Tom Standage

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Tom Standage is a deputy editor at The Economist, author of a slew of books, and on Twitter (@TomStandage).

The Economist, according to Tom Standage, aims to be “a trusted filter on the week’s events. We make it finish-able, we package it up for you.” How? “We do this with a global perspective. I sometimes call it ‘the view from the moon’.” Rather than a lot of London, The Economist spotlights spacious stories. POV matters. Tom Wolfe tried to do this too, entering situations as the man from Mars.

When Pixar was transplanted – like a healthy heart – to Dinsey, Ed Catmull noticed that his point-of-view was blocked like an obstructed view concert seat. Catmull reflected, “Gradually, snarky behavior, grousing, and rudeness disappeared from view – from my view anyway.” Where we stand affects our stance.

Readers should know which way their news is bent, and writers can take this idea one step further. In an interview on the Not Unreasonable podcast, Tyler Cowen explained how he uses ‘Bloomberg Tyler’ and ‘Tyrone’ to flesh out ideas. Different medians, Cowen said, make him adopt different angles. Cowen’s colleague Brian Caplan calls this the “ideological Turing Test.” Can you explain issue X so that supporters of X believe you are also a supporter of X?

The Economist, Standage said, is a profitable magazine. About half their subscribers choose the print + digital option. About a fourth choose print only. About a fourth choose digital only.

But, the print only group skews younger and the digital-only group skews older. Huh? Standage guessed that older people want the digital version so they can make the font larger while younger people want the print version as a badge. Like white headphones, brown Uggs, and black Benton Springs jackets, the red Economist binds form and function.

Signaling isn’t only for college students. We all do it. Accounting for this we can act appropriately. Rory Sutherland suggested this:

“If you want a good recommendation for an Indian restaurant, you are far more likely to get a good recommendation from a scaffolder called Terry than from the editor from the Times literary Sunday edition. Because scaffolders are perfect recommenders. They have quite a bit of cash but they want good food. They’re not interested in showing off their sophistication. They want a pretty good meal for a reasonable money.”

One place without signaling is The Economist bylines. In one interview Standage is asked about the lack of them, and he said that historically bylines were the abnormally. In another interview, Standage says to think of the classical-natural British landscape. Most people imagine a few sheep, a house or two, and wild grasses.

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But, that’s not right. The classic landscape was wild boars and oak trees. A theme throughout Standage’s conversations is that history has no starting line. Everything is a tweaked version of its predecessor. This is especially true for food.

“Almost nothing that we eat is natural.” Go back twenty-five thousand years and there’s no chicken, no corn. “The point is, we forget how engineered the food and landscapes are.”

The potato was never mentioned in the bible and didn’t immigrate to Europe until the 1700’s. Oh, and it grew in the ground. No one wanted it. It was only a series of famines and wars, Standage explained, that brought the potato onto the plate. Romans didn’t grow tomatoes, so no red sauce for pizza. Corn – to make polenta – had to be imported to Trento too.

Much of Standage’s work is built around food and drink and how they tell the history of the world. That continues today, “Food coming from a farm and food coming from the internet are both basically technology delivering food. The farm is very much a man-made technology like the internet and the delivery truck.”

Life then is like life’s always been, evolving. The Economist evolves too. Standage said they try to make small bets. It’s not Skunk Works or Xerox Park, but the magazine has people tinkering. Sometimes it’s a couple of interns, sometimes it’s a full-scale internal product.

The film adage that no one knows what will work is universal. Fred Rogers tinkered on TV when it arrived. Ed Catmull drew it into the Pixar culture. Chris Blattman experimented with chickens in poor countries. There are so many moving parts, he told Russ Roberts, that it’s hard to know what will work until you try it. Tom Kelley of IDEO tells people to present things as experiments. “Framing things as an experiment is really important.”

 

Thanks for reading.

Sources: YouTube, The Avid Reader Show, Always Take Notes.

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