We prefer fine detail over flashpoints

Why The Economist didn’t push an exclusive celebrity feud story about Nicole Scherzinger

I arrived at my desk on May 13th to discover that one of our podcasts was making headlines. In an interview about the business of stage musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber had revealed to our anchor, Anne McElvoy, that Nicole Scherzinger had pulled out of a Broadway production of “Cats” — one week before rehearsals were due to start.

This news was big enough to make you look up and pay attention:

It meant that Scherzinger had decided to take a rumoured job on the American “X Factor” instead. The producers of Webber’s feline show would need to find another Grizabella. In his interview with McElvoy, Webber did not hide his anger at Scherzinger for leaving the producers in the ditch.

It was 9am and the story had already reached a number of celebrity gossip websites. Tabloids had picked it up and their headline writers were playing with words like “feud” and “claws out” (lol). I needed to decide what to do: let the tabloids win the thousands of clicks and eyeballs that would come with such a sensational story, or claim it as our own and splash it over The Economist’s social channels?

Since The Economist’s social media desk is in experimental mode, I set off down the second path. We had already started to distribute the podcast in the usual way: it was live on our RSS feeds and tweets were advertising the fact that we had an exclusive interview with the top cat of musicals. But we weren’t used to doing anything else, and it’s always worth trying, right? As soon as our social media writer Jenni Reid arrived, I asked her to make a clip out of the interview segment where Webber was most animated, especially the part where he says Scherzinger made him look like “an absolute twot”. (I’d never heard that word before, either.)

Jenni’s audiogram was a very short ‘video’ clip: a still, split image of Webber and Scherzinger, overlaid with text of the the juiciest quote, and the audio from the interview. We looked at it and applied what we loosely call our ‘tabloid test’. This test helps us to judge a piece of content by asking whether it will do us more harm than good in our attempts to showcase the breadth and sharpness of our journalism. We are happy to serve up provocative journalism and to continue covering the arts, as we have since 1843. McElvoy says it was right for us to interview Webber: “We set up ‘The Economist Asks’ podcast to put influential people in very diverse fields on the spot on big questions. In this case, the economics of musicals and how they are changing. But journalists are natural truffle hunters — if there is something new to dig out, we’re happy to use our audio to disclose and probe it.”

The full content, in context, is one thing. But if a single Facebook post or tweet looks like it is trying too hard to get clicks, critics will pile on us for behaving like a tabloid. That’s the tabloid test.

I once did some work experience in a newsroom that thrived on publishing eye-grabbing headlines. The editor sought them, knowing that he could ride the internet wave and pick up millions of clicks if his reporters published and promoted sensational content at just the right time. With a business model reliant on online advertising, this was seen as the only way to keep the news machine rolling. The editor, a former soldier, stomped around braying headline ideas and cutting deadlines. It was designed to be intimidating, and it was.

The Economist doesn’t have to play that game. Our business relies more on subscriptions than advertising, meaning we measure ourselves on whether the reader likes our journalism, rather than on whether advertisers like the number of eyeballs we serve them. What’s more, the internet doesn’t expect The Economist to offer flashpoint stories. We’re known as a weekly newspaper offering a digest and analysis of the week’s affairs. We take the same analytical approach online, and in our videos and podcasts.

I decided to spike the audiogram of Webber v Scherzinger. The news was already out: over 500 websites carried the story. Furthermore, our little clip wasn’t adding anything new beyond the juicy headline. Our fans follow us because they expect high quality and incisive analysis: the audiogram was merely “clip-bait”.

By contrast, the full podcast did offer something more: it’s an example of how we take popular topics and delve deep into them. So in our promotion of the podcast we focused on Webber’s views on how the business and art of stage musicals is changing — he made many of his points by talking about how great “Hamilton” is rather than using a salacious news peg to grab attention.

We do ride the news wave sometimes, such as with our exclusive story on Saudi Arabia’s possible public offering of Aramco, which we pushed heavily on social media. But that kind of story passes the tabloid test: it wouldn’t attract squeals that we’d cut off our perceived roots, and we had a detailed analysis to go with it. A clip focusing on Webber’s words for Scherzinger didn’t pass the tabloid test, so instead we got on with finding our next big interviewee for @EconomistRadio.

Adam Smith is deputy community editor for The Economist.