The Economist wants to sell you the illusion of completeness

There’s a great interview over at the Nieman Journalism Lab with Tom Standage, deputy editor for digital at The Economist, in which he talks about the value proposition that the magazine — whether in print or online — tries to keep in mind when it comes to serving its readers. And it boils down to a single thing: namely, that the Economist wants its audience to feel like they have learned whatever they need to know about a topic by reading its coverage, regardless of what format it appears in.

“We sell the antidote to information overload — we sell a finite, finishable, very tightly curated bundle of content. You can never finish the Internet, you can never finish Twitter, and you can never really finish The New York Times, to be honest. So at its heart is that we have this very high density of information, and the promise we make to the reader is that if you trust us to filter and distill the news, and if you give us an hour and a half of your time, then we’ll tell you what matters in the world.”

Ultimately, what the Economist is selling is an illusion — the illusion that you only need to read one thing in order to learn everything about a topic or an event. But that illusion can be very powerful, and very appealing. I remember a friend of mine saying some time ago that one of the main selling points of a physical newspaper is that you can finish it, and he’s right. There’s something very satisfying about getting to the end of a newspaper or a book and thinking “Okay, I’m done now.”

Links ruin the illusion of completeness

Where I disagree with Standage in his approach is when he describes why the Economist doesn’t link out to either other media outlets or even external websites in its digital offerings, like the daily update called Espresso. In effect, the reason for not doing that is an extension of the argument he makes about convincing people they only need to read one thing. Linking to other websites or sources of information would ruin the illusion of completeness, and then readers would be worried that they weren’t being completely informed. So the magazine doesn’t do it.

“Another aspect of it is that we don’t do links. The reason that we don’t do links, again, if you want to get links you can get them from other people. You can go on Twitter and get as many as you like. But the idea was everything that you need to know is distilled into this thing that you can get to the end of, and you can get to the end of it without worrying that you should’ve clicked on those links in case there was something interesting. So we’ve clicked on the links already and we’ve decided what’s interesting.”

As someone who believes in the fundamental value of links — and has often criticized traditional media outlets for their attempts to pretend that they have produced the sum total of all necessary information — I’m not sure I can agree with Standage on his approach. I understand why it makes for a saleable product for the Economist, and I understand why it might be appealing to readers. But I still think it leaves something out, and something critically important, which is the ability to check, verify, expand on and test the assumptions in a particular piece.

If media entities don’t take advantage of the web’s ability to link to supporting sources of information, or to give readers their own resources to check a hypothesis — if all they do is publish a giant chunk of content with no links in it — then what is the point of putting it online in the first place? It might as well have stayed in print, because it isn’t taking advantage of the medium.

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