Saturday, June 20, 2009

Can You Subscribe to "The Economist" in Romania?

A week or so back, Father Anonymous was at a local newsstand, searching for something to read while he ate lunch at a diner. His principal requirements were that it would (a) open flat, and (b) not insult his intelligence.

The papers had all been sold out for the day, which left him with glossy magazines. Most of the choices failed one or both tests -- People and Us lie flat, but actually subtract a few IQ points as you read them. Marie Claire does have some interesting makeup tips, but the pages will flip over if they are not weighed down. Esquire, despite those alluring covers showing naked ladies with headlines projected on their bodies, fails miserably on both counts; after all these years, it remains the most consistently disappointing magazine in America.

Father A. had narrowed his choices down to The Ring ("What is happening in the world of prizefighting?" he often wonders), or Inked ("Although," he reflected gloomily, "none of those tattooed youngsters seems to have taken seriously the relevant passages of Leviticus 19.")

"But wait," he said aloud, startling a few of his fellow-customers. "Here's The Economist. That should get me through my BLT." And then, standing at the register, he gasped audibly, realizing that, at $6.99, the magazine would cost about twice what he planned to spend on a sandwich. Literally.

Still, he bought and began to read, and well before his lunch was served he found himself muttering, "I always forget what a good magazine this is. I really should subscribe. Wonder what it costs in lei?"

As Sinatra would have said, had he been more bookish, it was a very good read. The reporting on and analysis of US and British affairs was solid; of more use was the coverage of matters in the non-English speaking world, that quaint patch of Earth located to the south and east. And west. American news magazines rarely have much to say about, say, the purges in Kazakhstan, or the financial problems facing Morton Tsvangirai -- or even, closer to home, Canada's ailing nuclear industry. And yet these are all stories worth reading.

Turns out that Father A. isn't the only one who thinks it's worth the splurge:

Virtually alone among magazines,The Economist saw its advertising revenues increase last year by double digits—a remarkable 25 percent, according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. Newsweek’s and Time’s dropped 27 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
This is from an admiring, although not uncritical, piece in The Atlantic, by Michael Hirshorn. (Another magazine we hope ships copies to Eastern Europe, come to think of it. ) Turns out that, while newspapers are dying left and right, and the news-magazine business is scrambling to reinvent itself, The Economist is doing quite nicely, thank you.

And why? Hirschorn has a number of ideas, and can;t bring himself to believe that it boils down to the simplest: "quality will out." But we think it does, if you are willing to define "quality" in terms of breadth, rather than snappy prose or even originality.

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