An Interview with Yale World Fellow, Abhik Sen

Interview with Abhik Sen of The Economist

Conducted by Dennis Wang

Sen

Abhik is a managing editor at The Economist Group in London, where he leads research and analysis on a range of issues influencing public policy, economic development and business across the world. Previously, he was an editor at Bloomberg where he was responsible for the multimedia coverage of global news and current affairs. He has also worked as a journalist and television executive in Asia and was a member of the team that launched India’s first multi-edition daily international newspaper. He is an advisory board member for InnovaBRICS and Beyond, a forum that brings together policymakers and business leaders to discuss the role of innovation in tackling many of the challenges developing countries face. Abhik is also a trustee at Apples & Snakes, a British not-for-profit organization that promotes poetry and performance artists, and a management board member at Theatre Rites, a London-based charity dedicated to enriching child education through theater.

The Politic: Abhik, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with the Politic. Our first question is, why did you choose to apply to serve as a Yale World Fellow?

For a few reasons. I didn’t really know much about this program until I heard about it from previous Fellows or former Fellows, and when they described what this program was about and [what] the experience gave to them, it kind of piqued my interest. Over time I realized that this was really the sort of thing I could use and would be really beneficial for me because I’ve been working as a journalist for over 15 years. I’ve been on the road without really stopping to take stock and refresh my ideas, and [I’ve been] thinking in a sort of non-deadline-drive environment. Also, there were these few ideas bubbling away which I wanted to explore in a more collaborative and supportive environment. And at the same time, obviously there were things I knew I had to learn, but at the same time it was not feasible for me to, say, go back to school for a huge amount of time. And this program in a sense fit the bill perfectly for me. It had everything that I would want out of time at university at this stage of my life in the sense where I have some things to contribute, hopefully, based on what my experience has been, and also to learn new things that make me a bit smarter and a bit more useful.

The Politic: To the extent that you can talk about it, I’d love to hear about some of those ideas bubbling in your head that you’re looking to collaborate with people on.

Well, my work and my own journey through life has really all about been moving between different worlds. I started out in India, grew up in India, I started my life as a journalist there. I worked in a newspaper and then I worked for one of the biggest American news organizations, Bloomberg. And then of course I joined The Economist and what has been in common [with] all these things is that I’ve always had a foot in more than one camp in more ways than one. Even now for example, the things that I deal with at The Economist are often at the intersection of business, the private sector, the government, public policy, and civil society. Anything which is collaborative in nature —which is a synthesizer of different fields and different walks of life—I seem to be naturally more compatible [with] that kind of thing.

The Politic: Sure. So as a World Fellow here, are you here more for the education that Yale has to offer or more to be able to collaborate with the other World Fellows?

I suppose it’s a bit of everything. Yes of course I want to dive into this deep and vast pool of knowledge that you have at Yale which kind of goes from learning about Mambo, for example, to all kinds of really important and interesting things like behavioral economics and things like that. Obviously we have limited time here so we have to pick and choose quite carefully. So I do want to do that—to attend a few of these amazing lectures by some of the smartest thinkers—and at the same time hook up with all the other Fellows who are all doing really wonderful things in different parts of the world and different spheres, and to see how we can all come together as a group but also be doing our own things. This is a pretty unique experience, and I cherish both aspects of the program.

The Politic: Sure. In concrete terms, before we move on to talking about The Economist, I would love to know what your day-to-day life looks like as a Yale World Fellow in terms of what classes have you been able to attend? Interesting conversations that you’ve had?

So one of the most amazing things about a typical day is that there is no typical day. There is a lot of randomness, but at the same time there is a method to that randomness. So for example, I could be attending a lecture on the Moral Foundation of Politics one minute, the next second I could be attending something on management or strategy at the School of Management, and the next minute I could be in a class on Aristotelian statecraft. So even though it may seem that there is not much to unify these things, some things you go and seek out because they’re practically useful, [while] other things are more to help you challenge your own views and to fill some gaps in your knowledge. A lot of us never had the privilege of having the kind of liberal arts education that all of you guys have the amazing privilege of undergoing. So, in a sense we are playing catch up. Every week we have Monday and Wednesday afternoon seminars just for the World Fellows on different things that are hugely relevant and also very important for a lot of us to know more about. We have some great speakers from Yale coming to do some of these seminars but equally we have people from outside—some really smart thinkers and people who have done different things. They’ve come in and they tell us about their own experiences and then we have a chance to have a discussion and a Q&A with them. So it’s quite a happy balance. And of course, a lot of us end up going out and doing talks and discussions with Yale students and that kind of thing. So it’s as much as you can have a happy balance of things that you want to do, and things that you’re in a sense meant to do—that’s what we have on the program.

The Politic: So you guys take yourselves away from your day jobs for 4 or 5 months. Let’s talk about that. What would you be doing right now if you weren’t at Yale as a World Fellow.

On a day-to-day basis I would be basically trying to douse at least a few fires because that’s what it often is when you’re managing several different projects which each have a very different purpose or a very different character. I would be in, as is often the case with any organization, a lot of meetings, drinking a lot of coffee, and maybe trying to get some work done which would be a combination of dealing with things that are on the table at the moment. They need to be done by a certain deadline. At the same time, [I would be] planning for things further down the road and, as I think I told you earlier, in my line of work at the moment you can’t really see too far down the road because there are huge, huge changes happening all the time. There are huge challenges cropping up all the time. Some of them are coming and you can perhaps plan for them, and other things you just can’t. So often my time is divided into dealing with the present and then preparing as best as you can for the future.

The Politic: So The Economist is a medium, in my opinion, is not quite directly comparable to the New York Times in terms of its readership and also in terms of its neutrality. The Economist doesn’t pride itself on being neutral—it likes to take a stance on different things. What do you think it is about The Economist that made it so successful, and what do you think about it is different from other publications if you had to pick a couple things?

Do you read the Economist?

The Politic: I do, not all the time.

So tell me two or three reasons why you picked up the Economist at all.

The Politic: I don’t know if you know Kevin Kallaugher, the cartoonist?

Mhm.

The Politic: He was here to give a talk last year. I enjoy seeing those. I’m personally a big fan of infographics so I enjoy being able to see those whether by picking up the Economist and reading it in print or finding it online when I’m doing research. So those are helpful for me. The Economist is not always a primary source in my mind.

Right so, just like you, all our readers have different reasons for why they pick up the Economist. What makes it successful among our readership is the fact that there is something that binds us with our readership which I don’t think too many other publications can link to. Our readership, in general, are very smart people, right? What binds smart people is curiosity about the world and about things happening around the world. And the Economist in a sense feeds that curiosity. We know that our readers are smart people, they have high expectations, you have to treat them as adults. And that’s what we try to do. We try to inform the reader in a new way, perhaps leave [them] with some insights which [they] may not have gotten from anywhere else or were expecting to get. And make [them] perhaps think about a lot of things that [they] are interested in and perhaps not interested in, in a new way. And I think what makes us successful is that it is a very concise journal. Every week, there are only 64 pages, and the pieces themselves are quite short, but at the same time we cover a huge amount of ground in every issue—from politics and economics around the world to business and science and technology and art. So even if you’re not reading anything else the whole week, if you pick up the Economist for a couple of hours in the week, you’re pretty much up to speed with a lot of the big stuff going on around the world—even things that you may not know are on the radar but are happening. So I think that is one of our big strengths—that we are able to do a lot with less.

The Politic: I think that’s a great answer. I want to touch on something you said before, which is the push to present people with ideas or ways of thinking about things that they may not have seen, that they may not have expected to see. I know that the Economist is not always particularly neutral—in fact there are some strong opinions that are presented that will inevitably alienate some people. Do you feel that there’s ever a pressure to present things a particular way to either please readers or for any other reason?

No. The Economist does stand for certain things and certain values, and those values are made clear. There’s no hidden agenda to it. If you want to find out more about the Economist, go to this new blog we’ve started called “The Economist Explains,” where we explain why we do what we do in certain ways, and what we stand for. And since the Economist was set up in 1843, our position on few fundamental things have really been the same. On the first page of every issue of the Economist, we say that “our role is to take part in a severe contest between intelligence which presses forward and an unworthy timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” This has been our motto since 1843. What the Economist stands for is the idea of free markets as the best sort of economic system, small state, but also individual liberty, and progressive values in terms of social norms. On social issues we are quite progressive, on economic issues you might like to classify us as more traditionally conservative. So what that means is that if you follow our opinions on things, we are very much in favor of things like same-sex marriage. But on economic matters, we are more in favor of letting free trade and free markets have their say. So it’s difficult to accuse us of having some agenda beyond this. You will often find us advocating these kinds of things, but the real test of any good journalism is that you should be able to separate fact from opinion. Every respectable news outlet will have opinions; it would be unreal not to expect these institutions to have opinions since they are made of people and people have opinions. But as long as you are able to separate fact and opinion, to keep the news separate from commentary, then I think you’re doing your job.

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The Politic: I want to touch on an example that happens to be particularly relevant now. The Economist has taken a notably interventionist stance when it comes to Syria. You’ve already touched on sort of the values that are not things that you came up with, but have been around for 170 years

So you said the Economist stands for a few things and that’s right. The Economist does stand for a few things and the people who disagree very passionately with what the Economist stands for will not be working for the Economist. They’ll go work for some organization that is more in line with their own beliefs or ideology, which is fine, which is why in your country, in America, you have very right-wing publications and then very liberal or sort of left-of-center… so it would be very hard to find somebody who is very, say, very right-wing person, let’s say, working for a very left-wing publication. So yes. Every big publication in a sense conforms to certain values and ideas of how the world should work, and usually, people who are in agreement with that kind of view, by and large, [work there]. You don’t have to agree with everything, and obviously, in an opinionated place like the Economist, you find people within the organization in more disagreement with each other than with people outside. But if you fundamentally don’t agree with what a publication stands for, then you will probably not be working there in the first place.

The Politic: When it comes to an issue like Syria or other externally controversial issues like Syria, is there a discussion between people who work for the Economist regarding what the stance is going to be or if a more neutral stance is going to be taken, or, speciifically in the case of Syria, was it always clear from the outset that based on the values, this is what we stand for?

Again, I want to urge you to see how some of these things work at the Economist by going to this blog, which tells you exactly how these things work. You know, every Monday morning there is an editorial meeting in the editor’s office where editors from different sections, and correspondents from different parts of the world will all tune in and have a big meeting where [we] discuss the big issues of the day around the world, and then the editor will create a list of things that are worthy of being written about in that week’s issue. And there’s always a very robust discussion about what our stance should be on some of the more contentious debates happening in the world. And then ultimately, it’s the Editor-in-Chief’s call on what our stance should be on some of these things. But again, I think magazines by their nature are often more opinionated than daily newspapers. And again, as long as we are able to separate the commentary, the opinion, from reportage, from the news, then in a sense that is what good magazines ought to be doing. I mean, you may not agree with what the Economist espouses on Syria… you will often find people even within the Economist often not agreeing with what we say in the newspaper, but that is the house view. That is what collectively, perhaps through a majority vote about the editors or perhaps through the veto powers of the Editor-in-Chief, these things are decided, and we make it quite clear that this is what we think should happen or not happen. But that will not hopefully influence how we report the facts that are related to that story.

The Politic: Okay, that’s a great answer. That provides a lot of insight into how you guys work. In terms of anonymity, can you walk me through some of the logic behind what… I think this is something that the Economist does differently from many publications is that virtually every piece is unattributed, correct? So what is the rationale behind that because I know there’s some criticism regarding that.

Yeah. Well, this is a gray area even for us. And at best I can hazard a good guess on why it is the way it is. As you know, the Economist has been around since 1843. There are very few other publications of this kind of stature around the world that have been around for that long. There are certain advantages of being around for so long but at the same time, being around for so long means you also are inheritors of a tradition, and sometimes you need to respect that. I think, since the beginning, the Economist has been about information [and] analysis, rather than about very personality-driven, colorful [pieces]. Every Economist article has the same tone, the same voice. You’ve got pieces 3000 words long or 300 words long. There’s a certain Economist stamp on each piece and often that is the work of editors who collect the raw material which will be sent in by writers and reporters and all the other people. And they then edit it into a piece that is going to be reflective of what you would expect from an Economist article. It’ll hopefully be very well-written, very well-balanced. It will have a certain sort of insight into things that you may not get in other places, or a sense of humor that you will not get— an understated sense of humor—and these are very strongly associated with the Economist. If you have articles with the name of the writer, then every writer will have their own style or their own way of writing things. If you have to then give that writer his own space to express their own personality in that way, then the role of the Economist editor will be quite different. Each piece will look quite different to another, which will affect the seamless experience you get when you read the Economist—whether you’re reading about civil war in Africa or about a new scientific discovery at Yale. When you move from one article to another, you’re very sure you’re still reading an Economist piece. And that is something that we cherish and would like to maintain. And if that means we have to abide by this tradition we have of not having writers’ names, then so be it. Although that is changing slightly in different formats as we experiment with digital media and the rise of other modes of distribution and new platforms—people reading the Economist through an app, or through the web, or things like that.

The Politic: What are the best and worst parts of your job?

I’m very fortunate to be working at a publication or at a news media organization like the Economist, especially because it’s pretty bizarre that someone who is a journalist from India, [who] grew up in India, is working at a title that has a global reach and a global recognition but is quintessentially English and [a] traditionally British institution. The Economist makes no bones about the fact that, at heart, it is a very English or a very British institution. And that’s how it sees the world. The worldview it reflects is essentially the worldview from London. If I was the editor of a newspaper in Delhi or Bombay, I would be looking at things slightly differently. I’m quite an oddity to be an editor from India working for the Economist. The other good thing is that I am working at such a well-regarded institution at a time of such huge change both for the Economist, as well as for the media in general and for people around the world. Whatever happens to the media affects things like freedom of expression, freedom of speech, the public interest, the balance between what is in the interest of the common citizen, and what is in the interest of the state. And you’ve seen recent stories that have drawn a lot of attention to these issues, particularly in this country. As the media goes through this huge upheaval, it has an effect on one of its core functions in society, which is that of being a watchdog and keeping the powerful accountable. Now, if those who are meant to keep the powerful accountable are unable to do that to the extent that they should, then who is really keeping the powerful accountable? And what does that really mean for free societies? Or even societies that are clamoring to be free? These are big issues. At the Economist, you have the privilege of being at the intersection of a lot of ideas, different things happening in different parts of the world, so you are able to see a lot of things from different points of view. And then you have to work very hard to come up with new ideas and new innovations to keep up with the changing times—changing reader behavior, changing consumer patterns, with the relative sort of decline of Western economies vis-à-vis the new emerging powers and all these things have huge implications for us, both in terms of our editorial coverage, but also in terms of what this means to us as a business. As much as we need to analyze and look at the world as the world changes, we also have to adapt to these new situations purely from a business point of view.

The Politic: Sounds good. My final question would be, do you have a single most important piece of advice that you would like to share with Yale students? Something that I would add would be, is there something you would say, specifically to people who are interested in applying their interests in economics or politics in written form?

Yeah, I can offer some very simple, straightforward, practical suggestions. One would be to keep it simple. Keep it short. When you have it simple and short, it forces you to think harder, and when you think harder, usually you end up with something a bit smarter to say anyway. So that’s a practical kind of thing. The other more general suggestion would be to just be more curious. Always ask why, because just when you think you’ve figured something out, at that point you’ve pushed yourself one more time to see why certain things happen or are not happening, that often is the place where you will find a new insight. And it’s something that perhaps journalists themselves should have been doing more of. For example, in the run-up to the financial crisis, if journalists had been more curious or more questioning of authority, they would have probably been able to see the crisis coming much before they did. In fact, [a lot of them] didn’t actually see the crisis coming. Why is it that so many brilliant people, Nobel prize winners, went up on the soapbox and said, “Guys, we are heading into a huge tsunami. We need to change course.” The Queen of Great Britain was visiting the London School of Economics [last year], and it’s full of very smart economists. She asked of them—she’s not an economist, I don’t think she went to university—she asked a very simple question: with so many great economists and brilliant people thinking about it, why did nobody ever see this thing coming? And none of those brilliant economists had an answer for her. I think that’s the answer.

The Politic: I think it’s appropriate to end on a reference to the Queen. Is there anything you want to add? I’ll let you have the last word.

Perhaps I can tell you a bit more about my own take on global governance. A lot of the big problems in the world we face today—whether the problems are within a country or between countries or in a region—are often the result of things that either went wrong many years ago. The way the world is set up currently makes it really difficult to find the right solutions for these things. Let’s take the Syria story as an example. Why is it so difficult for the world to deal with Syria, even though it is quite clear to everyone that the Syrian regime is acting in a fairly desperate way with its own people? And that is because if you look at it, the UN resolution on this thing, because the UN permanent membership is something that was set up in 1945. It does not reflect the realities of today’s world. And yet it’s impossible to change it. Why, for example, are both Britain and France part of the permanent members, and not just one simple European Union member? Or, for example, why are hugely important, increasingly important countries like Brazil, for example, not a permanent member, when small, declining, European power like, say, you may not agree with it, let’s say France or Britain… because there is a fundamental flaw in the architecture of the world. Everytime there is a big problem where the world needs to come together.

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