Why read The Economist

fri16mar2007—11w075d20%— 07h29m00s—0utc

Here 2 examples — a graph and a paragraph — from a typical article (about the paper industry’s dire prospects, of all things) in this week’s edition of The Economist.

Restructuring in the paper industry is proceeding at a furious pace. The first thing some paper companies have jettisoned is ownership of forests. International Paper (IP), one of the world’s biggest pulp-and-paper companies which is based in Tennessee, used to be the largest private landowner in America. A year ago the company sold 5.7m acres, or 90%, of its forestland — an area larger than Massachusetts. The $6.6 billion sale was “probably the hardest decision that I’ve had to make since I became CEO,” says John Faraci, IP’s boss since 2003. Most buyers were financial investors, but 5% of the land went to conservation groups.

The Economist, Flat prospects, Mar 15th 2007

Starting with the graph: it’s a 16-year window to worldwide newsprint production that drives home the article’s main point with eloquence: North America’s newsprint production (a fifth, you will notice, of the world’s; used to be a fourth) is slowly but decisively dwindling; production in the rest of the world, on the other hand, is increasing, albeit not in a hurry.

It’s full of conventions too, but they’re so well thought that you never need to be consciously aware of them as a reader: Take the upper-left red patch, a gentle way to guide your eyes to the graph’s title and instructions. The source always goes at the bottom, smaller-typed, and the y-axis is always labeled at the right, which I find more natural than the common left convention (it makes you look at the graph first, notice its pattern). The x-axis is usually the time axis, its gridlines usually obviated for clarity’s sake, and its labels, usually years, presented in a simple format that marks millennia only when needed. And graphs are always in this blue scheme — a convention to avoid color misinformation that still allows for meaningful distinctions between color shades: darker blue for the main variable under discussion, the foreground; lighter, fading blue(s) for the background variable(s).

As for the paragraph, it’s brimming with fascinating facts about the world. Did you know who the world’ biggest pulp-an-paper company was and that it was located in Tennessee (WP) — of all places? Did you know it also happened to be the largest private landowner in America? (A paper company! The largest private landowner in America!) Did you know it recently sold, because of restructuring, 90% of its forestland, 5.7m acres — an area larger than Massachusetts? Did you know it sold them for $6.6 billions? (Surprisingly cheap, considering it’s an area big enough for many a country.) Did you know most buyers were financial investors but 5% were conservation groups? (A wonderful example of how trade allocates resources, peacefully and quietly, to those who care about them.) Now you know.

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