Editing hands
Type
Essay
Category
Reading
Writing

The future of magazines

For Overland’s sixtieth-anniversary issue, editors from other little magazines, both in Australia and overseas, were asked to comment briefly on their project. Why produce a magazine? What are such publications for?

 

Meanjin, Zora Sanders

By any measure Meanjin is an old journal. By Australian standards, it is ancient. That weight of history can be stifling, both for an editor and for the identity of the journal. But that history is inescapable and often valuable, especially when you can’t pay your writers as much as you would like.

The name of a respected journal is something on which you and your writers can trade; it is an inducement beyond the financial. But its identity isn’t something you necessarily can, or would even attempt to, consciously control. This identity existed before you arrived and will, hopefully, long outlast you. If you can shift it, you can only do so by degrees, and doing so is usually the last thing on your mind. Editors do the job in front of them – or, in my case, the job two weeks behind them – but we rarely have the chance to consider the purpose or identity of our publication as a cohesive whole.

For Meanjin, that whole is both distinct and amorphous. I know a ‘Meanjin piece’ when I read it, but I am often stumped when a rejected writer asks, ‘Well, if this isn’t what you want in Meanjin, what is?’

I want it to be good. And a little strange. And specific. But not too esoteric. It should have a certain rhythm and voice. It should be funny if it possibly can be, or make you cry if it can’t.

If a piece meets these nebulous guidelines, then I consider it in the context of the issue. The mix of authors is what gives the journal a coherent tone – or not. For Meanjin, one of the key considerations is to present writers together who may be at different stages of their careers, but who are working towards some shared project of intellectual or literary inquiry: emerging writers and established ones sharing the same set of pages, showing the lineage of ideas and perpetuating our cultural memory.

For an editor of my age and inclinations, it’s probably no surprise that I have an affinity for emerging writers. There is such hope and excitement in the promise of the new. Whatever particular ills you feel the literary realm suffers from, there will always be a potential antidote in the form of a new emerging writer. For editors as chronically enamoured of novelty as I am, the challenge is perhaps to understand how newness moves into influence.

The project of Meanjin is the renewal and reiteration of a literature: new ideas are presented, their lineage identified, their possibilities explored, their implications understood and their descendants arise in the form of newness again. Any writer might take up any of these ideas at any stage, and the project has no definable end point. Balancing these stages is not always a conscious process and the choices I make as an editor are often fairly mundane or instinctual. Does this piece lead naturally into this? Is this piece too similar to this other one? Is a specific point of view being omitted? Is the gender balance off? But these choices are all an unconscious dialogue with the history of the journal, and they inform the nature of Meanjin’s ongoing literary project.

 

CounterPunch, Jeffrey St Clair

One night, over a bottle of Irish whiskey, Alexander Cockburn told me a story about Noam Chomsky’s teeth.

The great brain went to the dentist for a check-up after several years of neglect. During the examination, the tooth doctor noticed extreme wear on the enamel of Chomsky’s molars.

‘Noam, do grind your teeth?’

‘Not that I know of.’

‘Well, the enamel is taking a real pounding. Perhaps you’re doing it at night. Can you ask your wife if she’s observed anything?’

Chomsky went home to Lexington, near the MIT campus, and told his wife Carol about his encounter with the dentist. That night and the next, Carol kept a close watch for any nocturnal grinding, but noticed no unusual dental machinations.

Carol did, however, observe a furious gnashing the next morning at the breakfast table as Noam read his way through the New York Times.

Chomsky taught two generations how to read this newspaper of record, how to detect the warps in its stories, the subtle biases and false constructions, the decisive elisions of context, and its servility towards elite power. What Chomsky could not do was teach us how to stop reading the New York Times. As a result, thousands of activists around the globe reach for the Times (or Guardian or Washington Post) each morning, red pens in hand, and begin marking it up, all the while grinding the enamel off their teeth.

Our journal, CounterPunch, didn’t go online until the late 1990s. It wasn’t long before we realised the web offered an exit from what we called the Chomsky Trap: an existential dilemma that keeps the Left mired in a hostile environment fighting phantoms – namely, political reality as constructed by the editors of the elite media.

After a few years of publishing online to an audience of more than a million readers a month, it became clear to us that the old David-versus-Goliath struggle of leftist pamphleteers battling the vast print combines of the news barons is beginning to equal up. On a laptop’s twelve-inch screen, CounterPunch stands as high as the New York Times or Rupert Murdoch, who shelled out $580 million for Myspace.com in 2006 when he belatedly realised the world had changed.

Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Times was a mighty power. Today it totters from one savage cost cutting and forced retirement to the next. Will the broadsheets and tabloids vanish? Not in the foreseeable future, not any more than trains disappeared after the advent of the interstate system. A mature industry will yield income and attract investors interested in money or power long after its glory days are over. But it’s a world in decline, a propaganda system in decay.

Thirty years ago, many of the pieces we now run daily in CounterPunch would have been doomed to small-circulation magazines or thirty-second summaries on Pacifica Radio. Now we can get a news report from Gaza or Ramallah or Oaxaca or Vidarbha and have it out to a worldwide audience in minutes.

Naturally, the state doesn’t like the loosening of control. It could, of course, start policing the net more heavily and start taking down sites more often. Cost of access could shoot up. All of these things could happen and, absent resistance, may well happen. But right now there are new opportunities to be explored and turned – at last – to the advantage of radicals.

 

The Nation, Roane Carey

When The Nation was founded in 1865, its prospectus announced that the magazine ‘will not be the organ of any party, sect or body. It will, on the contrary, make an earnest effort to bring to the discussion of political and social questions a really critical spirit, and to wage war upon the vices of violence, exaggeration, and misrepresentation by which so much of the political writing of the day is marred.’

We hold as firmly to those principles now – as we approach the celebration of our 150th birthday – as we did at our founding. The Nation may now be a 24/7 media company that publishes online as well as in print, but we remain proudly independent of political parties and corporate interests. The magazine functions as a kind of early warning system, exposing abuses of power through investigative reporting and incisive commentary on politics, as well as culture and the arts.

At our best, we are a beacon of hope and inspiration for the progressive community, not only in America but – increasingly, in the digital era – other countries as well. At our best, we inform the public, inspire progressive activism and function as a site of healthy debate on contentious issues. And while The Nation is uncompromisingly scrupulous about factual accuracy, we don’t adhere to mainstream media pretences about journalistic ‘objectivity’. As a journal of opinion, we openly fight for civil liberties, human rights and economic justice, and we are consistently critical of military adventurism and the national security state.

I have witnessed firsthand how The Nation can serve as a life raft of reason in dark times. Between the summer of 2000 and roughly 2004, the magazine’s circulation almost doubled. Why? We didn’t increase our investment in circulation, and we didn’t change our politics. What we did do was expose the fraudulence of the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision and, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, provide the best possible reporting and commentary on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Afghanistan. And we mercilessly exposed and attacked the Bush administration’s lies in its march to war in Iraq. At that time, mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post were not the only ones parroting the White House line. Liberal journals like The New Yorker and The New Republic also jumped on the bandwagon and supported the war.

I’m proud of our record then, just as I’m proud of the magazine’s criticism of Clintonian neoliberalism before it and the Obama administration’s terrible record on civil liberties and drone assassinations afterward. The Nation’s job is to speak truth to power, regardless of party or personality. And, in doing so, we not only hold to the principles of our founders, but also provide an indispensable public voice in a very flawed democracy.

 

Sydney Review of Books, James Ley

TS Eliot once said of Criterion, the literary journal he edited for almost two decades, that it was ‘engaged in working out a general philosophy which will exert a gradual influence on politics, theology and literature’. It is a bemusing line. This was a publication with a circulation of less than a thousand that Eliot initially ran from his lounge room. Yet it seems to me that his vague but lofty ambition, his optimism – and indeed his po-faced chutzpah (though to be fair, he does at least admit that the influence of this ‘general philosophy’ will be ‘gradual’) – is not entirely unaccountable. At very least, a magazine that does manage to endure, that manages to build up a body of work over time and establish a distinct identity, will create a bump in the cultural topography that requires people to navigate a little differently. The purpose of any worthwhile publication is to change things in some way.

In the case of Sydney Review of Books, the impetus has come from a perceived lack, a sense that a certain kind of considered, long-form critical writing that speaks to a general non-specialist audience was not being done in Australia often enough or well enough. It is one of the paradoxes of the present moment: in this world of perpetual writers’ festivals, at a time when there is evidently a great interest in writing and an abundance of events and forums in which literature is enthusiastically promoted and talked about, the specialised branch of writing that sets out specifically to consider the meaningfulness of literary works should find itself being squeezed out of mainstream publications. (Of course, for a host of complex reasons, there is also a sense in which this is not at all surprising.)

Sydney Review of Books has aims that are rather more modest than Eliot’s. It seeks to provide a space in which intelligent yet accessible critical writing might flourish, and in doing so give literary culture generally a bit of nudge in that direction. It is still a young publication, less than two years old. It has a long way to go to match Criterion’s eighteen years, let alone Overland’s impressive six decades, and I am much too close to the coalface to provide any kind of objective assessment of what Sydney Review of Books might have achieved so far, but it seems to me that one of the most interesting aspects of any such cultural endeavour is that its influence always has the potential to be wider than its immediate reach.

 

Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara

Irving Howe said that when intellectuals have nothing else to do they start a magazine. He’s probably right – but Jacobin was never created as an idle intellectual pursuit.

The magazine was founded with two goals in mind. One was internal to the Left: the core people behind Jacobin were socialists, sauntering somewhere between Leninism and social democracy, committed to asserting the relevance of class analysis, the importance of political organisation and the need to transcend capitalism by capturing and transforming state power.

We were interested in writing directly about politics and economics, more so than culture, in the histories of Western European communist parties, the legacy of Second International radicals and so on. It was a stark contrast from the direction many of our peers were moving in – despite the fact that I founded the magazine as an undergraduate, and our core of writers were largely in their twenties and early thirties, we’ve been called (affectionately, I hope) the ‘New Old Left’. But we also tried to update and renovate the democratic socialist tradition we drew from.

The other goal was more outwardly directed: committed to conversing, as open socialists, with the mainstream of American liberalism without sacrificing our anti-capitalist critique.

Part of this engagement is drawing a distinction – between technocratic elites in the centre-Left coalition intent on managing the decline of the welfare state, and liberal activists who want to see the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society defended and expanded – while, of course, acknowledging the limits of that enterprise and its historical specificity.

We think, in some sense, that the introduction of some of the better liberals to a structural critique of capitalism will be part of the basis on which a larger socialist opposition in the United States will be rooted.

Our vastly outsized media footprint is due in large measure to this engagement. We’ve received profiles in the New York Times and major European papers, mentions in venues as diverse as Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, the National Review and Weekly Standard. We’re playing a minor role in ‘legitimising’ socialist thought, putting it into the broader public discussion.

Most of our growth happened after Occupy Wall Street. We have 6000 subscribers, but even as recently as late 2012 we had less than 1500. Our online audience is much larger, easily over 300,000 unique visitors monthly, even between print issues.

But there are limits to what a publication can do. I’ve always been wary of Jacobin readers interacting with the publication as passive consumers of a product, perhaps because they find us more radical and biting than N+1 or less pessimistic and dated than The Baffler. To combat this we’ve put much energy into transforming ourselves into less a magazine than a ‘political centre’.

We try to engage actively with movements on the ground and have increasingly incorporated an organising component into our efforts. Our Class Action handbook produced in conjunction with the Chicago Teachers Union is used around the country by progressive locals and caucuses. We’re hosting regular workshops and lectures out of New York City starting this autumn and putting considerable time and resources behind having paid organisers to build and expand our current network of more youth-oriented reading groups.

We want to create social and cultural space for young leftists, free of the burdens of a cadre organisation, but still making sure that the next generation does not have to study collective action alone, as an academic pursuit or a passing phase.

I think we’re already fostering tendencies across organisational boundaries, with Jacobin serving as a unifying pole, a point of reference within the socialist Left, and a small part of the hope and struggle for a world beyond capitalism.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Zora Sanders is a writer and editor who currently edits Meanjin, Australia’s second-oldest literary journal.

Roane Carey is managine editor at The Nation.

James Ley is editor of the Sydney Review of Books and author of The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood (2014).

Jeffrey St Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine.

More by , , , and