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Media : Irreverent Economist Magazine Earns Interest : At age 150, it jets to world capitals. The editors could fill a British 'Who's Who.' And a new one will be anointed soon.


LONDON — For most of its readers, the Economist weekly magazine is a sprightly blend of good writing, pithy headlines, eye-catching covers, jokey captions--and self-assured opinions on the state of the world.

The mix of lucid writing on complex subjects, with lashings of wit and irreverence, has made the Economist--which, despite its name, covers far more than business and finance--one of the world's most influential news magazines, required reading among movers and shakers from 10 Downing Street to the White House.

This year, the Economist celebrates its 150th anniversary, and next month it will choose a new occupant for the prestigious editor's chair to succeed Rupert Pennant-Rea, who, at 45, is departing to become deputy governor of the Bank of England.

"I hate to leave," said Pennant-Rea, a tall, angular, relaxed journalist whose 13th-floor office has a sweeping view of the River Thames, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Hyde Park. "But I couldn't resist the Bank of England's offer. The door to the Bank doesn't open often.

"For sixteen years, I've been a writer and editor on the outside. This is a chance to do things on the inside."

Pennant-Rea has been editor since 1986, having joined what the staff likes to call the "newspaper" in 1977 as an economics correspondent.

The editor has seen circulation double under his stewardship to about 500,000, with more copies sold in the United States than in the United Kingdom and the Continent combined.

The Economist's current circulation breaks down roughly into: 240,000 in the United States and Canada, 100,000 in the United Kingdom, 110,000 in Europe and 50,000 to 60,000 in Asia.

"I think Americans are concerned about international affairs and interested in getting a different perspective," he explained of the large American readership. "To give them this different view, we are in the right place, with the right language.

"English is the growing language: Twenty years ago, Italians, for example, might not be attracted to the Economist. Now, the children of senior Italian businessmen have been educated in the U.K. or the U.S. and are moving into positions of responsibility, comfortable in English. They buy the Economist."

The magazine prints the same, average 65 pages weekly of editorial copy in six locations, including the United States.

The magazine's color cover is almost always keyed to the first of half a dozen or so editorials, known as "leaders." The first leader will be backed up further inside the magazine with a news story, as normally will be the others.

The leaders are argued from the position of support for the free market--possibly at the expense of other complicating factors.

As Jonathan Fenby, deputy editor of the Guardian and a former Economist correspondent, says: "The Economist is self-confident. It thinks it knows the answers to a lot of problems around the world.

"But it tends to assume the free-market mechanism can solve any problem: politics, torture, art, social matters--just let the market sort it out."

The Economist was founded in 1843 by James Wilson to advance the cause of free trade and to take part in "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress."

But the Economist's real reputation was established by Walter Bagehot, journalist, economist and Wilson's son-in-law, who edited the paper from 1861 until his death in 1877. The Economist today carries a political column called "Bagehot."

Over the years, the Economist has expanded its horizon from economics, business and finance to politics, foreign affairs, science and the arts. One of its best weekly sections is the American Survey.

Unlike newsmagazines in the United States and on the Continent, the Economist eschews bylines on its stories: It believes that its collective voice and personality matter more than individuals.

What further distinguishes the Economist is its spare staff, with only 35 writers and editors in its London headquarters and 15 full-time foreign correspondents--backed up by a staff of researchers, cartographers and graphic designers. Most of the staff are British, but there are some Americans, like respected defense correspondent Jim Meacham.

The editorial week begins on Monday with a morning meeting devoted to planning the current issue.

"By Wednesday lunch, we have a pretty good fix on the cover, the main articles and leaders," says Pennant-Rea. Thursday is the final writing and editing day, and when the print run begins. The first copies hit London's newsstands Friday morning.

The Economist makes no apologies for its editorializing. As Pennant-Rea argues: "We are a paper of opinion and views. We stick our neck out and consequently risk having it chopped from time to time."

Pennant-Rea recalls with chagrin headlining a story on energy: "The Charm of Nuclear Power." The issue came out shortly before the devastating nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

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