State of the Magazines

State of the Magazines

On both sides of the Atlantic, liberal news magazines facing declining circulation have started to play into the celebrity culture. But there are gems that have the power to carry our culture through its Las Vegas-ization.


“I have the impression,” magazine consultant Jim Kobak wrote in his classic How to Start a Magazine, “that every man, woman and child in the United States has an idea for a magazine that is ‘needed’ (which is stronger than ‘wanted’) by the American people.”

I thought of this observation when I was in London recently visiting with David Goodheart, who was celebrating the tenth anniversary of Prospect, which he describes as “a post-grand narrative magazine” (in contrast to its two predecessors, the CIA-funded Encounter and the underfunded Marxism Today, which went out of business in 1991).

Simultaneously, Katrina vanden Heuvel had set off for Cambridge, Massachusetts, to serve on a Kennedy School panel celebrating what would have been the tenth anniversary of George, the monthly magazine conceived, founded and edited by the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who liked to refer to it as a political publication “for ‘postpartisan’ America.” (Alas, Katrina’s plane was canceled, but the panel went on.)

George lasted about a year after Kennedy died–when its backer, the publishing conglomerate Hachette Filipacchi, pulled the plug. At the time, many culture-watchers observed that without the Kennedy glitz, the post-Kennedy magazine was doomed. Such speculation seemed poetically justified; as culture-watcher Neal Gabler has argued, in our entertainment-driven, celebrity-oriented society, the new standard of value has less to do with content than with “whether or not something can grab and then hold the public’s attention.” As Gabler put it, politics is “show business for ugly people.” (JFK Jr. himself once told the New York Times that politics was merely another aspect of cultural life, “not all that different from sports, music and art.”)

The problem with the glib post-Kennedy put-downs is twofold. First, his successor-editor Frank Lalli’s George seemed to be turning some sort of economic corner–its circulation was up–when the magazine went under, or so he told a luncheon audience at the time. Even if Hachette Filipacchi was right–that George could not succeed without Kennedy–I’d argue that it was not so much because the JFK Jr. glitz was missing; it was because JFK Jr. himself was missing. Even “postpartisan” magazines require the energy, commitment and, yes, fanatical dedication that founders in particular, and obsessed editors in general, bring to their jobs.

While in London I had lunch with the staff of the ninety-two-year-old democratic socialist journal The New Statesman, hosted by its new editor, John Kempfner; and its publisher, Geoffrey Robinson, MP. Unlike Prospect, there is no post-anything in The New Statesman‘s old-fashioned commitment to social democracy. Whether its antiwar, pro-Labour politics will be sufficient to improve the Statesman‘s problematic numbers is difficult to say. Under Kingsley Martin, who served as editor from the 1930s until 1960, its circulation approached 100,000. Nowadays, in competition with the Sunday agenda pages and the blogosphere, it hovers in the low twenties. Nevertheless, the week I was there Kempfner’s claim that the head of the BBC was about to lose his job seemed to be on the front pages of all the London dailies. If that is a harbinger of things to come–the Statesman monitoring and, where necessary, hectoring the major media–let’s hope it’s the ticket to success in the tradition of independence. As Martin once said, when the majority of the press agree on the orthodoxy of the day–be it the war, the BBC or whatever–the time has come to say, “Oh yeah?”

George, on the other hand, was at the mercy of a conglomerate, and conglomerates think like, well, conglomerates.

Prospect’s prospects are, in my view, enhanced by its status as an independent journal. I say this despite the fact that it celebrates its tenth anniversary by playing into the celebrity culture, featuring the world’s “Top 100 Public Intellectuals.” My objection to such games is only slightly mitigated by the fact that our own Naomi Klein is high on the list (which, by the way, also includes Noam Chomsky as the top vote getter, Jürgen Habermas and Christopher Hitchens.)

The late Neil Postman, who was on the editorial board of this magazine, anticipated this Las Vegas-ization of our culture when he wrote in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that the ideas of Aldous Huxley were prevailing over those of George Orwell: While Orwell feared those who would ban books, Huxley feared that “there would be no reason to ban a book for there would be no one who would want to read one.”

Having said that, I remain a cultural optimist, at least where journals of opinion are concerned, and here’s why. I hold in my hands the thirtieth-anniversary issue of The Boston Review, which has done more than its share to help set the standard for public discourse. If you don’t believe me, send $20 to Boston Review, 30 Wadsworth Street, Ste. 407, Cambridge, MA 02139, ask to begin your sub with the anniversary issue and you’ll see what I mean. Seamus Heaney, for example, tells how as a Catholic school boy he received in a food parcel from home a dark blue linen-bound edition of T.S. Eliot’s poems. It had about it an air of “contraband,” for reasons he explains in his essay on his literary awakening.

The other day the mails brought the latest issue of Jewish Currents (circulation ca 16,000), on the brink of its sixtieth birthday. The late Morris Schappes, who died almost two years ago at age 97, was to Jewish Currents what Goodheart hopes to be to Prospect and JFK Jr. had in mind being for George. So in this age of mergers and entertainment conglomerates, instead of being swallowed by one of the big boys, the post-Schappes Jewish Currents joined forces with The Workmen’s Circle, whose members now receive the magazine as a membership benefit. The Workmen’s Circle, entering its 105th year, is, like Jewish Currents, committed to progressive political and cultural activities, radical secular Jewishness and opposition to anti-Semitism and prejudice.

I suspect both magazines will be around for a long time, not least because they pay attention to the little things. A recent issue reported that because of an error at the bindery, some copies of the July/August issue were mailed with pages missing and other pages appearing in duplicate. “If your copy was ongepatshket (messed up) please contact our offices.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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