How the FT and Economist Triumphed in The U.S.

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Millions of megabytes have been wasted telling the story of how traditional business media companies were caught flat-footed by the rise of the Internet and are struggling to stay relevant.     There have been two exceptions to that rule:  The Financial Times and The Economist.

Both have been around for generations.  The salmon-colored FT was founded in 1888.  The Economist, a newsweekly, is more than 160 years old.   FT parent company Pearson Plc.  owns a 50% stake in the magazine.  Both, though, seem to have adapted well to the  U.S. in spite of their age.

The FT, which launched its US edition in 1997, quickly established itself as a formidable competitor to entrenched news outlets such as  The Wall Street Journal with its  pithy articles and incisive commentary.  That strategy continues to pay off. Revenue at the FT Group, which includes the newspaper, rose 9% to 192 million pounds in the first half  of 2010, fueled by a 27% increase in digital subscriptions and a rebound in advertising.

At a time of upheaval in the media, the FT continues to hold its own.  It claims a global print circulation of 387, 067, which though tiny compared with the more than 2 million claimed by the Journal, is nonetheless impressive considering the type of audience it attracts.

“ grew this elite audience over 33% (year-over-year), more than any other title,” the newspaper says, citing the Mendelsohn 2010 Affluent Survey in the US. “FT is best in class by composition for household income ($359K), number one  in total mean assets, highest spenders in many key categories (and overall), including most frequent travelers (dom + intl.), number 1 in premium class traveler composition, FT readers work for the largest companies both in terms of revenues & number of employees, most business decision-makers in category.” has three million registered users and 206,892  digital subscribers, as well as 597,015,  people who pay for its content daily, according to its website. In 2010, though  US print circulation was nearly flat year-over-year, total paid circulation in the US rose.

Times are also good for The Economist, whose North American circulation has more than doubled since 2000.  According to the Publishers Information Bureau,  advertising revenue at the magazine rose 10.5% to $126.8 million in 2010, surpassing the performance of rivals including  Fortune, which increased 6.8%, Bloomberg Business Week, which rose 6.3% and Forbes, which rose 0.6%.

The Economist has a North American circulation of 822,695, a global circulation of more than 1.4 million and 4 million monthly unique visitors at its website. The Americas is the largest region for subscriptions and registered users.

The success of The Economist and FT is more remarkable considering the failures of BusinessWeek, a money-losing weekly that Bloomberg L.P. snapped up last year, and Newsweek, which also lost money and was merged into The Daily Beast.  Before it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (NYSE:NWS) in 2007, the Journal was struggling as well though it has been one of the few U.S. newspapers to consistently post circulation gains. The New York Times (NYSE:NYT) also struggles to enter the digital age.  CEO Janet Robinson boasted in the fourth quarter earnings release that “we maintained our relentless focus on managing costs to mitigate the effects that the ongoing transformation of our industry and an uneven economic recovery had on our operating performance.”

The reasons for the success of the FT and The Economist are many.  Most importantly, however, is their British sensibilities.   Consider this lede paragraph from on blogs at the magazine:

CHAIRMAN MAO used to rail against the evils of revisionism. But statisticians unlike ideologues like to review, update and tinker with their past pronouncements. So it is that China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) today published a revised set of inflation figures, dating back to the beginning of last year.

dating back to the beginning of last year. The number that grabbed the most attention was the latest one, showing that consumer prices rose by 4.9% in the year to January. Most China-watchers were expecting a figure well over 5%.Investors seem pleased that inflation was lower than feared. But some analysts took a more Maoist attitude to the revised figures. One broker told Bloomberg that the National Bureau’s tinkering “suggests a fudging of the numbers”.

It’s smart, funny writing that flies in the face of the “just the facts ma’am” style that American journalists have been taught for generations that it’s their duty to type.  To this day, many blogs from U.S. media outlets are as dull as dishwater for that reason.   Reporters from the U.K.-based publicaions never got that memo, and in the Internet age, it’s a good thing too because it means that their articles are not the same old stuff that you read everywhere else.

The magazine consistently tackles complex subjects in a way that’s easy for readers to understand and with a humor that has become part of its trademark style,” according to a statement from The Economist.

Few media outside the U.S.  consider themselves “objective” in the way the American media defines the term.  Readers in Europe,  Africa, Asia and the Middle East all assume that the news they are reading is biased in one way or another.   Though that sort of attitude may horrify some conservatives in the U.S., it actually is what the people want as the FT and The Economist show.

–Jonathan Berr