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To Magazines! | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

To Magazines!

The conventional wisdom is that magazines are in decline. Newsweek’s print downfall was mourned as a death in the family (last week’s New Yorker described a gathering of ex-editors as an “Irish Wake”). Facing dwindling circulation, U.S. News and World Report has become more focused on its staple college and hospital rankings rather than on long-form journalism. Rolling Stone and Martha Stewart’s Omnimedia have seen layoffs, while old favorites like Gourmet and Life are long gone.

Last spring, the entrepreneurial and well-funded GOOD laid off virtually all of its editorial and writing staff. When The American Prospect, a haven for intelligent liberalism, was hit by a nearly fatal half-a-million-dollar deficit, The Nation spoke out urging people to help the magazine. The Prospect survived—barely—but journalism nearly lost an informed voice and essential training ground for many of America’s finest progressive journalists.

Given all the depressing news we should raise a glass to the redesign (in print) and relaunch (online) of The New Republic, The Nation’s sister fellow-liberal magazine of opinion for nearly 100 years. In rebooting the magazine, publisher Chris Hughes—co-founder of Facebook and steeped in online organizing—did something surprising: he doubled down on long-form, investigative journalism and political opinion. Hughes bought The New Republic, and could have done as he pleased: stripped it bare, sold it for parts or gone online only. But he invested instead in fact-checking, reporting and—as The New York Times reported—went to great pains to “include The New Republic’s rich history in a magazine designed for the modern media age.”

The Nation has invested in a similar type of journalism—intelligent, cutting-edge, bold writing and reporting that is embedded in our historical DNA—and we’ve embraced the digital age with passion and integrity.

In 2014, The New Republic will turn 100. A year later The Nation will turn 150. In 1948 we almost merged. Like many grand bargains between liberals, this one fell apart. (You’ll find the full story of the merger-that-almost-was in former editor Victor Navasky’s rollicking memoir, A Matter of Opinion.)

We’ve survived, I think, for 150 years by staying truly independent, and by filling our pages with unfiltered takes on politics and culture. As Navasky has noted, journals of opinion like The Nation continue to matter because they are a critical counterforce against the tabloidization, consolidation, dumbing-down and fact-challenged “debate” that dominates our political culture. Intelligent readers increasingly are looking to these magazines to set the standard for serious public discussion and debate. Sticking to that standard has won us dozens of honors, from National Magazine Awards to the George Polk, James Aronson and Sidney Hillman Awards for investigative reporting and social justice journalism. And The Nation has launched the careers of myriad young writers, from Hunter S. Thompson in the early 1960s to Jeremy Scahill today, and driven bold ideas into the national conversation.

Like The New Republic, we believe in covering culture, both high and low—one of our most-read stories this week is a smart piece by a rising cultural critic on what we can learn from the TV shows Girls and Shameless about being broke, down and out. And we feature one of America’s finest sports writers in Dave Zirin and boast the inimitable JoAnn Wypijewski as our sex columnist. It’s a mix that’s good for journalism and good for the public debate. But while The New Republic appears intent on competing with New York magazine, investing in glossy paper and highly designed pages and ramping up its lifestyle coverage, we’re keeping our gritty newsprint—and more radical-edged politics.

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The Nation and The New Republic’s political paths have diverged over the years, at times dramatically. The Nation has been a bigger tent when it comes to political views, welcoming radicals, liberals, progressives, anarchists and even a few big-hearted conservatives to our pages over the years. The New Republic has been more centrist, with a neoconservative streak and dark period post-9/11, which it revisited (almost) in a special issue apologizing for the magazine’s editorial march to war in Iraq.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, magazines are surviving—even thriving. The Nation is now available weekly on more than a dozen digital platforms with more than 1.1 million readers. We have more print subscribers today than we did a decade ago, because we firmly believe that the printed word is an essential part of the mix. At Mother Jones, print subscriptions jumped dramatically after they broke the “47 percent” story in September. AtGarden and Gun, one of publishing’s unlikeliest success stories, subscriptions continue to rise on the back of top-flight writing. And as the Times reported, The New Republic, whose circulation dipped to dangerous lows last spring, is slowly making its way back in print.

I was intrigued earlier this month to read that The American Prospect, still struggling to make ends meet, had decided to sublet part of its office to The American Conservative, founded in 2002 by Pat Buchanan. “We can only benefit from sharing ideas,” Maisie Allison, web editor at the Conservative, told the Times.

Cynics might scoff at strange print bedfellows huddling together for warmth in an economic chill. But I see something different in their collaboration. A mutual and shared commitment to the vital role of the independent journal of opinion in our American democracy.

Besides just progressive magazines, progressive politics in general are resurgent, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes. Will we finally get serious about fixing economic inequality in this country?

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