Victor S. Navasky Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Journals of Opinion and the Work of Democracy: Conversation with Victor Navasky, Publisher and former Editor of The Nation, September 16, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The Business of Publishing

Writer, editor and then publisher. A theme that emerges in your book, a very important theme, is the tension between the business side of a publication and the editing side. This is a a dialogue that every magazine experiences, but also, it's a dialogue within yourself, because you've been in the editor's seat and then in the publisher's seat, and you were the business guy in the beginning at Monocle. So, what is the best relationship between these two roles in a journal like The Nation?

That's a great question, and I don't know the answer. I do explore it.

At the New Statesman the editor, Bruce Page, once wrote that the reason a worker-owned cooperative enterprise (which one would think, if you're a journal on the left, you should have) wouldn't work there is a socialist [conundrum]. He said suppose you have to decide -- you've got a limited budget: should this budget go to healthcare for the employees or some highly speculative investigative story that you don't know if it's going to work out? You put it to a vote of families who've got babies to take care of, and all that, it doesn't work.

Then should it be owned by overseas corporations? Well, that doesn't work. That imposes other obligations. Should it be non-profit in this country? Well, if you're a non-profit you can't endorse candidates for office, you can't devote more than a certain percentage of what you do to trying to influence legislation. So, that's not good for a weekly magazine of The Nation's sort.

Mother Jones had its tax status challenged -- it's organized as a non-profit -- under Reagan, and had the administration succeeded ... they didn't, but Mother Jones [spent] years of resistance and hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves. But had [the administration] succeeded, the government would go after you not just for all of the monies that you didn't pay in mailings (because you got lower mailing rates), but for many years of interest and penalty payments, and it can come to millions of dollars. They'll put you out of business. In our case, anyway, we didn't want to be a non-profit.

One formula that seems to have worked is where you have the owner and the editor be the same person. That's nice if you happen to be the owner and editor, or if you happen to agree with the politics of the owner and editor. It eliminates one source of tension, but it limits the [pool of publishers] to very rich people.

Another device that has been tried, with some success in some places and not in others, is to have a system of trustees. I was a trustee, in effect. They called it an e-shareholder, but along with three or four other people at the New Statesman, our job was if there was going to be any fundamental change, like they were going to fire the editor, or they [had started] it out as a socialist magazine [but] they were going to abandon that, the e-shareholders had to agree. Well, that worked fine for X years, and then they got a proprietor who said, "You guys have authority without responsibility. Resign. I don't want to deal with you." We thought we had [responsibility]. We were trustees and we had the responsibility of staying in power. So, there was a lot of tension between him and the trustees and eventually he said, "I'm going to put the magazine in bankruptcy unless you resign." There was someone else who said, "If he puts it in bankruptcy, I'll buy it and re-appoint you." So, we gave him permission to put it in bankruptcy, which he did. The new guy did buy it and then he didn't re-appoint us. So, there isn't a perfect system.

The way The Nation is set up to achieve editorial independence, which is the critical variable, it seems to me, is like a Broadway show. You have one general partner. I happen to be it now, and I've got a designated successor, I think -- I hope. None of the investors have any say in the day-to-day operation. But The Nation is America's oldest weekly magazine, and when people for years would ask me, "What's the secret of The Nation's success?" I would say, "This is off the record, don't tell anyone. It's that we've lost money for 140 years, because we're more a cause than a business."

Now the last couple of years we made a little money, so I'm very worried that I've destroyed this tradition of 140 years, because what happens if you start making a lot of money? Then people invest in you with the expectation of making more money, and they want a proper return on their investment. The way you get a proper return on your investment, classically, is you moderate the tone in order to attract more advertisement. And if you become more and more successful, you become a candidate for takeover, and then you're taken over by one of these transnational conglomerates and that's it, it's the end, or you become more and more like everybody else and there's less and less reason for you to be in business. So you sort of fade into the woodwork.

So, it's a very delicate balance that you've got to achieve between the business side and the editorial side.

The media has merged under a few powerful entities like Murdoch and his corporation, trends that were anticipated in your journal by, among other reporters, Ben Bagdikian -- he was here at Berkeley -- and in his book [The New Media Monopoly]. I would like your insight as to what extent has the conventional wisdom that you are trying to inform and influence in different ways -- in what way has it been dumbed-down and become more entrenched? If that is happening, does that make the work of a journal like The Nation easier, or does it make it harder?

To the extent that the major media, the mainstream media, the conventional media, recycle the same old ideas and become homogenized by virtue of buying up independent voices and then having them become part of a chain which all run the same news stories and the same editorial page, which not all chains do, by the way, but to the extent that they do, to the extent that they share the same assumptions, they have deeded a monopoly in the business of questioning assumptions and creating new perspectives to journals like ours, and that's a great irony. I consider that [though] we are presented with that kind of monopoly, we have a literal monopoly on weekly progressive magazine journalism -- the New Republic has gone off in a way where they don't want to be called "left," certainly, and even "liberal" they have questions about. The National Review is bi-weekly, it's not even weekly, but it's not a progressive magazine. Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine, is now bi-weekly, American Prospect is bi-monthly -- and these magazines as a class have been given something of a monopoly on serious journalistic political discourse to the extent that there's been a dumbing down of the mainstream media.

Now, you have op-ed pages, you have bloggers. There is an opinion industry out there and it's pretty big. But serious, analytical, moral, and political argument with the space to document your case is a rarity in the culture, and we are the exponents and the possessors of it.

And you're doing well -- relatively well. You have a larger subscription base ...

Yes. When I came to The Nation in 1978 with young Hamilton Fish as the publisher, I was the editor, we were told that we had 25,000 subscribers. When we got there we found out we did, but 5,000 had expired in their subscriptions. I had a friend, Jack Newfield, advocacy journalist -- alas, died last year -- he said to me, "How many subscribers do you have?" I said, "Jack, we have 20,000, but 8,000 are libraries." He said, "Oh, 8,000 libraries and 12,000 nursing homes," because his image was that [most of our subscribers were elderly]. Ham, our publisher, had a joke: "When our subscribers expire, they really expire!"

So, we went out of our way to build [subscriptions]. Last year we were audited and our audit showed that we had 184,000 and some few hundred paying readers of The Nation. And 28,000 of them came to us over our free website, and they became paying subscribers to the hard copy magazine. So, that changes both the composition of the magazine and the cost of acquiring new readers, because it doesn't cost you to get them on the website. There are some costs associated with -- the cost of the people who put things up, the cost of the material on it, but the classic way or recruiting new subscribers in the old days was, and still is, direct mail, and direct mail is increasingly expensive as postal rates go up.

For years we had a very bad joke, "If it's bad for the country, it's good for The Nation." People would say, "How are you doing?" I'd say, "Better than ever. We're in a lot of trouble."

One final question requiring a brief answer. If students were to watch this interview, how would you advise them to prepare for a career in journalism or journalism and law, knowing what you know based on your life but also your insights about where the journal of opinion is going in the future and what the needs will be for such a publication?

First of all, I would say read, read, read. If you're in school, go to the periodicals room of your local library, whether you're in school or not, and browse. Spend all your free time there. I mean, go to the ball game and don't give up your social life, but in between class and whenever you can, do it. You'll find you learn a lot and you'll find places that you will aspire to write for, if that's within you.

Secondly, it pays to attempt to freelance as a young person. You have the luxury of studying things in depth, you may not have the broadness that comes with the years, but you do have the energy and the time. Find things that are related to what you're studying that have contemporary relevance and learn the different formats by reading and send to the places where you feel the point of least resistance. Whether you're freelancing for your local community newspaper or something much fancier that has a national reputation, it's the classic way to break in. Now, it's always better to do that if you know someone who knows someone, so that you're not sending a query to a title, you're sending it to a person. And classically, if you don't know someone who knows someone, if you're in a journalism school or any other kind of school, surprisingly you'll find one way or another, you know someone who knows someone who knows someone.

But if you can't do it that way, I'd pick a name off the masthead and send it there. Whether you send it by e-mail or snail mail, up to you. These cultural traditions are changing, they're different at different places. My friend Ed Doctorow, the novelist, always says, "Enter at the point of least resistance," if it's a place you want to go. As far as journalism school itself goes, I think a school like Berkeley, a school like Columbia, you can't go wrong by going there, but it's not for everybody. And you can be a journalist without going there. But it makes your job easier and it makes getting a job easier.

On that note, Victor, I want to thank you very much for being here today. I want to show your book, A Matter of Opinion, a quite interesting account of the struggles of a journal of opinion and the career and story, of an editor/publisher who's played a remarkable role in shaping The Nation over the last 20-plus years. Thanks again, thank you for coming.

Great to be here.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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