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'Economist' Magazine Wins American Readers

Readership of news magazines in America has been flat or falling for years. But one weekly has bucked that trend: The Economist. Since 1993, the august British magazine has more than doubled readership here. That growth has come under editor Bill Emmott, who will step down in the coming weeks.

During his tenure, Emmott has helped make The Economist a success in the United States by offering serious coverage from practically every corner of the world.

The magazine would seem to have several strikes against it. First, there's the sleep-inducing title. Then, there's the sometimes esoteric content. In recent issues, topics have ranged from the credit card market in Mumbai to political assassination in Kazakhstan.

But when it comes to readership, The Economist is doing great -- up 13 percent from last year. That's on a par with some of the nation's hottest magazines: celebrity-fueled glossies such as US Weekly and Star.

Emmott says that The Economist has flourished since the Cold War by providing analysis of an increasingly interconnected world.

"It seems like a long time ago now. The Soviet Union had just fallen. We looked like, in the world, we were at a seminal, changing moment," Emmott said by phone from London. "The opportunity that the last 13 years has provided -- and that we've thankfully exploited -- as been to ride the wave of globalization."

When Emmott took over, The Economist had about 200,000 readers here. Today, circulation is around 515,000 in the United States and nearly 1.1 million worldwide.

Competitors such as Time and Newsweek still have more than 7 million in combined circulation. But as they've shifted away from traditional, hard news, The Economist has picked up some of their readers.

"We're a niche market compared to their mass market," Emmott said. "And I think by trying to protect a mass market, they did so by moving more into entertainment and lifestyle and that probably did open up some space for us."

The Economist has enviable demographics. In the United States, nearly two out of every three readers earn more than $100,000 a year. The magazine is unabashedly elitist, especially in its marketing.

"A lot of our readers are in very senior positions," said Paul Rossi, The Economist's publisher for North America. "We are one of the most thumbed magazines on Air Force One. We've reached CEOs and politicians and financiers around the world. And that is, in some sense, an aspiration that we promote in our advertising. So, one of our tag lines is: It's lonely at the top, but at least there's something to read."

While most Economist readers in the United States live on the East or West Coast, others live in places like the Midwest. Readers like Paul O'Connor, who runs a business development organization called World Business Chicago. O'Connor says the magazine tips him to global trends, ranging from new technology to opportunities in China.

"When Mayor Daley went out 18 months ago to establish a special relationship with Shanghai, The Economist's timely view on China was just a keeper," O’Connor said. "If you had to reduce your airplane reading to one thing, that Economist would have been it."

Clifford Hudson is CEO of Sonic, the U.S. drive-in, fast-food chain, based in Oklahoma City. He began subscribing to The Economist six or seven years ago because it alerts him to shifts in consumer taste.

"I have a new chief financial officer who moved into the job a year and a half ago," Hudson recalled. "One of the first things I did was buy him a subscription to The Economist."

Despite growing readership, not everything has been rosy at the magazine.

After Sept. 11, ad revenue was flat or down three years in a row, before rebounding last year.

And some analysts wonder whether such a wonky magazine can keep attracting new readers at an official subscription rate of $129 a year.

"Will they ever be a mass magazine like Newsweek or Time? I really doubt that," says Samir Husni, who teaches journalism at Ole Miss. "It's a very specialized publication and once you go over half a million, you start losing some of that specialty and you start becoming mass and somehow mass and class don't combine."

But high class does not mean no laughs.

The Economist's covers are among the funniest in the business. Consider one in the year 2000, when the leaders of North and South Korea met for the first time. Kim Jong-Il, the reclusive North Korean leader, is pictured, waving stiffly to crowds.

The headline: "Greetings, earthlings."

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Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.