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April 29, 2017

What Are They Thinking? Zanny Minton Beddoes: New Breed of Editors Are Taking Over

Zanny Minton Beddoes starts with two numbers: 1.6 million and 73 million. The first represents The Economist’s paid circulation today. The second forms a target group of people like Economist readers, a small percentage whom she hopes to bring into the fold as digital storytelling and marketing make new customer acquisition more possible.

“I care about waking up to the true issues of the 21st century, inequality, diversity and the impact of tech,” she says, putting forward an updated agenda for her publication.

Minton Beddoes is just one of a number of new top editors taking over in the midst of another huge wave of digital disruption. Neither top editor change nor disruption of the news business is new, but the confluence of the two prompt timely questions about the thinking of those assuming the positions in and around 2015.

Minton Beddoes’ January appointment was followed closely by Katharine Viner’s at The Guardian two months later. We’ve also seen what I think is the beginning of such a movement at regional papers as diverse at the Dallas Morning News andThe Oregonian.

By the numbers, it’s in part a generational change.

At 47, Minton Beddoes replaces 52-year-old John Mickelthwait, who became top editor at Bloomberg, and replaced 59-year-old Matthew Winkler. At 44, Viner replaces 61-year-old Alan Rusbridger.

53-year-old Mike Wilson followed 65-year-old Bob Mong at the Dallas Morning News. 52-year-old Mark Katches replaced 61-year-old Peter Bhatia at The Oregonian last year.

Is taking over a top newsroom in 2015 markedly different than in 2010 or 2005? I think it is.


First published at Capital New York

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The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger assumed his top job in 1995, Mong in 2001. These editors, and their peers, stood early on the beach, seeing those smaller waves of digital change roll in, and began making adjustments, some more quickly than others. All were amazed as the swells got higher, more chaotic and essentially un-forecastable. They often explained themselves as transitional characters, charged with bridging from one time to another – amid the storm.

Now, we look less at the Minton Beddoes, Viners, Wilsons and Katches as transitional characters. They take their jobs, knowing the chaos more deeply, and having to accept it as a new normal. Certainly, their enterprises all move, at differing paces, from print to digital, but importantly, their task is more straightforward. There’s no there to get to, no safe haven. There are just the rolling waves, and their staffs and news products, must find way to swim, and breathe, among them.

“We have no idea in what way tomorrow’s consumers will want to consume their media,” says Minton Beddoes, who was picked in a fairly open selection process, well-detailed by current Quartz senior editor, and a former Economist editor, Gideon Lichfield.

The Economist has surfed the disruption so far better than many of its peers, though as a weekly magazine that calls itself a “newspaper,” it can be tough to name that peer group. Clearly, it competes as do all news media for that most precious of digital media commodities: time. That means the competition is ubiquitous and ever-changing. That can produce a certain frame of mind in a new editor taking command.

Much was made about Minton Beddoes becoming the first woman editor in the 171-year-old history of The Economist, just as Katharine Viner became the first at The Guardian in 194 years, only two months later.

At The Economist, the gender question is much more pointed than in its single appointment. Astoundingly, only 13% of Economist subscribers are female. How will the new editor approach that audience challenge?

Of course, she prefers to define her target audience not by gender, but by mindset, “people who are interested in the world beyond themselves, people who are interested in the future.” That aspirational position is a good one, but the gender numbers run much truer to the more prosaic business reader. We can expect to see the new editor push those business boundaries further, with such stories as the current, “The weaker sex “Boys are being outclassed by girls at both school and university, and the gap is widening.”

Minton Beddoes says that there’s a misperception about the magazine, that it’s only about business and economics, when in fact, it’s been going wider for awhile. That’s a familiar bind: The Economist is a prisoner of its own success, and is tries to connect with those big new potential audiences.

The new editor does promise evolutionary, rather than revolutionary change in the kinds of stories that may be soon found in the magazine and broaden its readership.

Overall, she borrows a philosophy from Intel builder Andy Grove. “One needs to be paranoid, but one needs to be optimistically paranoid,” she says. Acting on that paranoid is both offensive and defensive.

The Economist’s Espresso smartphone app, launched last year, aims at meeting the quick-read, morning briefing competition, and it’s done well, at least among core Economist readers. 175,000 of those subscribers have activated Espresso access, which is included in their subscriptions. In addition, Espresso acts as a sampling medium for new readers, though in a very limited way, offering but a single free story a day to non-subscribers.

The Economist became one of the first truly global publications before the advance of the Internet, and has since harnessed digital publishing to extend that worldwide reach. This little, born-in-1843-London publication has tentacles throughout the world:

North America: 876,420

Continental Europe: 248,415

U.K.: 223,915

Asia: 152,282

Middle East and Africa: 26,921

Latin America: 19,371

All totaled, The Economist counts 1.57 million subscribers. Of those, about half take print combined with digital, a quarter take print only and a quarter take digital only. All-Access subs go for $160 a year. Those taking either print-only or digital-only pay $127. The Economist, along with The New York Times, has crossed over. It now counts reader revenue as its number one source of funding, finishing 2014 at 55% and moving toward 60% by the end of this year.

Now, it moves on a new market: Chinese-speakers. Last week, it launched Global Business Review, a first-of-a-kind flip product (Chinese/English, English/Chinese, by the paragraph) mobile news product. (“Why The Economist Decided Now It’s Time to Learn Chinese”). At $75 a year, it tests the same kind of paid, niche opportunity that The New York Times has tried with NYT Now. If successful, GBR will then move to Spanish and other languages, in a bid to gain market share, at relatively low – most of the cost is in translation of 30 already published article a month – expense.

Strategically, Minton Beddoes makes the point that GBR isn’t as much a global expansion as simply a better use of what is truly a global staff. Only 68 of The Economist’s 104 editorial staffers base themselves in London; the rest already find themselves spread around the world.

“Mobile”, of course, is part of the digital news terra incognita that Minton Beddoes knows she has to chart. Toss in two other nouns, clichéd by their digital overuse – “video” and “social” – and we’ve got three big areas that will strongly influence the how of Economistjournalism, if less so on the how and why that is The Economist’s sweet spot.

Social is newly ascendant for The Economist and its peers as Facebook issues its invitation to just let most reading happen on its network.

Minton Beddoes looks at “limited” distribution on the network, as it aims to preserve that direct, first-party relationship with those loyal paying readers. “I think of it as a tool for extending reach — not a new readership model,” she says. (“Buzzfeed, New York Times Play Buzzfeed’s Ubiquity Game”)

With the leadership of deputy editor Tom Standage, the magazine has multiplied both Facebook and Twitter referrals over the past year, increasing page views from those sites by 155% and 217%, respectively.

Peers recognize Standage as one the savviest thinkers on journalism in the digital age. He’d been a candidate for the top job, and was promoted to the company’s overall management team, where along with Minton Beddoes he’ll work increasingly closely with the business side to speed digital progress. Keeping him in The Economist fold itself is a smart strategic move.

She also finds herself in the midst of the audience analytics revolution – and how much of it to bring into the newsroom how quickly. A newer cross-functional web analytics team brings greater knowledge of utility to editors on a weekly basis now. Like other top editors of top pubs, Minton-Beddoes quickly explains that the notions of what to cover won’t be driven by numbers.

“It’s how we write about things in different media, not what we actually cover.” On further discussion, though, she notes how better understanding of what readers really read – its increasingly popular “explainers”, for instance, does help on decisions of what else to do explainers on. In the hurly burly of early analytics, we see smart editors slowly being able to acknowledge that good understanding of data matched with keen editorial instinct creates the route forward.

Consider that one of 2014’s top stories, “The Disposable Academic” accounted for one percent of all its traffic. The long-form story bounced endlessly around the web. Perhaps, through smart editorial analytics, we can find a new term for “premium clickbait”, stories of surpassing curiosity – and depth.

Economist editor, Minton Beddoes is a formally trained economist. With her graduate degree, she joined the publication 20 years ago. That beyond journalism training, it turns out, is fundamental to The Economist mindset and output.

“We have tended to hire subject matter experts who write really well ‘as compared to those who have gone to journalism school,” she says. These experts come of industry, academia and civil service people, not out of journalism schools.

That’s a huge point in this age. Journalist generalists – whose jobs were once protected by geographic boundaries – have been greatly devalued. It is knowledge, experience and expertise that we readers value, and that fits, now more than ever the successful news brands of this hybrid print/digital age.

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