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April 7, 2015, 8 p.m.

Newsonomics: Why The Economist decided now’s the time to speak Chinese

With its newly launched (and multlingual) Global Business Review, The Economist is taking advantage of the scale digital distribution can offer.

The Economist is launching its new Global Business Review (GBR) today, and the Chinese/English product marks a small but important new test of Paywalls 2.0 — the creation of new paid digital products short of a full digital subscription to an existing print-based product. The New York Times is reconstituting its own Paywalls 2.0 strategies, taking NYT Now free and appointing Kinsey Wilson to take the digital business reins. But few other companies have ventured beyond one-size-fits-all digital-only or print-plus-digital all-access subscriptions.

If this Chinese-language product works well, it won’t be The Economist’s only venture outside English. Expect Spanish to follow, with other languages added over time, as the very British Economist offers the first non-English words in its storied 171 years.

economist-global-business-reviewGBR shares a lot with a number of recent digital news product launches: smartphone-aimed, visuals-forward, and offering a subset of content — at any one point, a maximum of 30 of The Economist’s overall weekly output of 70 pieces. But GBR adds a twist: It’s a flip product, allowing readers to move quickly back and forth between Chinese and English. Most importantly, though, it’s a paid product, going for $75 a year or $8 a month, underneath the $9.95-a-month media-pricing threshold we’ve seen.

GBR readers will get an artisanal selection of The Economist — 10 stories published at the beginning of each month. Then, each day, it’ll add one new story to the offering.

“The whole pitch is that it’s a way to read The Economist in a non-English language,” says Tom Standage, the weekly newspaper’s digital editor. Standage expanded on The Economist’s wider strategies last week here at the Lab (“The Economist’s Tom Standage on digital strategy and the limits of a model based on advertising”).

GBR fits into The Economist’s long-term strategy to drive as much revenue directly from readers as it can, a strategy Standage detailed well in that Lab Q&A. The Economist stood at about 55 percent reader revenue for 2014 and expects that percentage to rise to 60 percent this year; that compares to about 62 percent for The New York Times and about 30 percent for most U.S. dailies. (At the turn of the century, about 33 percent of The Economist’s revenue came from circulation.)

Though Standage makes an eloquent argument for advertising’s decline among news publishers, it remains a vital secondary support for The Economist — and will be for a long time, I believe.

The number of $75-a-year subscribers may decide GBR’s fate, but ad support is crucial. Hyundai pays to be the launch sponsor, which will keeps it open and free to sampling for two months. Then, globally oriented advertisers can buy regionally targeted ads (Asia-Pacific, in this case), which will appear as readers swipe from one story to another.

With a billion English speakers in the world — and the language’s status as the most native of Internet lingua franca — English-language media have seen a massive expansion in opportunity (“The newsonomics of the global media imperative”). Media that speak and write in English are the new Romans, profiting greatly in audience as English becomes the go-to second language for business and tourism.

Just look at The Economist’s geographic spread to see what Phase 1 of this English Everywhere world offers certain publishers. Here’s how its reach of 1.57 million print/digital/all-access subscribers now works:

  • North America: 876,420
  • Continental Europe: 248,415
  • U.K.: 223,915
  • Asia: 152,282
  • Middle East and Africa: 26,921
  • Latin America: 19,371

As much of a boon as English Everywhere has been, The Economist figures English isn’t enough. Much of the emerging worldwide digital news readership is bilingual, but only partly and unevenly. In this case, The Economist aims to fill an unmet need for Chinese/English speakers — and, of course, not just in China. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore are also part of its target market. (The app offers both Simplified and Traditional Chinese as the counterpart to English.) In that target area, The Economist starts with only a small base of subscribers to the primary product: 8,000 subscriptions in China (64 percent of them digital only), 11,000 in Hong Kong, and 11,000 in Singapore.

Watching how its content lives offsite helped The Economist figure out what sort of product to build. Standage: “We know there is demand for this because unofficial translations of our articles already circulate on Chinese social media. And our articles are often reprinted pretty much verbatim in Brazilian newspapers [typically with the words ‘according to The Economist’ or ‘The Economist writes’ added to each paragraph]. One thing we are doing for the GBR is putting teasers for articles, and occasional translated items from Espresso, on Chinese social channels. There is no character limit, and it is common practice to publish entire articles, unlike on Twitter where they wouldn’t fit.”

But the audience isn’t defined by geography. “It’s for the globally curious,” new editor Zanny Minton-Beddoes told me, just as is The Economist overall. The Economist does little in the way of geographic editioning now. It re-orders its sections a bit, depending on geography, and it adds four U.K.-only pages in-country. GBR, then, is an edition first.

Low-cost product extension

This isn’t a huge investment for The Economist — nor is it a product that will be earth-shaking. The Global Business Review tells us a lot about this moment in digital business thinking, at least for those globally oriented companies willing and able to put down a few chips here and there.

The Economist picks the best of its China-market appropriate content for GBR. None of that content, though, will be produced solely for GBR, according to Standage: “None of it is exclusive to the GBR, and we have no plans to produce GBR-specific content.”

Each month, a small group of senior editors will select the 10 articles for GBR. Then, The Economist’s global team of translators, picked both for their subject knowledge and language skills, go to work. Those translations, then, will be checked by several Chinese-literate senior editors. Then, each weekday, one additional article is added. What’s offered: a singular daily news analysis read, a known investment of time.

Of course, the GBR foray leverages The Economist’s staff of about 100 top journalists, and most specifically their work coming out of East Asia. In recent years, The Economist increased its staffing there, opening bureaus in Shanghai and Seoul and adding staffers to a Singapore bureau.

Reinventing global products

The field of language extensions of global news products is ripe for reinvention.

In its first wave, English has certainly been a boon to companies as diverse as The Guardian and MailOnline, with the BBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the FT also enjoying audience reach far beyond their boundaries. Even Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, two of Germany’s best newsweeklies, now put more resources into translating their work into English. The English-language challenge isn’t audience — it’s monetizing that audience. The Wall Street Journal’s non-U.S. experience is instructive. Its foray into Germany (in German) failed; it pulled back late last year. However, it’s still got a diverse set of global offerings:

  • WSJ.com is available in 7 languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, and Korean.
  • Of those, four have localized websites: China, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia.
  • Dow Jones Newswires publish in 12 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

It also curates different home pages for its English-language editions in Asia, the U.S., Europe, and India.

Advertising is the main goal here for the legacy companies, and that takes time to build. For non-legacy news companies, advertising is just about the only business for now, as we see for instance in Quartz’s expansions into India and Africa. Likewise, the new non-English editions of Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are advertising plays.

The Economist is trying to create a foreign market that didn’t before exist, one of paying digital readers for a new product. The New York Times, with its overall digital-subscription, has reached more than 100,000 out-of-the-U.S. digital-only subscribers, and The Economist, undoubtedly, is buoyed by that experience. (Of The Economist’s overall subscribership, about 230,000 are digital-only this point.)

This is The Economist’s second go at a new paid digital product. Espresso launched last year, both as a value-add for current subscribers and daily sampling (one article a day) for everyone. It generated 790,000 app downloads, and 175,000 existing subscribers activated their free access. While consumers can pay $3 a month for it, The Economist doesn’t release specific subscription numbers on it, and we can assume they are low.

What to look for from the GBR experiment

  • It’s a smartphone-centric product. Almost all top product launches now aim directly for the heart of the huge audience of smartphone users. Non-tablet mobile — a.k.a. smartphones — now account for 35-45 percent of all digital pages at many news outlets, and their share rapidly increases month by month. GBR is targeted for both smartphones and tablets, iOS and Android.
  • It looks East, the Pacific century meeting the digital revolution. Between them, China and India now are home to more than a third of the world’s population. While Quartz just expanded into India, numerous news companies are trying again to navigate the tough, government-controlled Chinese Internet. The payoff in both countries, for most Western media, is still largely long tail, but the potential implications for 2020-2030 are huge.
  • It’s an education product. In our digital lives, the once-thick line between “media” and “education” continues to blur. When I wrote about the possibility of “News U” three years ago, I believed we’d see more companies move on this large opportunity, following the FT’s lead (“The Newsonomics of News U.”). “The option to translate individual paragraphs means the GBR app can be used as an educational tool, but only if the translations are absolutely precise,” says Standage.
  • It’s a flip language product, meeting the partially bilingual challenge, simultaneously playing with the idea of an educational media product/service.
  • It’s a low-cost product. GBR allows The Economist to extend its reach at a low incremental staff cost. As Standage puts it in tech context: “For many years, we wrote off the idea of foreign-language editions as too expensive and impractical. However, the rise of digital technology changes the game. We can now deliver content quickly and without the cost constraints of print publishing.”

If GBR is another Paywalls 2.0 test, who can benefit most from its results? The short answer is publishers who can offer high-value content. The Economist’s stock-in-trade is its very terseness, a contrarian take on the FOMO-inducing infinity of Internet news. As certain as is its knowing take on the world every week, within a finite number of pages, is the cachet that accompanies Economist readership. One lesson we hope to see reinforced in this experiment: Readers will pay for the highest quality content.

POSTED     April 7, 2015, 8 p.m.
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