things in editorial. This cultural bumping up of two different worlds is hard to deal with.

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