The Economist boss Tim Pinnegar on slipping circulation, time as the enemy and why there are no sacred cows in media

Tim PinnegarTim Pinnegar is five years into his role as Singapore-based MD of The Economist, and has been with the 170 year-old news and current affairs magazine (sorry, newspaper) for not far off a decade.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, Pinnegar talks about why time is the enemy, the fall of pan-regional media and why – for the first time ever this year – The Economist hasn’t put its ad rates up.

Which Economist issue are you most proud of, and why?

Congratulations, China The Economist cover 2003Honestly, I don’t have a favourite. Every week, I’m amazed by what is the product of a meeting of the journalists at 11am in London on Thursday and comes out the next day.

Many people have a favourite cover and that determines their favourite issue. The ‘Greetings earthlings’ cover from 2000 featuring Kim Jong Il is one of the more popular. The ‘Congratulations, China’ cover from 2003, which was a story about the first Chinese astronauts in space, is another good one.

In an interview with Mumbrella recently, the boss of PR agency Golin Harris suggested that the days of pan-regional media in Asia are over, as the market now favours a local approach. What’s your response to this?

Well, there’s no doubting that the market is in decline. Looking at the number of business pages in the likes of The Economist, Time and Fortune, they fell by 10 per cent year on year between 2011 and 2012. The overall market decline is probably larger than that.

But the other side of the coin is that there are still 3,400 advertising pages in pan-regional press, which is still a decently sized market. There are still companies that value reaching people in Asia all in one go rather than take the local approach. Booking by country in the likes of the Jakarta Post, Straits Times and South China Morning Post is very hard work, and it’s very expensive.

We’ve done the heavy lifting at The Economist. We spend $5m on circulation marketing every year trying to attract new readers, and we’ve got a weekly print audience of 150,000 in Asia. Trying to reach that audience on your own will cost an advertiser a lot more than $5m.

But clients tend to approach Asia differently now. Media used to be planned regionally by someone sitting in Hong Kong or Singapore. Now it’s usually done with a sub-regional or local focus.

I’ve been told that editing an Economist story is a collaborative process, and all editors can access any article to make changes. Is this true, and does this help explain why most articles are not bylined?

Yes, editors can edit articles written by other journalists working on different sections of the newspaper, but usually it’s just two or three people doing the editing, depending on the section.

It’s a collaborative effort that begins on Thursday mornings when journalists and editors debate what should go on the cover. There are some very opinionated journalists in that room who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. Everyone can add their two cents, even from a field that isn’t their own. That is why there are no bylines, and why there isn’t the ego-driven journalism you find in other publications.

Which print title are you most wary of as competition these days?

In terms of competition for readers, I’m not wary of any. We’ve very unique. And frankly, I don’t think anyone comes close to us for opinion or insight.

People’s time is our closest competition. We have to convince people that they should spend ten minutes, half an hour or maybe two hours reading The Economist to become more well informed.

On the advertising side, we’re less differentiated by media buyers, who put us in the bracket of reaching business decision makers and opinion formers. On that front, I’d say the Financial Times is our closest competition in Asia, although from a smaller base.

Do you feel that reading The Economist online or on a mobile device can ever replace the experience of reading it in print?

The Economist's mobile app

The Economist’s mobile app

I come from a certain generation that was brought up with print. I love reading a print copy of a magazine or newspaper. It feels good just to hold it in your hand, sit back and enjoy it. But I’ve got two daughters who are perfectly comfortable consuming content on their iPhones. You have to be careful that your own personal perspective doesn’t dictate what you think the user experience should be for a reader.

It used to be that with consuming digital content was purely a lean-forward activity, and you had a choice between big or small screen. But with tablets there is middle ground. Reading from a tablet can be done like reading a print copy, in a relaxed manner. Look at the first ad for Apple’s iPad. You saw people’s feet, as they were leaning back. I see tablet and print as interchangeable in terms of how a reader reads.

But how small does the screen have to be to change the experience is the question. Most mobile phones allow you to browse content on the internet, but I don’t think the small screen will ever be suited for long-form journalism. Computers haven’t suited long-form content well to date, and I’d say economist.com is more a lean-forward platform.

We hear that the print circulation of The Economist, which for years was on a continuous upward trajectory as sales grew in the US (where half of the title’s readers now are), is now leveling out. What’s the situation now in Asia and elsewhere?

1.5m global weekly circulation

The curious case of the fall in circulation

The business has been doing pretty well, but not as well as three years ago. Because frankly, the business model has changed. In Asia, you can always deal with cyclical changes. You can ride the Asian wave of growth. But this is different. There’s been a structural shift in the business and print has taken a hit.

With print circulation, you can grow by subscription, at newsstands or through bulks (free copies placed in airports and hotels). Bulks can keep your subscription up, and a lot of publications still do this new readers to sample the product. So have we, to a limited extent.

We reckon we’ll see print circulation decline by two per cent over the next few years in APAC. Globally, maybe a little more, although in both cases the uptake of online, mobile and tablet will keep reader numbers up overall.

The topline number is that we sell 1.5m copies in print globally, and 100,000 people read us on digital devices and online. But in three to four years, I expect the reader number to have reached 2m. There’s still plenty of room for growth for our content, albeit in a different form.

The Economist is famously rigid when it comes to its rate card, barely budging even in tough times. Is this the case now, even in price-sensitive Asia?

A full page ad in The Economist tends to cost $130,000. But you have to put a value on your product, and that will always vary by market. So yes, in Asia things are different.

For the first time ever this year, we didn’t put our print ad rates up. Even though there has been media inflation in markets like China and India, we frankly couldn’t put our rates up because the circulation hasn’t grown.

With some media brands it is almost unthinkable that they’d ever close – like The Guardian, The New York Times, The Yomiuri Shimbun, The FT or, indeed, The Economist. Is there such a thing as a sacred cow in media?

No, there is not. There are no sacred cows in any industry. Just look at Kodak. They’d have thrown you in an asylum a few years ago for suggesting that an established brand like that would go under, or that Nokia is now struggling. And who would have thought that Newsweek went out of print (there are rumours that The Guardian will go digital only).

You’ve got to stay relevant. And you’ve got to give people something that others can’t. All media are now doing battle for people’s time. And that’s getting harder to do. People are busy. And if you can’t persuade them to spend some time with your brand, well it’s lights out, I’m afraid.

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