April 3, 2023
Welcome to Trusted Journalism Matters, our new series where we chat to World Media Group members about the importance of quality journalism. This episode, Belinda chats to Business Affairs Editor Rachana Shanbhogue about what attracted her to working for The Economist, and the role their organisation plays in helping audiences to make sense of the world around us.
You didn’t train as a journalist so what prompted you to make the move into journalism?
Yes, that’s right. I worked for eight years at the Bank of England as an economist, which was fantastic training and a really interesting place to work, especially as I joined shortly after the financial crisis began. I realised two things: Firstly, that I enjoyed the process of writing down ideas, thinking about the arguments and presenting them in a way that people wanted to read. I gravitated towards the jobs at the bank that were more communications focused, as part of the team that wrote the bank’s inflation report, for example.
The other thing I discovered over that course of my time there was that I was interested in exploring a much wider range of subjects than the ones that a central bank rightly focuses on. If you work in, for example, the monetary policy area of the of the Bank of England, you’re mainly thinking about the prospects for inflation – the types of policies needed to meet the bank’s inflation targets. But there’s a whole universe of interesting subjects out there, so that was the other motivation.
With the Brexit referendum in 2016, I realised there were lots of important economic policy questions that one could be considering and writing about, and that encouraged me to make the leap. My experience is not that unusual. If I look at my colleagues here at The Economist who write about business, economics or finance, quite a few of them have experience in industry or working as economists or analysts in investment banks.
Economics and finance have a bit of a fusty, white middle-aged men image. Has it been a benefit to you being none of those things or has it held you back in any way?
In terms of what it’s been like to be a woman in economics, ever since I went into university to study economics, it’s been clear that there are more men than women in the subject. That follows through to the jobs I’ve done, and perhaps for that reason, I haven’t thought so much about it.
I’m not sure how my career would have been different if economics had been balanced by gender. It’s worrying for the subject that, for whatever reason, there aren’t many women going into it. I’ve been fortunate to work in places where that gender imbalance hasn’t translated into a barrier to women’s careers.
So what attracted you specifically to The Economist.
I’m an economist by training, as we’ve discussed, so I was naturally drawn to an organisation that has The Economist in the name and puts a great emphasis on reporting on economics and finance in a thorough and in-depth way. It seemed like the natural place to apply for a job.
The philosophy behind The Economist is one that I feel most at home with. It was founded on free trade principles, arguing for the abolition of the Corn Laws here in the UK. Its liberal philosophy’s quite attractive. What may be less apparent on the outside – because there are no by-lines for the Economist, and it’s edited to sound like it’s one voice presenting arguments and presenting the news – what really strikes you when you work here is that there are lots of experts, people who care really deeply about their subjects. And there’s a lot of debate internally about what our leader line should be. It’s all guided by the principles of the newspaper. That way of working was also quite attractive as well.
Thinking about your audience, could you kind of describe them for us, and if or how has that changed during the pandemic?
We have a variety of readers spread over the world and I tend to think about two groups. One is the informed professional and one is the curious or informed reader who’s not necessarily a specialist in the areas of finance or economics but wants to know more about the world. Internally, we often joke about that reader being the dentist in Milwaukee who wants to find out more about what’s going on. I read The Economist as a student precisely to know more about the world, so that’s another way of thinking about that group of readers.
And then, as a financial journalist, I also think about some of the readers being CEOs of companies, managers of companies, people who make policy, people who are pretty close to the world or work in the world of finance or business. So, we’re trying to write both for the interested, non-specialist as well as the specialists, and that’s often the trick of financial journalism – being able to write for both groups of people.
We also try and think about two different types of coverage. One is curating what’s happening in the world, so there’s lots of news, breaking all the time. What The Economist does is take the bits of the news that we think are important and that we think that readers should be aware of, and curate that for readers. Wherever you are in the world, and whatever part of the world you’re interested in, we’re telling you in a given week, what the stories you should be aware of are.
The other kind of coverage is something that sets the agenda more. It might not be in the news this week, but there might be a really big shift in how the world’s political order is functioning. We pull various strands together to try and lay out how the world is changing. So that’s a slightly different type of coverage that we think about as well.
In terms of how readers are coming to us, there was a shift that was going on that definitely got a bit of a kick during the pandemic – that is that more people are reading us online. We know digital subscriptions are rising. We also know that more people are coming to our app on a daily basis rather than a weekly basis, even though in print, we’re once a week.
All of that is leading us to think a bit more about how we present our work digitally; what the cadence of that work should be. Should it be that we’re producing stories every day? Should we think about whether to respond to a news event rather than to take a little bit of time to digest the news and analyse it and really add value? So those are the sorts of questions that we’ve been grappling with. And we’re quite a small organisation – we’ve got something in the region of 120 journalists, which is really quite small compared to bigger daily outlets. So that’s an interesting strategic question that we’re thinking about.
You’ve talked about different aspects of international news. Would you say that’s even more important now than it has ever been?
It’s probably always been important to have that international view. It’s really helpful when you see a trend, for example, here in the UK that the healthcare system is under strain to be able to place that trend within a global pattern or context. How different is what’s happening with the NHS, to what’s happening elsewhere in the world? And what does that tell you about what’s driving the problems here as opposed to elsewhere? So, I think that global canvas really helps inform the story and helps add that little bit more context to what’s going on.
Also, being able to understand the thought process, say in Beijing or in Washington DC, is increasingly having more of an impact on the rest of the world. And with the war in Ukraine, we’ve seen that these decisions that were taken in Moscow then led to commodity prices spiking, energy prices spiking, upending the kind of the norms around what countries do. The norm was always you don’t invade your neighbour – ever since the Second World War in Europe, the norm is you don’t invade other countries. So, our international focus is something that we bring to readers, and I’ve had readers in America say that they really appreciate that extra global context.
Is there any one story that you’ve worked on that you’re really proud of?
I’ve been editing for a few years so that’s a very good question. Last year, I took a bit of time out of editing to go off and research what we call a special report on central banks – a 10,000 word series of articles. The way it works is you have five weeks where you’re only reporting on this particular story. It was extremely satisfying figuring out the ways in which central banking is changing, just as the war in Ukraine was breaking out.
It seemed like central banks were going into ever more areas, thinking about not just inflation or keeping the bank safe, but branching out into things like whether they should be tackling inequality and what they should do to counter the effects of climate change. That was immensely satisfying, partly because it was such a huge endeavour.
More recently, I wrote one of our editorials on the turmoil with the Adani empire. This is the world’s third largest businessman and his business conglomerate, which is based in India and a short seller’s report – this was at the end of January and early February – a short seller’s report sent the market valuation of that business empire plummeting.
It was quite a spectacular implosion of this really big empire that had these very vast nation-building ambitions in India. And following that through and the questions that were raised around it, thinking about the ways in which Indian regulators might need to think of how to respond was just immensely satisfying and quite an exciting story.
What do you see as the role of journalism going forward now that everybody is a content maker?
It’s an interesting question because, on the one hand, that rise of free content and social media is something to be celebrated. As a journalist, when there’s jitters in the financial markets or there’s worries about the banking system, just being on Twitter and seeing what people have to say, seeing what some of the experts have to say, is really helpful and interesting. At its best, I think social media performs quite a useful function.
What journalism adds over and above that is the trusted nature of the brand and certainly. The Economist adds quality assurance – you’re assured that what you’re going to read has been written by somebody who knows what they’re talking about, who’s done the research, who’s spoken to the people in the know. We don’t often do quotes, but we do speak to a wide variety of people off the record.
It’s that assurance that what you’re getting is something that really has been stress-tested, fact-checked and is high quality. What we found was in times of upheaval, if you think of when the Covid lockdowns began and when the war in Ukraine began, there is a flight to quality journalism. We know that people are interested in coming to us to read the news. They’re paying for subscriptions, which suggests that there is value in having journalism over and above the free content on social media platforms.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us today when we know the markets are so busy. It’s been fascinating to hear a little bit more about you and The Economist.