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The Economist Tinkers With Blogs to Expand Free Online Offerings

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A subject area that I've paid increased attention to of late is how traditional media companies – large media companies who predate the Internet era and are now online – are looking at ways to adapt and stay relevant in the ever evolving and revolving online world. Recently, I've looked at how Reuters is utilizing blogs and presented my theory for how Netscape has spearheaded the drive toward the future of news online, what I call hybrid social news. Finally, news came out last week that media jobs overall in the U.S. have shrunk by a whopping 88% in 2006 while, at the same time, it seems that blog traffic at top U.S. newspapers is exploding.

In the midst of all this change, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at The Economist, a venerable print magazine that is well known for publishing serious and intelligent economic and political news and analysis with a global focus. Like Reuters, The Economist has only relatively recently branched out to incorporate blogs with its online offerings. It is also trying to find the right balance in holding some of its content behind a paid subscription wall, putting it in league with the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

I spoke with Daniel Franklin, The Economist's Executive Editor and head of online content, late last week by phone. Economist.com has recently made more of its content available to unpaid members, Daniel said, in an attempt to draw in new online readers while still maintaining a benefit for having a subscription to the print magazine.

At present, The Economist maintains two blogs, Free Exchange and Democracy in America.

Free Exchange espouses to be a forum where Economist journalists can interact with readers about economics. Interestingly, whereas most blogs today are personality driven, The Economist's blogs maintain the same anonymity as their other offerings (the print magazine has no bylines). So while Free Exchange has a bloggy look (time stamped pieces published from newest to oldest, with comments area on each post) the content reads more like traditional magazine copy.

So instead of a conversation between individual journalists and readers, Franklin and The Economist think of reader comments as more like "letters to the editor," a new realm for reader feedback. Indeed, looking at the few posts I could find with more than one or two comments, it seems that the anonymous poster "Economist.com" does not respond to reader comments. It should be noted that Free Exchange's commenters are highly literate and well mannered, a rare treasure to be cultivated within the blogosphere. It will be interesting to see if The Economist's blog authors will at some point be unleashed or prompted to interact directly with readers.

Democracy in America was launched during the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections, but Franklin deems it such a success that they're keeping it around for the long run. Overall, Franklin is happy with Economist.com's blogs in terms of readers and numbers, and is thinking about expansion, with a European-focused column next on the horizon.

While Franklin was engaged and enthused about the importance of blogs in helping to fill out The Economist's online offerings, their implementation is somewhat cloaked at present. For example, I was made aware that a blog or column called "Democracy in America" existed as part of Economist.com, but it took me quite some time to figure out that I had to click a link underneath "Today's Views" on the home page to find it. If blogs are to find their full-throated potential in The Economist's online future, they will need to be given better promotion within Economist.com (a search for "Democracy in America" does not bring up any relevant results!) and the blogs themselves will need to provide fuller interaction between writers (anonymous or not, and hopefully not) and readers.

Overall, Franklin's online strategy for The Economist is sound. "We're trying to reach a global audience who are curious and interested in the world," he said. Online, The Economist is attempting to expand upon its traditional readership by providing content that appeals to specific interests. Blogs are a natural tool to help achieve this strategy, and it will be interesting to see how The Economist evolves its blogging strategy over time.

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