RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here's the story of how one company survives in a brutal business. News magazines are competing for an audience that's been flat or falling for years, but one weekly has bucked that trend: The Economist. Since 1993, the British magazine has more than doubled its U.S. readership under editor Bill Emmott, who now is stepping down.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on how The Economist has become a success by offering serious global coverage.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
The magazine would seem to have several strikes against it. First, there's the sleep-inducing title, The Economist. Then, there's the sometimes esoteric content. In recent issues, topics have ranged from the credit card market in Mumbai, to political assassination in Kazakhstan. But when it comes to readership, The Economist is doing great: up 13 percent from last year. That's on a par with some of the nation's hottest magazines: celebrity-fueled glossies like US Weekly and Star.
Editor Bill Emmott says that The Economist has flourished since the Cold War by providing analysis of an increasingly interconnected world.
Mr. BILL EMMOTT (Editor, The Economist): It seems like a long time ago, now. The Soviet Union had just fallen. We looked like, in the world, as if we were at our sort of seminal, changing moment. And the opportunity that the last 13 years has provided, and that we have thankfully exploited has been to ride the wave of globalization.
LANGFITT: When Emmott took over, The Economist had about 200,000 readers here. Today, circulation is around 515,000 in the U.S and nearly 1.1 million worldwide. Competitors like Time and Newsweek still have more than seven million in combined circulation. But as they've shifted away from traditional hard news, Emmott says The Economist has picked up some of their readers.
Mr. EMMOTT: We're a niche market, compared with their mass markets. And I think that by trying to protect a mass market, they did so by moving more into entertainment and lifestyle. And that probably did open up some space for us.
LANGFITT: The Economist has enviable demographics. In the U.S., nearly two out of three readers earn more than $100,000 a year. The magazine is unabashedly elitist, especially in its marketing. This is Paul Rossi, The Economist's publisher for North America.
Mr. PAUL ROSSI (Publisher): A lot of our readers are in very senior positions. We are one of the most thumbed magazines on Air Force One. We reach CEOs and politicians and financiers around the world. And that is, in some sense, an aspiration that we promote in our advertising, so one of our tag lines is: it's lonely at the top, but at least there's something to read.
LANGFITT: While most Economist readers in the U.S. live on the East or West Coast, others live in places like the Midwest. Readers like Paul O'Connor, who runs a business development organization called World Business Chicago. O'Connor says the magazine tips him to global trends, ranging from new technology to opportunities in China.
Mr. PAUL O'CONNOR (World Business Chicago): When Mayor Daley went out 18 months ago to establish a special relationship with Shanghai, The Economist's timely view on China was just a keeper. If you had to reduce your airplane reading to one thing, that Economist would have been that.
LANGFITT: Clifford Hudson is CEO of Sonic, the U.S. drive-in fast food chain based in Oklahoma City. He began subscribing to The Economist six or seven years ago, because it alerts him to shifts in consumer tastes.
Mr. CLIFFORD HUDSON (CEO, Sonic): I have a new chief financial officer that just moved into that position a year and a half ago. And one of the first things I did when he moved into it was buy him a subscription to The Economist.
LANGFITT: Despite growing readership, not everything has been rosy at the magazine. After 9/11, ad revenue was flat or down three years in a row, before rebounding last year. And some analysts wonder whether such a wonky magazine can keep attracting new readers, at a subscription rate of 129 bucks per year.
Samir Husni teaches journalism at Ole Miss.
Professor SAMIR HUSNI (Professor, University of Mississippi): Will they ever be a mass magazine like Time or Newsweek? I really doubt that. It's a very specialized publication. And once you go over half a million, you start losing some of that specialty, and you start becoming mass. And somehow, mass and class don't combine.
LANGFITT: But high class does not mean no laughs. The Economist covers are among the funniest in the business. Consider one on the year 2000, when the leaders of North and South Korea met for the first time. Kim Jong-Il, the reclusive North Korean leader, is pictured waving stiffly to crowds. The headline? "Greetings, Earthlings."
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
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