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Interview with an Editor: John Andrews, Long Live the King of British Newspapers

One may argue that the principles of good business practice are synonymous throughout all industries; that the strategies and styles adopted in managing people ought not differ from one business to another. And yet, manufacturing companies are predominantly more hierarchical than service providers, whilst iGaming firms are typically more hedonistic than audit ones and are far less formal, though turnover figures are in the highest of brackets and professionalism nonetheless prevails throughout all aspects of their conducting business.

I reckon that this further stems from two factors: the base needs of different strata of employees become more complex alongside both the increased complexity of employment and the level of specialisation of the individual; and ‘industry type’ induces bargaining power to hop from the hands of the employer into those of the employee. Indeed, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Porter’s Five Forces have been harping on at us about this for years.

The Executive interviews John Andrews, Consultant Editor for The Economist, not only to have his views on his profession but more so to garner his insights into such matters.

The Economist works with champions of the trade of writing, academia and correspondence. And yet, in the ‘About The Economist’ section online, one reads “Why is it anonymous? Many hands write The Economist, but it speaks with a collective voice. ….. The main reason for anonymity, however, is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it.” How does one manage to convince, or attract market-leading writers to so interact?

John explains that sometimes, of course, Economist journalists get hired away but it’s relatively rare. “The attractions of The Economist are the intellectual challenge of writing articles to be proud of; a collegiate atmosphere free from the jealousy and back-biting that characterise some other newspapers; and, of course, competitive salaries.”

So the champion’s desire to be part of a glorified entity is stronger than that of self-actualisation. Are your champions managed any differently from the team in general? And how so, if they are at all managed in the traditional sense?

John doesn’t think there to be any deliberate differences. Some writers are doubtless more gifted than others, or have more specialised knowledge of a particular area — but the joy of The Economist is that everyone’s voice can be both raised and heard.

I ask if he agrees with the argument that it goes against the very nature of champions to become embodied within the team. He does not. “If you take the analogy of team sports, even the greatest stars rely on the rest of the team. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi need their team-mates.”

John Andrews is a consultant editor for The Economist, the prestigious British weekly and is one of its most experienced foreign correspondents as well as co-editor of ‘Mega change: The World in 2050’ amongst many others. This has put him at the helm of a weighty structure of leading economists, journalists and contributing academics. Should an editor be involved in the choosing of contributors?

“A newspaper is not a democracy; the monarch is the editor.” Outside contributors - a rare instance at The Economist - should be chosen on the value they can add to a debate, or the explanation they can give for a particular situation. There is no point in having a “big name” solely because of the name. Very true, I thought, as I recalled processing content from big names with messages which are far less valuable than those extracted from submitting derived from lesser-known professionals. 

Should the editor of a publication have any involvement with the sales team? Should content directly facilitate sales? Does it at The Economist?

He explains that the editor (including the editor of The Economist) should always be in touch with the sales team, and should seek to promote circulation by appearing on TV, etc. But the editor should be careful always to ensure editorial independence: you must never run articles on watches in the hope of getting more watchmakers’ ads! And you must not confuse sales with advertising. “It’s important for the editor to have good relations with the advertising and production teams, but he/she has to maintain a very strict “Chinese wall” between editorial and advertising.” John finishes off my question by saying that both circulation and shareholders’ dividends ultimately depend on the credibility of the editorial content.

Publications which are only secondarily concerned with lifestyle matters tend to work with individuals who are firstly academics and secondly journalists rather than vice versa. I have found these skill sets to instil diverse traits into their owners, or perhaps what I indeed found is that academics as well as journalists came into their respective professions because their individual character traits; predominant within the sectors of academia and journalism, pulled them into those roles. I ask John if his writers (and correspondents) are primarily journalists or academics.

“They are a mix in their background, but write primarily as journalists,” he explains. “A PhD scientist hired for the science and technology section has to write in a way that will appeal to nonscientists as well as academics; that PhD scientist may later be transferred to a different section, or to a foreign posting, where his or her scientific qualifications are irrelevant.”

Which writer ‘type’ do you prefer working with? He has no preference. “Diversity is the spice of life!”

Rather than distinguishing themselves inherently from each other, he thinks that “if they are good journalists they are curious about the world — which is exactly the characteristic of a good academic.”

Executives seem to thrive on order and structure. And yet too much of it dulls the brain. It is with this in mind that this journal’s mantra has always been ‘Creativity married with Conformity’. Has The Economist’s style of writing and of design changed much over time?

“The writing style has been remarkably consistent over the decades, but there have been major changes in design (eg, moving to full colour and changing the typeface). The trick in making these changes is to give the impression of evolution rather than abruptness.”

John argues that the editor should be involved in matters pertaining to design too, as well as in the selection of designers: “Design is extremely important and the editor must be comfortable with it.” He believes that it’s important to be creative in terms of covers, photos, captions — but one should not exaggerate a design just to create an effect. “There has to be editorial justification.”

John’s own Prospectus for today’s editors in the business world:

• Be intellectually rigorous;

• Hire smart people;

• Challenge received wisdom without being compelled to dismiss it;

• Be internationally minded (we live in a global economy);

• Be independent of business interests (journalists should not write on companies in which they have investments, but should not be forbidden to have shares);

• Be willing to speak truth to power;

• Be aware of the need to evolve in a media market that is always changing;

• Keep the publication’s values sacrosanct.

As to what John thinks of creativity in editing, “Good editing can really ‘lift’ an article, but it should always be careful not to introduce errors. If there is any change to the analysis of an article, it must first be discussed and argued through with the author.”

Though quite subtle in nature, The Economist has made use of some of the world’s most daring front covers. The one carrying copulating camels comes to mind (’The Trouble with Mergers’, September 1994). “The editor must be involved choosing the cover. At The Economist there is a Monday morning meeting to discuss cover ideas — but ultimately the choice is the editor’s.” John finds it hard to choose his favourite The Economist cover, “because there have been so many fabulous covers. I think my favourites are probably the copulating covers (discussing mergers); the man who screwed an entire country (Berlusconi); and greetings, earthlings (Kim Jong-Il).”

As he has evidenced a firm understanding of the strategic implications of good design, I prod on with design questions. On why The Economist switches between ‘left-aligned’ and ‘justified’ text, “It’s a design choice. I think the left-aligned gives a sense of brightness to feature boxes and to the letters columns, while justified text gives weight to the main articles (but that’s frankly a guess on my part!).” And on whether design ought to facilitate the understanding of content; to clarify and even enhance it, he believes that it is not there to simply space-fill, or to beautify an otherwise bland read.

“It’s important to give visual flair to a page, which therefore puts a premium on design and lay-out. I hope that The Economist never goes in for ‘space-filling’: the usual problem is to cut, not to add!”

Does John see a difference between British and American styles of writing? “There are perhaps some subtle differences,” he muses. “The British style, I would venture to say (and, of course, I’m British…), contains perhaps more wit and humour. American journalists writing for American publications sometimes take themselves too seriously…When they write for The Economist they usually get infected by the British style.

John is an engaging and effective chairman (he has also chaired The Economist’s events in Malta) whose moderating skills have been honed over many years of involvement in business conferences and debates for The Economist. The role involves much of guiding and prodding people into the right, or wanted direction; and this is evident in his take on the guiding role of the editor. Do you allow your contributors to have their own styles? Or is it more of a question of integrating individual styles into that of the publication?

“There is an Economist style, but there are plenty of variations within it. Most staff journalists quickly absorb the style; freelancers (trying too hard to adopt the Economist style) very often do not, and so find their copy at times heavily edited. He only agrees with the journal’s original mantra of leaving writings of acclaimed champions as untouched as possible up to a point. “There is no value in changing copy for the sake of changing it — but no writer should be immune from the improving pen of a colleague.”

From “advocates of free trade” to the “European organ” of “the aristocracy of finance”, The Economist has been accused of having various objectives, some more flattering than others. Yet amongst the thirteen factors listed within its original prospectus for editorial coverage of 1843, one finds ample evidence that it “look(s) mainly to an improvement in the condition of the people”, and that it battled against legislation which it found to do otherwise. Is the original prospectus still relevant today, I ask? “Absolutely!” he says. “It’s important to challenge ignorance and to underline our values.” Karl Marx had in his 6th chapter of ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’ accused The Economist of being at the heart of

“All modern finance, the whole of the banking business”. Was the accusation factual? And would it still stand today?

“I’ve no idea whether Marx was right! Today we are an important commentator and analyst of the worlds of politics, economics and finance. But we are not so arrogant as to think we are the only such commentator and analyst. Pride comes before a fall — and we’ve managed not to fall for more than 170 years…”

 Aspects to John’s Experiences which are relevant to the general business world:

• The ‘Creativity’ and ‘Perusal of Inner Talent’ elements of field leaders’ typical self-actualisation needs are indeed stronger than the ‘Recognition’ elements of their self-esteem ones.

• A collegiate atmosphere free from jealousy and back-biting, and, of course, competitive salaries, are fundamental to high levels of staff retention.

• “Even the greatest stars rely on the rest of the team.”

• There is no point in having a “big name” solely because of the name.

• Both the satisfaction of the end-user as well as the shareholder is ultimately dependant upon the quality of thedelivered product.

• Specialists should also be competent in other relative fields of work.

• “The trick in making (these) changes is to give the impression of evolution rather than abruptness.”

• “If there is any change to the analysis of an article, it must first be discussed and argued through with the author.” Likewise, when internally wanting change, one should always discuss andargue it with the product creators.

• Individuals who try too hard to adapt toa base style very often do not.

• “ writer should be immune from theimproving pen of a colleague.”

• “Pride comes before a fall.”




Last modified onFriday, 10 April 2015 12:07

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