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The Economist Is Beating The Odds In The U.S.

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) - The London-based Economist has a lot of nerve showing its face in the U.S., much less threatening to become a publishing phenomenon on these shores.

Don't its officials know how out of step their approach seems here? For openers, the Economist is a newsweekly, a format that, in the U.S., has lately translated into having questionable relevance in a digital universe (not to mention slow, if any, growth).

Then, the publication has the chutzpah to take a global view in its stories. Remember, an international story -- outside Iraq, of course -- by most U.S. media standards might as well begin and end with a discussion of Yao Ming's cultural significance. .

You want another laugh? The Economist specializes in looking at the decidedly anti-hip finance scene (zzz) at a time when American business magazines are searching high and low for buzz (and ad dollars) with the desperation of a kid checking between the couch cushions for loose change. I mean, the publication's title alone can conjure up visions of the dread dismal science, right?

Now here's the topper: The Economist tries -- hard -- to reach smart people, eschewing the kind of broad audience that Time and Newsweek target. In other words, don't expect to see Britney Spears or her ilk grace the cover of the Economist. Unless ...

"If she re-emerged as the head of the World Bank, we'd consider it," John Micklethwait, the Economist's editor-in-chief, quipped Monday, when we talked for more than an hour in the magazine's New York offices.

Even without the ever-newsworthy Spears gracing its pages, the Economist is making its mark in the U.S. Spokesman Justin Hendrix told me that the magazine expects to show 13% circulation growth in its upcoming filing, on top of the 8.5% jump in the number of advertising pages in 2007. With a circulation of about 722,000 in North America now -- and more than 1.3 million in total -- the magazine intends to crack the 1 million threshold on this continent in the next five years.

The Economist prides itself on being relevant to its readers. "We think there is an ever-growing number of people who want an intelligent read," Micklethwait, 45, said. "People who read the Economist knew the problems with housing all over the world, the Islamic extremism, food prices and even bin Laden."

Style with surprises

The Economist is thriving in the U.S. because it frequently succeeds in being different from the American media. The Economist is decisive, but not shrill. Its stories in the magazine and on the Web have a sense of urgency, but don't reek of hype.

The reporting is analytical but not dull. Its Feb. 23-29 cover underscored its style with the image of a cigar stubbed out in an ashtray, telling the story of Fidel Castro's exit as Cuba's head of state.

"Among the reasons I love the Economist and consider it to be the best-reporting general-interest magazine is that it's unpredictable," said Ken Auletta, the New Yorker's media critic. "It covers the world, and it covers it in a way that says, 'This is what we think is important. We're not going to put Paris Hilton on the cover. You may not like 20-page reports on Africa or Japan's economy or free trade. But we're going to give it to you.' It's much more opinionated than Time or Newsweek or most magazines. Yet they are full of surprises."

Yet some American magazine editors prefer to dismiss the Economist as a niche magazine that contains sleepy prose, focuses on survey journalism and seldom breaks news. That the Economist doesn't publish bylines could seem like a shining example of a snobbish magazine.

The Economist's sudden hipness, the naysayers' argument goes, stems from a silly, wannabe U.S. audience wanting to feel smart and with-it -- the way Americans snapped up Coors beer in the 1970s because it seemed like a cool alternative to Budweiser. The Economist is not really better -- it's diferent, they suggest, and it has a cachet as American publishing's flavor of the month. So they say, harrumph!

The American media establishment is noticing the Economist, to say the least.

The New York Observer recently published a headline declaring: "Jon Meacham's Cri de Coeur: Why Do You Read the Economist Instead of Newsweek?"

Meacham told an audience at the Columbia School of Journalism: "It's the most talked-about and least-read magazine." A Columbia student countered Meacham by saying the Economist was "more courageous" than Newsweek.

I suspect that American magazines would be a lot better off if instead of sounding so defensive they employed some of the Economist's ideas, especially its clever, understated covers.

Despite Meacham's comments (which you might also hear echoing through the corridors of Time Inc. as well), both Newsweek and Time seem to have been reading the Economist closely for tips. Time and Newsweek have, indeed, increased a sense of wit on their covers in recent years.

While neither magazine would ever want to credit a rival for providing inspiration, I think it's a reasonable conclusion to imagine that the Economist has had a positive effect on its U.S. counterparts.

Contrasting coverage

If NPR published a magazine, it would probably look and read a lot like the Economist: restrained, incisive and thorough.

By contrast, U.S. media sometimes seem to compete for the most hyped, breathless coverage in the name of obtaining "scoops." This philosophy is no longer confined to tabloids or blogs, either.

Micklethwait isn't obsessed with keeping up with his American counterparts, although he remains a fan of the New Yorker and the Atlantic and has a healthy respect for Time and Newsweek. When I suggested that he and New Yorker Editor David Remnick could swap jobs for a week without the readers realizing it, he laughed and said good-naturedly: "The New Yorker would die of inequality, and the Economist would soar."

That brand of sly wit also sets the Economist apart. For example, it recently published a piece on fake doctors in India -- titled "Quackdown."

For now, Micklethwait's biggest challenge appears to be finding a way to cram the entire world into his magazine and on to the Web site.

"If we had 212 pages," he sighed happily, "maybe Britney would have a larger role."

: What do you like or dislike about the Economist?

: "Begrudging His Bedazzling" by Maureen Dowd (New York Times, Feb. 27): When Dowd, America's wittiest columnist, sticks to writing about politics, she has no peer. .

to about the New York Times' controversial piece on Sen. John McCain:

"Maybe the NY Times got too far out in front of the rumor about a McCain affair -- time will tell. Or maybe someone even tried to set up the NYT in order to rally recalcitrant conservatives around McCain; who knows?"

-- Tim Kurtz

Media Web appears on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Feel free to send a comment to .

By Jon Friedman

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