Very politely

How The Economist chose its first female editor-in-chief

This post has been corrected.

Yesterday The Economist chose Zanny Minton Beddoes to be the first female editor-in-chief in its 171-year history. “About time,” you might say.

But among its peers, the venerable British publication, where I spent 16 years before leaving to help found Quartz, is practically a pioneer. The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times have never had a female editor, and nor have the Times, Telegraph or Guardian in Britain (though the Sunday Telegraph has, and the Sunday Times and Observer had one over a century ago). The New York Times got its first one only in 2011, and Le Monde in 2013 (both have since left). Time and Newsweek have both been helmed by women in the last half-decade, but Businessweek never has. Even the San Francisco Chronicle named its first female editor-in-chief only last week.

Still, Minton Beddoes was the only woman among the 13 candidates who applied for The Economist’s top job. All of them were current or former Economist staffers. I was one of them.

It’s been 50 years since an outsider, Alastair Burnet, was made editor, and he was an outsider only in that he had worked there and briefly left. The main reason for that inward focus is that the editor needs to know how to navigate the idiosyncratic culture of the newspaper (as it calls itself, never a “magazine”)—one which Andrew Sullivan, when he was editor of the New Republic, likened in a memorable hatchet job to “a combination of an English senior common room and a seminar at Davos.”

That’s certainly an apt description of the weekly news meeting. Each Monday morning, as many people as possible pack themselves into the editor’s office on the 13th floor of the paper’s London headquarters. A handful of the most senior get chairs; the rest stand, sit on the floor or perch on the window ledges, blocking the views of Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace. The meeting can last an hour or more and the room quickly becomes hot and airless; latecomers crowd around the door, straining to catch the snippets of debate about what policy to prescribe to the European Central Bank or how America should deal with some recalcitrant dictator.

The editor must act as part coach and part referee, for there are many brilliant minds, including some world-class experts in their fields; discussion is polite, but pointed. The paper’s no-bylines policy and tight editing give it an air of collegial unity, but also mean that the editor is, even more than at other old newspapers, the custodian of a long intellectual tradition and an established way of doing things. All this makes it highly unlikely that a complete newcomer could win the staff’s confidence.

And that confidence is essential to getting the job. While it’s the company’s directors—all but one of whom are also men—who interview the candidates and recommend one to the trustees, a quartet of eminences who act as guarantors of the editor’s independence, all The Economist’s staff are encouraged to write in with their opinions on who should win. Naturally, this leads to intense lobbying behind the closed doors of the hutch-like offices, overflowing with books and papers, where the staff work (no new-fangled open-plan nonsense here).

The way to the top

The editorship has traditionally been not only a man’s job, but a young man’s one. Of Minton Beddoes’ 16 predecessors, all but five were under 40 when they were appointed. In her 1993 history of The Economist, The Pursuit of Reason, Ruth Dudley Edwards reveals that when Burnet was picked in 1965, the then-chairman of the board of directors, Geoffrey Crowther, wrote to the trustees that the board had considered many names, “but the search was narrowed down by the conviction that, in this rapidly changing world, we must have a young man, and that we would not therefore consider anyone over the age of about 40.”

Things have changed a bit since then. When Burnet took over, weekly circulation was around 70,000 copies, mostly in the UK. Today, it is 1.6 million, mostly abroad, and the paper has many more journalists, of whom nearly one-quarter are women—a better proportion than among its readers, where they are only 13%. Still, the board is widely thought to favor relative youth; today, 50 is perceived as the informal cut-off.

You might imagine the selection process for such a bastion of the British establishment to include some arcane rituals, perhaps involving gowns and Latin. You’d be disappointed. After John Micklethwait, the incumbent, announced that he was leaving to head up Bloomberg News, hopefuls were asked to write a short email to the current board chairman, Rupert Pennant-Rea, to say they wished to run. Pennant-Rea, himself a former editor, wrote back with the unassuming directness that is the paper’s hallmark: “Dear Gideon: Thank you for telling me you want to be the next editor of The Economist.”

What happened next, however, could have happened nowhere else. An all-staff email went out containing the full list of candidates, including the two of us employed elsewhere, without so much as a request to keep it confidential. I briefly panicked; at any other newspaper, such a list would most likely have been leaked to a media gossip columnist within minutes. Not so at The Economist. It probably never even occurred to anyone to do such a thing.

We sent in memos; then there were interviews, held in the company boardroom on the 14th floor, a large and airy space compared with the warren of offices below it. After plugging in my laptop and giving a short presentation, I sat down at the long conference table to face a gentlemanly grilling from Pennant-Rea and two other members of the board. Behind me, large windows looked east, towards Parliament. Facing me, a set of shelves held a few dark, gold-lettered archival volumes of the paper’s very first years, a subtle reminder of the legacy I was proposing to take on. On the table were thick books containing all our memos, printed out and joined with a red comb binding—a trove of ideas, ambitions, and pretensions that will make fascinating reading for some future historian of The Economist.

My questioners were polite, attentive, and inscrutable. Pennant-Rea, a man of famously fierce intellect who as editor was known to rise at four in the morning to write his leaders, fixed me throughout with an inquisitive gaze that betrayed no sign of whether he thought I was unexpectedly impressive or an upstart fool. An hour passed quickly.

Mine was the last interview but one. Soon we would learn who had been shortlisted for an interview by the full board. To celebrate our last moment as equals in rivalry, 12 of the candidates (the 13th wasn’t around) went for lunch in Chinatown, where we squeezed around a single table at a dim sum joint like a low-rent version of Dorothy Parker’s clique at the Algonquin and reminisced about foreign assignments, office scandals, and recalcitrant dictators we had known or pontificated about.

The winnowing-down was brisk and efficient. That afternoon, as I hung around the office chatting to former colleagues, the emails started arriving from Pennant-Rea. “As you know, we have had a large number of excellent applicants,” he wrote, “and a few of them have proved stronger candidates than you. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I hope you understand.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece said that none of Britain’s broadsheets has had a female editor. There was also a slightly inaccurate description of the memo binding.

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