"Anyone who likes 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' could read the Economist," Micklethwait, 45, quipped, tacitly comparing an edgy, high-minded TV show and an edgy, high-minded weekly business magazine.
The two share a business challenge as well. Both constantly strive to increase the size of their audiences while facing the reality of catering to a finite market.
While Time Warner's HBO is a premium cable service purchased primarily by affluent subscribers, the Economist faces a different kind of limitation on its audience size. There are only so many Americans who are -- to put it bluntly -- smart enough to enjoy its articles.
So much of the U.S. media focus on the celebrity culture and present news in bite-sized portions that the Economist's content may be too meaty for a country that once celebrated a show called "Beavis and Butthead."
Targeting smaller markets
Paul Rossi, the 44-year-old publisher of the Economist in North America and executive vice president of the Economist Group, wrestles with the weighty task of unearthing the magazine's targeted readers in the U.S.
The Economist has already built a solid foundation. The magazine says its advertising revenue rose 24% last year. In its next filing, it expects to show that its North American circulation figure has swelled to about 722,000, underscoring circulation growth of 76% over the past five years. It's targeting a North American circulation of more than 1 million in fewer than five years.
Rossi, an affable, savvy marketer who joined the magazine in 1987, has witnessed its growth. He recognizes that the Economist sells well in cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., where there are abundant multinational concerns and people with global business interests.
But the true test of the Economist's popularity comes when it focuses on smaller U.S. markets. These groups are more likely to get their news from Time, Newsweek and BusinessWeek , which are more familiar and predictable for American audiences. For example, Time's recent cover featuring actor George Clooney, titled "The Last Movie Star," probably suits the U.S. palate better than much of the Economist's standard fare.
Rossi frets that a big challenge for the Economist is getting prospective readers to shake off suspicions that it is a wonky periodical that's more of a homework assignment than a day at the beach.
While the Economist tailors its city-by-city marketing in the U.S. to the tastes of each market -- it had a tie-in with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, for instance -- Rossi and his troops invariably hammer home the same general point.
"The common thread in terms of the execution of the campaign is to think differently about us," Rossi told me in an interview last week.
Rossi says his message often centers on the idea that the Economist is "not what you think it is. It's NOT about the economy. It's not dry or dull."
Anyone who has read the magazine could back up that assertion. Although I view Time and Newsweek (not to mention U.S. News & World Report and the Week) as sophisticated and worthwhile in their own right, the Economist is the smartest weekly magazine around.
Still, the class brain is seldom also recognized in the school yearbook as the most popular kid in the class. Sure, an American audience could identify with the Economist's Feb. 16-22 cover, showing a determined Barack Obama. But what about the other stories flagged on the cover: preventing a global downturn; China's new roads, railways and airports; defeating diabetes; Lakshmi Mittal's formula for steel; and the rights and wrongs of sharia law?
The Economist may be too sophisticated for its own good. I sure don't want themagazine to dumb down its content for the U.S. audience. I hope it can resist the temptation.
The Economist has the goods, all right, to have lofty growth plans in the U.S. The only problem, though, is that there may not be enough smart people around who will want to read it.
: Which magazines do you buy at newsstands?
: "The long goodbye" by Peggy Drexler (San Francisco Chronicle, March 6): Drexler neatly sums up why there is so much pessimism about the future of newspapers. .
to in which I slammed the British media for playing ball with the authorities and agreeing not to reveal that Prince Harry was fighting in Afghanistan until recently:
"I congratulate the press for keeping mum on Harry's whereabouts. With your position, you are just trying to stir up something for its news value. You need to get a life."
-- John Ippoliti
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By Jon Friedman