How to cover Greece

By Felix Salmon
May 17, 2012

economist-cover-the-greek-run2.jpg fb.jpg

You might have heard that Facebook’s going public; certainly the editors of Businessweek have, and so they’ve managed to come up with a listicle (“five hacks that have changed Silicon Valley forever”) to put on their cover this week. The Economist, by contrast, not only has a much better cover; it has also gone with the much more important story. (Which doesn’t yet appear to be online.)

Watching the two stories play out in the news media, especially here in the US, has been fascinating. And it’s no coincidence that the London-based publication went with Greece while the New York-based publication went with Facebook. Looked at from New York, the Greece story is a horribly complex mess of players and parties and agendas, with no obvious timetable and no chief protagonist. Plus, while it’s clearly important from a global perspective, it’s perennially impossible to come up with any really good explanation of why a US audience should really care.

On the other side, looked at from across the pond, the Facebook IPO seems like much ado over relatively little: a hot company is managing to raise a large amount of equity at a high valuation. That’s fine — but in this case there’s really no reason why the average European should care: Facebook is not going to visibly change at all for having gone public, and Europeans in general don’t pay nearly as much attention to individual share prices as Americans do.

My guess is that this dynamic is going to stay in place even after Facebook has gone public and the share price has settled down: the European media will cover the Greece story in minute detail, while the US media will largely ignore it, but for the occasional dull-and-worthy piece buried where no one will find it, until such time as it starts causing visible repercussions for US banks or stocks.

For a world which supposedly globalized decades ago, the crucial and central importance of the Greece story to Europe, and its decidedly peripheral status in the US, is telling. If you were launching a new publication aimed at the “global business elite” right now, which of these stories would you consider more important? You’d try to cover them both, of course. But if you spent too much time on Facebook, your non-US audience would consider you frivolous, and if you spent too much time on Greece, your US audience (and, crucially, your US advertisers) would consider you wonky and worthy and boring. Maybe the answer is to just stick with shiny photos of a major global city at night. That always works.


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Case study of the Greek insolvency from the perspective of sovereign insolvency law: bstract_id=2046184

Posted by nlg64 | Report as abusive

Why doesn’t the Greece story get big coverage in the U.S.? We already make our own disaster movies here. I guess Greece & the EU would make a great reality series, but people don’t really want real reality, they want staged reality.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I’m glad that I ran into your column a few weeks back and must say that I genuinely enjoy reading your point of view. Keep it up.

Posted by DavidRepas | Report as abusive

“…it’s perennially impossible to come up with any really good explanation of why a US audience should really care (about the Greek ‘thing’).” (FS)

Not really – the explaination has to do with how a bank in Austria in 1931 went under and the fall-out from that came and got damn near every bank in the US. People can relate to that, FS.

“…the US media will largely ignore it, … until such time as it starts causing visible repercussions for US banks or stocks.” (FS)

That shouldn’t take long.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

It could be that the truth hurts, but it also could be that some overly general concluding statements are being made about the interests of the American population. As an American (although admittedly, living overseas), my interest is solely on the Greek outcome. I would hope that the conclusion to be reasonably drawn speaks from this analysis speaks more to what is on the mind of the advertisers than that of the public.

Posted by archiem | Report as abusive

Can you explain why a US audience shouldn’t care about this? I understand why Europe shouldn’t care about Facebook, but it seems pretty important to the US economy and the global economy what’s happening in Europe. If the EU starts to unravel, the US will be drawn in.

Posted by Bjolly | Report as abusive

I’m not sure geography is the decisive variable here. According to The Economist’s circulation statistics, 50% of their readership is in the US and less than 1/3 of their readership is in Europe. In fact, The Economist’s US circulation pretty comparable to Bsinessweek’s circulation, so I would think the difference has less to do with US vs. Europe and more to do with the different audiences the magazines cultivate and enjoy.

Posted by CRamakrishnan | Report as abusive

It looks like Felix posted the European cover of the Economist. The North American cover says “The endangered public company” and the article with that title is about the Facebook IPO. So Felix is incorrect in a technical sense, but his main point that Europeans and Americans care about different things is given further support by the Economist’s cover choices for different regions.

Posted by mpenick | Report as abusive

Granted it is a specialty publication, but I like the cover of the recent CFA Institute magazine.

Posted by david3 | Report as abusive

Furthering the point made by Felix and mpenick, here is the quote from the Economist’s weekly email -

“In Europe and Britain it would have seemed odd to put anything on the cover other than the euro and the possibility of a “Grexit”. It is not a good idea for Greece to leave the euro, we argue, but it is time to prepare for its departure. In the rest of the world we use Facebook’s flotation as a chance to look at the endangered public company.”

FWIW, sounds like Asia/Australia/Africa got the same cover as North America.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

This discrepancy between what is important and what is covered is hardly unique.

I’d argued that the (slowly bubbling behind the scenes) positioning and squabbling in China following the Bo Xilai affair are likely (in time) to be vastly more important than the day-to-day nonsense we hear about in the presidential election coverage; but in the US we hear nothing about this, and my guess is Europe isn’t doing much better in covering it.

Posted by handleym | Report as abusive

Sounds like you an interviewing for Quartz, Felix…

Posted by Marphatexas | Report as abusive

The latest US edition of the Economist has abandoned “The Greek Run” cover, in favor of a cartoon of wolly mamoths heading for a cliff; “The Endangered Public Company” is the headline.
It seems even the Economist has no faith in its US readers’global attention span.

Posted by headludd | Report as abusive