The next big thing

The rebirth of reading


Back in 2005, we – well, more accurately I – made a mistake. My reasoning went like this: The Economist fills a need in people’s lives; that need is not going away; people’s media consumption is shifting online; if we position The Economist to fulfil the same need online that it meets in print we’ll have a powerful basis for continued success. So we researched how people were doing online what they previously used The Economist for in print. But we found that, regardless of age or geography, people weren’t shifting that part of their life online. The immersive, metaphorically and literally “lean-back” reading experience whereby intellectually curious people feed their insatiable curiosity about the world in their desire to be well and broadly informed about current affairs, business, science, technology, culture and the arts and the connections between them – that was staying in print and not moving online. People spoke to us about the ritual pleasure of reading, not just The Economist but other lean-back reads as well. So, armed with this insight we invested more in The Economist magazine and took The Economist online in a different direction. We recognised from the same research that people used the web for snacking on content between distractions and that they wanted to share and discuss what they found. In fact, they could hardly be said to be reading at all. Neat analysis by Jacob Nielsen  showed they were just skimming. So we developed The Economist online as a place for our community of readers not just to come and be informed by our journalism but also to engage with us and with each other; and not just on our site, but across the web. The Economist online has become a community for intelligent discussion. Take a look, for instance, at the recent debate there between Jeff Jarvis and Andrew Keen on whether society benefits when we share personal information online. The conversation among our audience ranges far and wide, in subject and across the web from Google+ to Facebook and beyond.

So we were doing pretty well with The Economist both in print and online, following different but complementary strategies. But when you work in media, fundamental change is an occupational hazard. As soon as we saw the Kindle in 2007 we realised the next round of disruption was probably coming. It, and, of course, the iPad that launched a couple of years later, were digital devices, but they absolutely offered a lean-back reading experience. Since then, data from all sorts of sources shows clearly that consumers read on tablets in a way much closer to print than to online. You can’t lump all digital experiences together. This new kind of digital lean back, which we, somewhat lamely, call “lean back 2.0”, has the potential to deliver an even better lean-back experience than print.

Along with the opportunity comes the challenge: how to manage the transition as digital reading becomes dominant. Today, print sales of The Economist are holding up and digital circulation is growing fast – it’s now more than 100,000, taking our total circulation to more than 1.5 million. At some point in the next year or 18 months, however, print circulation will go backwards. I’m pretty relaxed about that because I believe our total circulation will continue to rise. It took us from 1843 to 2004 to reach one million circulation. We reached one-and-a-half-million seven years later. I hope we can reach two million in five years. By that stage, I believe the majority of our audience will be reading us digitally. That shift means we need to review how we operate in most areas of our business. We and the rest of the media industry have to question all our old assumptions – including those born from the lean-forward web age – and build new business models from first principles, based on creating value for, and extracting value from, readers. It’s urgent because our data says the change will be rapid.

For us and for other publishers who are seeing opportunity in this shift in reading behaviours, digital is not a zero-sum game. Digital editions of The Economist reach new readers all round the world, and create new opportunities for them to read us. The most common reason people cancel their subscription is because they don’t have enough time. Now, with The Economist on your iPad and your smartphone, both including a full audio edition, it’s always with you. You can read it anywhere and everywhere and listen to it too while you drive, jog or garden.