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July 6, 2016, 11:58 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Economist expands beyond business and finance coverage with its year-old Films division

When it comes to video, The Economist has invested in both long documentaries and short, social-friendly clips. But when it comes to VR, it’s taking its time.

“Hello, I am Emily. I am 24 years old and I am from Belgium. This documentary is about my request for euthanasia because of mental suffering.”

So begins “24 and Ready to Die,” a 20-minute documentary released in November by The Economist. In it, a young woman details her struggle with severe depression and her process of applying for assisted suicide.

At first glance, the video might seem like an odd fit for the weekly news magazine, which has spent the last 170 years establishing itself as an authority on global business and finance news, not mental health issues. But the shift to video has shaken up The Economist’s approach, forcing it to expand its horizons and explore new subjects and formats to reach viewers on the web. Coverage of world markets is only a small portion of its output.

“With video, we’re focusing less on the finance and business topics that people might know us best for, and more on areas that make for greater visual entertainment,” said Nicholas Minter-Green, president of Economist Films, The Economist’s year-old video division. “These are areas that we cover, but those for which we are probably less known.” He pointed to travel, social affairs, tech, and culture as non-finance subjects that The Economist would have a unique perspective on.

Video has become a vital new area of investment for The Economist — not just because of the higher ad dollars attached to the format, but also because of the potential for the brand to use video to reach a much larger audience than it could through its highbrow web articles or its pricey print magazine. “We want to create a pillar of the business that extends The Economist brand beyond just a print publication or website. Some people may just consume us through video and nothing else,” said Minter-Green. The Economist has doubled the size of the film team to twenty people from its launch last year, and integrated the once-independent video operation into the magazine’s overall editorial operation.

Taking a slightly different approach to video makes sense given the recent research that, when it comes to web video, hard news can be a hard sell. A June report from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the most successful videos online — particularly those on Facebook — focus “lifestyle or entertainment content (for instance about animals, babies, or cooking).” Even traditional hard news publishers found that their more successful videos skewed toward animal coverage.

Still, The Economist is far from giving into web users’ most populist video impulses. As its name suggests, The Economist Films is aiming for video content of a higher quality than the standard viral fare. “24 and Ready to Die,” for instance, is a part of The Economist’s “Global Compass” series, which has also covered novel approaches to global policy issues such as prisons, solar power, heart surgery, and the global war against drugs. The Economist has also created series with titles such as Future Works, The Disruptors, and Passport, which cover the future of work, technology startups, and travel, respectively. These series have already attracted the attention of big advertisers like Turkish Airlines, Salesforce. and Virgin Unite.

While Economist Films has focused the bulk of its attention on these 15- to 20-minute high-production efforts in its first year, it’s also investing in shorter, more snackable video formats. At its NewFronts presentation in May, it announced Espresso TV, a brief daily video program that will appear in the Economist Espresso app launched in 2014. Minter-Green said The Economist has developed around 20 formats for these short videos, including explainers and “word of the day” feature that will cover current events in a novel way. Beyond the Espresso app, The Economist also plans to distribute its videos through dedicated apps on Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire.

Figuring out how to balance its staid, level-headed editorial approach with the whims of social audiences hasn’t been an easy process, but it’s one that The Economist Films has taken seriously, Minter-Green said. “We need to make sure that people understand that this isn’t low-value throwaway content. Just because we’re putting it out free, that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable,” he said.

One area in which The Economist isn’t investing too many resources is VR. Back in May, it showed off “RecovVR: Mosul,” a VR feature that gave viewers a tour of the Iraqi city. It also teased a VR project that showed the user around Osaka, Japan. While those VR projects drew a lot of attention and headlines, they’re not proof of a larger ambition from The Economist — at least not yet. “We have no strategic plan for how VR fits in our commercial model,” said Minter-Green. “We wouldn’t want to over-stress it right now as a part of the strategy.”

POSTED     July 6, 2016, 11:58 a.m.
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