Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sketching an Anti-Economist

[via LBO-talk]

The question arose, what progressive or leftist alternatives are there to the Economist? Leaving aside the question whether one is either necessary or desirable (and these are debatable points, but I have a feeling the answer to both is, "yes"), what options might there be? Suggestions in response included the New Internationalist, the Guardian Weekly/Le Monde Diplomatique combo (which I personally favor), or even BusinessWeek (which has its own pretty serious drawbacks, perhaps most especially its US and economic focus, as opposed to the Economist, which is global in focus, both geographically and conceptually). But this all seemed to me to beg a more fundamental question (herewith the content of the list post):

What would an anti-Economist even look like?

Well, it would have to be the E but not, right? That is, it would have to be global in perspective, synthetic in its approach to news, rigorous in analysis, ruthless in application of principles, and critically reflective wrt those principles. As the organ of the anti-Empire, how can it gain wide readership? Does it need wide readership? Probably it does, first because that's part of the fight, and second, because it needs to make that much money in order to keep going.

I think the Economist is having success in the US in large part because it, well, does news. It's not a political magazine, not a "newsweekly" in the US mold of Time or Newsweek or any of now a half-dozen major newspaper weekly magazines, and doesn't succumb to the need to do stories about Britney Spears. Why does no one on this list argue that Time or Newsweek are good alternatives? Partly because they're crap, but I imagine it's also partly because the US newsweeklies do different things. There are no long or investigative pieces in the E. It's essentially a big newspaper published weekly. You can cruise the week's summaries and the TOC in the E every week and have a sense that you know basically wtf is going on around the world. Then you may not read cover to cover, but you can go read a succinct and generally pretty well written piece on page x. If the E were your only source, then this would be a problem, but it shouldn't be and I'm willing to guess it pretty much never is. The same would go, I would think, for the Anti-E.

So all of this makes me think our comparison with the Guardian Weekly and Le Monde Diplomatique makes pretty good sense, if we could just give them bigger budgets. The International Herald-Tribune is another model of newspaper collaboration going international, and it might be useful, here, except that we want a weekly. Maybe we could add the WSJ and, say, Mother Jones to the pool? With some material taken from the AFP wire? Throw in some independent journalists willing to pitch in for modest but reasonable fees (or even for free???), and you've got a pool of stories--if the relevant ownership is willing to share their material for the project--that an independent editorial board could draw on. Surely the best answer would be for such a publication to have its own staff of well-paid writers, but let's suppose for the moment that the scenario I'm working on is meaningfully more plausible than hiring a full staff for a progressive weekly to rival the Economist.

You would need money for space, a full-time editorial staff (maybe half a dozen people?) and a part-time editorial board (maybe a dozen to two dozen people who would have a genuinely meaningful role to play), money to pay reasonable rates to occasional freelance contributors (say 1-2/week?), and then money to cover printing and distribution costs. Am I forgetting anything? That's presuming that (a) publications like the ones noted above agree to pitch in not only with reprinted material but also (at least ideally) with a writer here and there for original material, (b) that the editorial board is able to spend significant time reviewing material for inclusion and occasionally writing original editorial or other pieces that add value to our weekly beyond reprinting material available elsewhere. And we should keep in mind that we want to break into the E's market, but we also want to grab markets not on the E's radar, so it ought to be cheap, or maybe there would be a program for distributing copies at low or no cost in certain areas or through certain channels.

If this is pie in the sky, which at best it probably is (at worst, it is precisely the opposite of what leftists and progressives ought to be worrying about, but that would be a very different post), then any dream of an anti-Economist is pie in the sky, too.

Anyone got the cash?

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