An Interview with John Micklethwait

Haegwan Kim

Thank you so much for your time, in this interview I want to talk about mainly two things. First, how you achieved success at an individual level. Second, how other human beings can be successful.


John Micklethwait

I think most people do well out of a mixture, I mean, timing and luck accounts for something. But I think there are other factors that seemed to have helped other people. If you look at people around the world and you see who’s done well, definitely success and luck seem to account for something. There is no doubt also, wrongly or rightly, that if you look around the world there’s certainly a bias towards education. You can see that a bit in the current British premiership, where you have the two people leading the country who both went to private schools. You can see in America, where Obama to some extent is the exception, to the extent that he hasn’t come from a well-off background, but he went to Harvard and Bill Clinton went to Yale. So there does seem to be a correlation, in terms of political sense in democracies, between education attainment and success.


HK

Then you think luck matters for success to many extent?


JM

Yes. When I said luck, there is timing involved. For instance, I think if you read the books about Barack Obama it is very clear that he happened to push through American politics at exactly the right time. If he had come three years earlier maybe, he would have run afoul of the Clinton machine. Timing has a lot to do with these things. Another point to make about Obama is even in the Presidential race, I think in the weekend when Lehman went bankrupt. Going in to that weekend, as I remember it, John McCain was either ahead or level pegging in the poles. And so the particular way in which Obama dealt with that problem helped him push ahead. And obviously that was partly to do with talent, but it was also quite a lot to do with luck.


HK

Can I ask how did you, I mean, The Economist magazine, promote so far? And why is it internationally successful?


JM

We promote The Economist through marketing. And in terms of why The Economist is successful, I think it’s a mixture out of some things to do with the business model. I think the business side of The Economist is a huge reason why we have done so well. I think particularly the idea that we charge people for reading us, which most other magazines depend so heavily on advertising, and I think that is an advantage for us. I think from an editorial point of view, we were lucky that globalisation seems to be on our side. More people are interested in reading, say, about Korea this week than they would have been 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Lastly, I think there’s a certain element of what we call, ‘Mass intelligence.’ The number of people that have been to college, been to University, around the world keeps on growing. And that I think healthily tends to help us. But that’s what we’ve managed to do so far.


HK

What was the most important element to be successful for you as editor-in-chief of The Economist magazine?


JM

I’m not going to claim I’m successful. That’s for other people to judge. My luckiest break was joining The Economist. I was very lucky in that because I was a banker at the time, and I applied to The Economist at a time when The Economist was losing a lot of people to the city. I happened to get here just in the summer of 1987. In October of 1987 there was a huge crash and the city didn’t seem as plentiful and wonderful as it did before. And so a lot of people who might have wanted to be journalists would have wanted to be them again. So I was lucky to get through that particular bit when I did. I think that’s a good example of how timing can help.


HK

Talking about market condition of The Economist, although its headquarters is in the UK, the primary place to sell the magazines is in the US right?


JM

Well out of the subscribers, (I’m going to get the numbers wrong), if we have 1.45 million readers, roughly 800,000 are in America, or in North America including Canada. So you’re right, it’s the biggest market but there’s still quite a big market outside.


HK

Do you think that the globalisation will help media to sell magazines?


JM

Well we hope we will, that’s the aim. I think anyone in the media industry, I don’t know who else you’ve interviewed, but anyone in the media industry who tells you that their success is guaranteed at the moment is a brave man. We hope to keep on growing, and I would hope to keep on growing, especially when you consider things like the internet helps us reach many more people, but also the new devices like the iPad and the Sony Reader, and similar devices are hopefully a way of reaching more readers. My aim is to get as many people as possible. It’s not my only aim, but one of my aims is to get as many people as possible to enjoy The Economist.


HK

Would you say that the successful media in the 21st century is global orientated?


JM

I think there’s a split. We are odd, to the extent that I think alone out of virtually all the big magazines, we don’t additionalise. We do in a very small way. If you look at our British edition, it has two more pages on Britain that we don’t have anywhere else. But with that one exception, everything is the same. We change the covers according to regions a bit, and the order of the sections, but essentially if you read The Economist in Seoul, or if you read The Economist in San Francisco, or indeed Southampton, you will get exactly the same product with the difference of those two pages. The governing idea behind The Economist is that we are trying to look for stories around the world which are interesting to everyone around the world. That doesn’t mean that you look for a kind of global mush. You can write a very interesting article about what’s happening in Korean politics that someone will be interested in. Or you can write a very interesting article about what is happening in French politics and someone will be interested in it. That’s our presumption going in. But we are something of an exception for that. Obviously we couldn’t write about sport for instance, in the same way that the Daily Telegraph writes about sport, or The Times writes about sport. Because they can focus entirely on British Teams, what they are doing, how well that be … that is much more likely to connect with people. It’s harder for us in that respect. But I’m not necessarily sure it’s good for other people.


HK

So you’re not necessarily focusing on Britain?


JM

There’s both a global market and a local market. But I think the key point is, when you chase the global market you can’t just write about, for example, rich people who travel around the world, then that’s not terribly interesting. I genuinely think that if you write an article about malice in India then that is of interest. Somebody here will want to read them. One, because it’s interesting what’s happening by itself, and secondly because it is relevant. People here have now got money invested in India, they want to see what’s happening. They may know other people who live in India. It’s all of those things together which make a difference.


HK

Can I ask your sense on the new media, such as Huffington Post or millions of, many of them are readable, blogs? Will they eradicate old media including The Economist?


JM

I have a somewhat unsatisfactory answer to you on that. But I suspect it is close to the truth. What is clear is that social media, you mentioned the Huffington Post, that’s done extremely well. On the other hand it doesn’t seem … I’ll get beaten up by Arianna Huffington if I get this wrong.


HK [Laughter]


JM

But it doesn’t seem to be making much money. People so far haven’t really found a way of making social media, of course they’ve found a way of making social media interesting, and alive and clever. There hasn’t quite been the same sort of eureka moment in terms of money making that has happened with other things. So that’s the starting point from that side. I think social media will continue to do quite well, but I don’t see it as replacing the other ones. I think on the other difficulty is trying to do well enough. And now you see that the big issue there – which I think is still very unresolved – is how much of your stuff you put behind a pay wall. Literally, this week in Britain, The Times, The London Times and the Sunday Times have put all there stuff behind a pay wall and said, “You have to pay one pound a day to look at it.” Or two pounds a week. And it will be interesting to see what happens there. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal have a great deal behind the pay wall, we have quite a lot. There is a whole series of people trying to make different judgments about that, and it is very, very hard to say which way it is going to go. My instinct is that on the whole if you are going to make things work, you’ve got to get people to pay for it.


HK

Do you have any particular competitor?


JM

Well, if you run a magazine you have to be paranoid about your competitors, I don’t think there’s anyone who is doing exactly the same as us. But when I am asked about competition I tend to give a somewhat clich├ęd answer, which I apologise for but I think it’s true, which is that our biggest competitor is time, not Time Magazine – although that is a competitor – but time as in people’s time. The basic choice about The Economist is that it’s Saturday morning. Do you want to read The Economist or do you want to sit and listen to music? Do you want to read the Saturday newspaper? Do you want to take your kids to the park? Do you want to go to the gym? If you go to the gym you can listen to The Economist rather than the paper. It’s that sort of thing, it’s people’s time which I think is the big thing. Within that we’re all competing. But yes, there are lots competitors who come back re-enhanced. A good example of that is Business Week, which is now Bloomberg Business Week. I think it looks a very interesting product as Bloomberg.


HK

Can I ask about your understanding of responsibility of media? Is there responsibility for journalists?


JM

Yes, that’s true and journalists should be responsible. I think there is a danger though sometimes in making journalists feel very self-important. British are quite good at this in the fact that they tend to regard journalists as mere hacks and scribblers, and I think that’s not a bad thing in some ways. It reduces the pomposity level.


HK

What about the price of information for journalists? I, or we, hope all the information is free so that we can solve the problem of imbalanced information which is causing income gap for example.


JM

In terms of paying for information, yes I think that’s the key bit of it. To some extent newspapers discovered that actually they didn’t have a proper price on their information. The newspaper model actually turned out really to be as much about classified advertising, i.e. that it wasn’t to do with the journalism as much as rounding people up to sell them – I’m talking about America in particular here – but to sell them bikes, houses and whatever. And so to some extent that is also deflating for journalists, it makes us feel less important. In magazines, wherever I tend to think that if you can make people pay, not everyone can so I’m not trying to force this model. But the closer you can get to making people pay for what you are doing, the more valued they will think about it. And actually there is a circle of virtue from this which is that if people are paying to get your product, then to some extent they are more valuable to advertisers and things because they are paying.


HK

That’s an interesting point. But if so, we have to at least create society where people can pay for the products – information, right?


JM

You can look around the world and Google doesn’t charge anybody anything. And yet it is making slightly more money than the economist is. There are other models obviously. So I want to be polite about them. But my instinct generally from a pure media point of view is that that is still the way to go. If we continue to get a big chunk of our money from advertising, but for the fact that people have paid to get the product is I think at the heart of what we’re trying to do.


HK

What do you think about the conflict between Google and Rupert Murdoch?


JM

Effectively, if you can say to an advertiser, “Here are all these people who are prepared to read this,” they are obviously engaged in the product. So if you put your advertisement in it, they will see it as well. And I think that’s a decent thing. I think also there are some reasons, and I’m not going to get too pompous about this, but there are plus points in not being too dependent on advertising from the point of view of independence. If you’ve got another model, then you’re not going to be quite as reliant on, or quite as worried about what advertisers will think.


HK

Could you give us your advice for people who aim to be an editor or go into the world of journalism?


JM

Well I think there are two things. I think for people who aim to be editor, all you can say is try and be as good a journalist as possible and if you’re lucky, in the right place at the right time, and people, I have a lot of friends who are editors who are very good, it’s hard to say exactly what binds them all together. I think in terms of journalism, the main advice I always give to people who want to get into journalism is write. I know it sounds stupid, but if you are trying to get a job with someone like us. We had somebody in yesterday who was very clever. And the one question mark about him was could he write? That is often a question mark from our point of view.


John Micklethwait is the Editor-in-Chief of Economist Magazine.

Popular posts from this blog

An Interview with Natsuko Shiraki

An Interview with Tumi Makgabo

An Interview with Sanjukta Basu