Interview: Matthew Bishop, New York Bureau Chief, The Economist

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Matthew Bishop, American Business Editor and New York Bureau Chief for The Economist, says the financial industry should have seen last fall’s meltdown coming from a mile away. And The Economist tried to warn them. In the end, says Bishop, “they proved to be wrong, and I don’t know if you call that a communications failure at that point, or a business problem.”

While the banks have failed, The Economist hasn’t. Its circulation has doubled in seven years, and advertising pages continue to hold steady. In this interview, Bishop speaks about various implications of the recession, why The Economist sticks with its “no bylines” policy, and of course, how PR pros can best work with the publication.

What do you think are some reasons as to why The Economist has remained so successful in the face of such turbulent times in the magazine industry?

I like to think that The Economist has remained successful because we are very serious about understanding the world. Today, more than ever, people are craving that understanding – not just of what is going on in their own neighborhood, but what is going on around the world. We have bureaus all over the world. The magazine consistently has a global take on things. Our readers travel a lot, meet people from abroad, they are global citizens, and we are the only weekly magazine that consistently covers and analyzes what is going on all around the world, not just in their own country. That is a huge thing.

Second, were were founded in the 1840s to take this battle between ignorance and intellect. Everything we do at The Economist is based around intelligent debate and really tearing away at a subject until we get it right, a lot of publications have abandoned that. Once you abandon that, it’s hard to come back. I feel lucky, working at a place were the quality is all that matters.

The “no bylines” feature of The Economist has generated some debate over the years. What is your take on this?

It’s there for all sorts of of historical aspects, but now it is absolutely fundamental to our success and to produce the quality of analysis we do. As an individual journalist, I would prefer to have my own name on my work. But what that does is insulate the journalist from rigorous debate and accountability that is in The Economist. Any article I propose I have to be ready to argue it through with my editor and also my colleagues. Because we don’t have our name on the article, we all stand and fall by all of the content.

This changes completely the internal dynamics. When you think about the extent to which debate is what we do, the other part of that is that we all stand together as a collective as to all the material that appears. Which means we are much more consistently high quality. Having this group of people here, and having this long record of debating, means we see things going on differently then our competitors. It’s not just one individual, it’s a group narrative. If you put bylines on it, it will make much harder to maintain that.

You’ve written about capitalism in your books, “Kings of Capitalism”, which covered the private-equity industry; and “Capitalism and its Troubles”, which examined the impact of problems such as the collapse of Enron in 2002. In the most recent financial crisis, what should companies have done better to communicate, either before, during or after the initial shock to the system?

I don’t think this is a failure to communicate. The problems have come in a way…the firms themselves didn’t know what the were doing. They weren’t in a position to communicate better. I look back at The Economist coverage, and we have constantly been warning about bubbles, the stock market bubble in late 90s and housing bubble this decade.

What is clear is the finance industry didn’t want to engage in that debate so they would deny that this was correct. And they proved to be wrong, and I don’t know if you call that a communications failure at that point, or a business problem.

There is a whole chapter in “Capitalism and its Troubles” about how risk management in the banks could become correlated and and cause the system to go into meltdown mode. This was a discussion in 2002 and yet it didn’t affect their behavior. They continued to behave to what is considered to be recklessly.

What is the role of media in that? Jon Stewart goes on and lambastes CNBC, but really CNBC had critics on too. I don’t know what role you can blame media in not exposing the risk.

But I’m not sure if that’s a communication failure by companies or us. Clearly it highlighted a need for a higher degree of finance literacy in public as whole.

How can PR professionals best work with The Economist?

We do work a lot with PR people. A bad to way work with The Economist is to just send a press release or make a standard pitch by phone. A really bad way is to show you’ve never really looked at The Economist, and it is astonishing how many people pitch is material that could never appear in The Economist.

What we are looking for is two things. First, a PR professional who has understood the kind of stories we’ve been following. On any given subject there’s probably going to be a whole period of stories going back many years and there will be a fairly consistent narrative. The challenge is to go to us with a story that challenges or fits in to our narrative.

If you can show knowledge on our narrative and how your pitch fits into that and takes it forward, you will get immediate attention. PR should also understand, if I’m typical of The Economist, I am getting 500 emails a day, many of which are completely redundant.

The ideal thing is where subject of an e-mail is personalized in some way. The first couple of sentences will have to show very quickly understanding of The Economist.

Also, the more we can be close to the chief executive or chief ideas people at a company or subject, the more useful that relationship is going to be.

It’s quite hard to guarantee any interview will see a place in the magazine. However, a lot of people I’ve met six months or twelve months earlier, a moment will arise where having had that relationship and having a face to the name, I know exactly who to go to.

When your CEO is coming into town, organize a cup of coffee with us, an off the record, get to know you conversation. You may hear nothing more from us for months, but when you do get a call, respond quickly. When the window opens, it can shut very quickly.

Matthew Bishop is American Business Editor and New York Bureau Chief for The Economist. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @mattbish