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June 21, 2017, 10:19 a.m.
Audience & Social

The Economist is using Medium to give readers an inside look at its reporting and production

“We’re always asking: How do I know that I’m not wasting my time on a platform by chasing vanity metrics? If we focus on traffic, we miss quality.”

Is The Economist left- or right-wing? Why are The Economist’s writers anonymous? Why does The Economist call itself a newspaper?

Readers have a lot of questions about the 173-year-old magazine — ahem, newspaper — and The Economist is using Medium to help answer them. In December, the magazine’s social media team launched Inside The Economist, a Medium blog created to offer readers a behind-the-scenes look at its writing, reporting and production processes.

Medium has proven to be well suited to the experiment. While the platform’s publishing efforts have been, in a word, uneven, it’s carved out a unique niche, however small, for publishers looking to develop deeper (if sometimes hard-to-monetize) relationships with readers. Denise Law, The Economist’s community editor, said Medium is home to the kind of “globally curious audience” that The Economist wants to target. “We felt that Medium was a place where people were having intelligent discussions. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, which are places to just push out content, we felt like Medium was a place where we felt we could have intelligent debate and discussion with and extremely intelligent audience,” she said.

Inside The Economist is just one facet of The Economist’s Medium strategy, which has evolved significantly since it started to experiment with the platform in mid 2015. The newspaper saw its earliest success on Medium with its Severe Contest blog, which its social media team created to publish insights about the successes and failures of its social and distribution experiments. In Correspondents’ Notebooks, Economist reporters share the stories behind their reporting, such as West Africa correspondent Rachel Savage’s experiences racing camels in Kenya and political editor John Peet’s thoughts on reporting on the state of the European Union.

According to Law, the success of these efforts, particularly Inside The Economist, is a product of readers’ appetite for personality and transparency, neither of which the no-bylines Economist is able to offer much of in its print pages or on its website. “Medium lends itself to doing these kinds of experiments,” Law said.

The Economist has taken a similar tack on Quora, where reporters regularly chime in on questions as “What is unique about how the Economist approaches data journalism?” and “How can people better evaluate the quality of the scientific content they’re reading online?”

“People are not just interested in our area of expertise — there’s also a huge appetite for understanding how The Economist works and what it’s like to be a journalist there,” Law said. “We want people to know that we’re not just once voice that writes out of a London office.”

Some of The Economist’s Medium efforts have worked better than others. The Economist’s experiment with republishing its coverage of the U.S. elections on Medium, for example, failed to turn heads. The team has found that the most successful fare on the platform tends to be evergreen stories, such as how the newspaper approaches writing obituaries and the animals-focused stories that it’s published recently. Most of the content on The Economist’s Medium site is created with the platform in mind.

That pattern matches the one found by The Washington Post, which experimented with publishing breaking news on Medium before finding that users there didn’t have an appetite for it. (Like The Washington Post, The Economist has also opted out of publishing breaking news on Medium.) But posts on Medium do serve as a sampling of the Economist content that lies beyond the paywall.

“We can’t compete on scale,” Law said. “We don’t publish a lot of content everyday, and this gives us a good chance to show the breadth and depth of our content. People are more likely to subscribe if they read that kind of breadth and depth.”

It isn’t always easy measuring the payoffs for these kinds of efforts. The Economist’s social media team isn’t judged on how many subscriptions its efforts generate, but rather how it increases the magazine’s reach and how significantly it can deepen engagement with the right kind of readers. Medium, in this respect, is challenging, because its overall audience numbers can’t measure up to what The Economist can muster on Facebook (where it has 8 million likes) and Twitter (21.1 million followers). In contrast, popular pieces like the one explaining the magazine’s lack of bylines, generated 20,000 views.

It’s a tricky balance, said Law. “We’re always asking: How do I know that I’m not wasting my time on a platform by chasing vanity metrics? If we focus on traffic, we miss quality. Medium is a worthwhile investment so far, based on the numbers we’ve seen.”

POSTED     June 21, 2017, 10:19 a.m.
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