How The Economist Editor John Micklethwait got his start in the Media

John Micklethwait, Editor in Chief, The Economist*


Interview by Laura Piety

* This interview was originally for a project entitled Freefall and has since been re-purposed for Rverie. The editor of both websites is the same. John is also now the EIC of Bloomberg News.

I met John a few years back at an event in central London. He had been invited to talk about his book 'God Is Back', the main thesis of which is that there is a rise in global faith internationally, rather than an increasing secularization as may otherwise be presupposed. As a journalist he had carefully done his research and analysis, having hard numbers and personal experiences across the world- including visiting house churches in China- to back it up with. We talked at the end of the event and John generously offered to be interviewed. 

We talked a couple of weeks later for a project I was working on (prior to Rverie) entitled Freefall. It was a privilege to have a conversation with someone who exhibited such authoritative knowledge and understanding on global matters, and yet was rather candid about his personal break into the media, namely admitting how luck played an elemental part. 

How did you make your way from childhood to working at The Economist?

I grew up in Rutland and went to school in Yorkshire before attending Oxford University. After graduating, I got a job in banking at Chase Manhattan, without, it has to be said, achieving a great deal. I worked there for about 2 years. To be honest, I was just an ‘ok’ banker, but was extremely lucky to have a friend at The Economist. It was 1987, a time when the publication and many other financial journals were losing people to the City [London’s financial sector] which was booming in the middle of Big Bang. If you wrote about chemicals for The Economist, for example, you’d then be offered a lot of money to be a chemicals analyst in the City. 

The fact I was inside the City but wanted to come in the other way - towards news - made me a more alluring prospect, and again it was lucky timing because I hadn't done much journalism. Another useful fact was that I joined in August 1987 before Black Monday, the famous stock market crash, which took place that October. A lot of people in the City lost their jobs and those who had been making a lot of money, but perhaps doing work they didn't enjoy, suddenly wanted to do things like journalism. By that stage I was already inside The Economist, writing and happy. 

In addition to a lucky break, what was it about journalism, and the communication of information that inspired you to move across?

Good question. I did like getting information. I’d always liked writing and the idea of ideas. I’m not sure how good I would have been as a day to day news journalist, because I was rather better at analysis-based journalism, so I was lucky to land at The Economist. It’s difficult talking to young journalism students today who put in a lot of work by the age I was still lazing around the City! I changed careers because I wasn't enjoying what I was doing and thought I might like journalism more. I can't claim anything bigger than that, it just struck me as a more interesting life, so I jumped across.

I changed careers because I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing and thought I might like journalism more. I can’t claim anything bigger than that.

Did you have any written training?

No, none. In fact one of my earlier jobs at The Economist sent me to Los Angeles and I sat there typing with two fingers, much to the amusement of the people from the Los Angeles Times who had given me an office. 

That’s brilliant. 

I was a complete prehistoric monster. I hadn’t done anything like typing or shorthand before and didn’t really have the basic skills you needed. 

How did you evolve into a professional journalist?

I think the answer [growing into it] is slightly the same. We still do it here. A while ago we hired a person from a Think Tank who had no journalism experience. Essentially it is either sink or swim, but hopefully a sort of benign inspirational version of it, i.e. where nobody is nasty to you! We tend to give people a piece of paper and ask them to go and write about x, giving them as much help writing as we can, and then we edit it, allowing them to learn. But to be fair, there is a difference between the kind of journalism we do at The Economist and the sort of newspaper journalism where there are a number of crafts, such as typing, that make your life dramatically easier. In our case, and with analysis, those skills certainly would help but there’s not such an instant need to power stuff through. 

Even though you're writing opinion and fact, do you have any commentary on using storytelling as a means of communicating to the public?

There is one sense of story for newspapers or magazines, where you give an amazing fact and go from there. 

The other sense of story, to which I think you are referring, is narrative. I think this is incredibly important, particularly with book writing. In all the books I’ve authored, people seem to pick up on the points that tell a story. For example, we wrote a book about the American Right and spent a lot of time fussing over the analysis and whether this bit or that bit was right. But most reviewers jumped on the historical parts and where the movement came from, essentially because it was a story.

The Economist has a huge global reach, how do you maintain that?

Good question. We have correspondents and offices all around the world (20 at the time of interview) scattered around. 

On top of that we also travel a lot, because if you don’t you can miss things. During the dot-com boom lots of people were saying you didn't need to visit places, that you could just use the internet for research. Ironically, I remember going across to NYC at that time. All the ads on the buses were about a dot-com companies. Yes, you could have picked that up by reading things, but you fundamentally had to be there. It’s about looking and standing in that place. You need to be there to actually talk to people. Going to places is fantastically useful. 

Would you say you have to have a level of personal engagement or experience to form a robust written opinion?

There are two tensions. On the one hand The Economist is somewhat of a story machine. We have a fairly lengthy magazine to fill each week. So, in that way, we are a bit of a ‘factory’. Manufacturing stories sounds bad, but you know what I mean, getting a story, editing it and checking it.

On the other hand, I never feel particularly sad when someone spends four days to a week in Sri Lanka and comes back with one story. That adds to it. I’ll give you an example. About ten years ago I spent a month in Argentina writing a special story about the country. Since then, something about Argentina has always stayed with me. It makes a difference. Getting hold of a place is terribly important. For example, I don’t think anyone can understand China without going there. I could bore you about how interesting China is, but it’s only when you actually go and see miles and miles of vast rising tower blocks that it really smashes into you. People say the same thing about global warming. Firsthand impressions are incredibly important. 

You wrote a book called God is Back. What was the original inspiration for that?

That’s a good example of the advantage of talking to people and doing research. We’d written a book about American politics which was interesting, so we thought American religion would be too. We then looked at the numbers and yes, religion was doing very well in America, but also doing very well elsewhere around the world, apart from Western Europe. We focused on America as a model for the type of religion that was doing well elsewhere. Fundamentally we were journalistic about it and it wasn’t until we looked at the numbers we realized Europe was the odd place out. So, we went into the project with a pre-ordained view of what [the numbers] would look like, and initially were wrong. 

What were some of your most interesting experiences researching the book?

It was particularly powerful going to Nigeria and seeing the battles between the evangelical Christians heading northwards and Islamists heavily backed by Saudi money heading south. Sadly that was the scene of many bloody massacres. I also went to an exorcism in Brazil. We began the book in a Chinese House Church. I think those three elements stand out to me. 

Has writing the book changed your view on the nature of religion?

That’s a good question. Rather strangely no-one’s asked me that before! [At time of interview]. Yes, I suppose it’s made me more interested and aware of the power of evangelical religions and the sort of people who become ‘evangelical’. I wasn't one of those snooty Europeans who thought American evangelicals were all nut-cases, I’d written books about the conservative right and knew they actually weren’t. When you look worldwide you begin to see a bigger [religious] phenomenon. 

On another level it made me interested in the sociological reasons why people might become religious. It seems that if you are outside of Western Europe, and there is a reasonable supply of religions around you, you will probably be vaguely religious. 

How would you link the rise of spirituality in China to economic, social or political factors?

China is an interesting on both sides. On the one hand religion is transparently filling a vacuum. as you have communism retreating. But two broader things come across, firstly the sociological need - that peoples’ lives feel empty, or at least they think they are empty, without religion. The other interesting thing is the kind of people becoming religious. A lot of the evangelical Chinese Christians are upwardly mobile: not people being ‘left behind’, in fact quite the opposite. This is the kind of thing that Europeans don’t tend to understand, that the phenomenon is being driven in some cases, by young clever, smart people who are using religion to get even further ahead. They’re thinking about eternal life, but also using it to get a ahead in the current world.

As we close, what advice would you give someone trying to get into the media? 

I've tried to be as honest as possible describing my own experience, including that I was simply lucky and luck matters. But my two main pieces of advice would be firstly, keep trying. 

I’ve tried to be as honest as possible describing my own experience, including that I was simply lucky and luck matters.

Journalism is a somewhat inefficient trade whereby people change roles very quickly. Often, if somebody gives up their job in Prague, and you happened to just offer your services in Prague, you might get the job because people won’t always be bothered to find previous writers who had done work there. That’s a quick step up the ladder. Some degree of chutzpah is also useful.

Secondly, when you are writing to pitch an article, try to look for the quirky, rather than huge bombastic ideas. 

If you’re trying to write for The Economist, you're probably better stepping forward with an idea about four nuns who to set up a micro-brewery in Cleveland and how it’s become Cleveland’s most successful poured beer, than you are offering us your essay about how transatlantic relations have changed since the 1970s. There won’t be many people onto the first story, whereas there’s about twenty people already here who would want to write about the second, and it’s harder for an outsider to get in.