“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?”