Last week at the awards ceremony of the American Society of Magazine Editors, New Yorker editor David Remnick stole the spotlight as he mounted the stage again and again to claim his magazine’s unprecedented record of five awards. Editors love that mag’s style. But this year’s judges also sent a deeper and less sexy message:
There’s been a resurfacing of public interest journalism, and not a moment too soon.
On May 2, ASME celebrated Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, the veteran investigative team that arrived at Time Inc. from The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. The duo got their first ASME award in 1999; this year, they won for a hard-hitting series on campaign finance. Also this year, the progressive Mother Jones won its first-ever award for general excellence, and ASME welcomed Charles Peters, the curmudgeonly editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, into its Hall of Fame.
With this set of honors, the ASME editors have shown they “respect substantive journalism,” says MoJo editor Roger Cohn, a development he finds “very gratifying” in an era when so many magazines are going after niche markets and focusing on the bottom line. ASME praised MoJo for adopting a new design while doggedly pursuing “hard-nosed independent journalism.”
“Good enterprise journalism can be expensive, but it’s how you distinguish yourself in a period when everyone is chasing the same stories or cutting back on their resources,” says Time Inc. editorial director Walter Isaacson. According to Isaacson, Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine hired Barlett and Steele knowing that it would help symbolize founder Henry Luce’s commitment to public interest journalism.
Peters says he was touched when, at the awards ceremony, “Barlett and Steele came up and told me how much they loved” The Washington Monthly. He is stepping down after editing the D.C.-based magazine for 32 years, and ASME took its sweet time crowning him the epitome of the “crusading, public-spirited editor envisioned by the nation’s founders as a bulwark of democracy.” ASME also praised the Monthly‘s insistence on “analytical rigor” and its aversion to ideology. Michael Kinsley and James Fallows are among the mag’s most famous alumni, along with fast-rising star Katherine Boo.
The typical Monthly story is an in-depth analysis of the performance of a government agency, and over the years Peters has seen the genre go in and out of fashion. “Our heyday of attracting the best and brightest to depth reporting was the ’70s,” he says, recalling how Watergate turned Woodward and Bernstein into celebrities. But the ensuing decades brought the rise of the pundit (whom Peters derides as having “a superficial grasp of a lot of issues, but a deep knowledge of none”) and the Internet (which “prizes brevity, but discourages depth”). Peters says The New York Times and Washington Post remain committed to “depth reporting,” citing as evidence the recent spate of Polks and Pulitzers awarded to those papers for investigations of complex institutional subjects. Invoking the dormant spirit of depth reporting, Peters says, “I hope these awards will stir it up again.”
Accepting his award last week, Roger Cohn choked up, saying that ASME had put Mother Jones on the map “in a way none of us dreamed of two years ago.” Cohn joined the mag in 1999 and has been fighting a perception battle ever since. “People who haven’t seen the magazine lately have a sense that it’s a left-leaning opinion magazine, and we’re not that at all,” he told me. Instead, MoJo approaches its traditional issues (social justice, corporate skulduggery) not through rhetoric, but through “serious, first-rate investigative journalism.” Cohn says recent subjects have ranged from “asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, and its impact on two generations of miners to a cover story on how pharmaceutical advertising on TV has led to people demanding unnecessary drugs and paying exorbitant prices for brand names.” Since Cohn’s arrival, circulation at the San Francisco-based nonprofit has increased from 130,000 to about 175,000.
Cohn sees no shortage of good journalism in for-profit media. “Stories have appeared in The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or Esquire that I would love to have had in Mother Jones,” he says. But it’s easier to pursue important stories when you’re not answering to the bottom line. “I’m not suggesting that Mother Jones has a monopoly on good journalism, but as a nonprofit we can focus on that exclusively.”
With an even slimmer budget than MoJo, The Washington Monthly owes its success in no small part to Charlie Peters, who manages to be at once charismatic and stoic. At the ASME awards ceremony, The Washington Post‘s Katharine Graham called him a “brave, irreverent, often lonely voice,” who never tired of “tweaking the high and mighty,” even after drinking “a martini and half a bottle of wine” at lunch.
According to Monthly editor Nicholas Thompson, Peters “really does live on $10,000 a year,” which means he doesn’t buy new suits, doesn’t travel, and has taken out three mortgages. “Charlie started [the Monthly] not because he wanted to get rich or be a player,” says Thompson, “but because he had ideas.” Given his minuscule writers’ fees, Peters has been fortunate to attract ambitious newcomers and established friends, all of whom endure his angry editing sessions, known as rain dances. The mag is now formally a nonprofit.
Paul Glastris, who succeeded Peters as editor in chief last week, says Monthly writers focus less on uncovering illegality and “turning up a scandal” than on “deep research that aims to figure out how public institutions aren’t working.” The classic example: a report by Gregg Easterbrook that foresaw the Challenger disaster. Glastris hopes that ASME’s salute suggests a growing awareness that “the non-scandal-minded part of investigative journalism is what we need more of now.”
The ascent of George W. Bush is another clarion call for public interest scribes. According to Glastris, the new administration has not only “a lot of competent old bureaucratic hands,” but also “a lot of right-wing ideologues” who are less interested in the best use of power than in “draining the government of the power that it has.” He suggests that disenfranchised Democrats are hungry “for a magazine that can provide a sense of hope and a set of ideas to develop for the future.”
“For better or worse,” adds Cohn, “we have an administration that’s starting out by trying to make some of the most fundamental policy changes we’ve seen in modern history.” In response, MoJo is preparing to hire its first Washington correspondent.
Here’s one reason ASME did not cite for championing the nonprofits: In the last 25 years, the number of companies that control the media has dwindled from 50 to six. And that, as MoJo notes in the current issue, “makes alternative, noncorporate news sources . . . more crucial than ever.”