Friday, July 18, 2008

"Singularly barren of exciting events."

Here are my notes from this afternoon's lecture by Victor Navasky, Publisher Emeritus of The Nation. The Nation is America’s oldest weekly, founded in 1865. This is perhaps my favorite lecture to date [and I have fixed the italics and added a few pictures to make your reading easier].

Navasky began, “In the magazine world, survival is the ultimate test of success.”Here are the 10 Secrets of The Nation’s success:

1) [Can’t tell. We promised.]

2) The Nation has, from the outset, broken all the rules.

1st sentence it ever published: “The week has been singularly barren of exciting events.”

This sentence violates every rule of journalism as it is known and taught. It lacks a peg (it is anti-peg), and it’s a sweeping generality. It has no balance, no backup, it’s judgmental, and it’s not objective. Navasky believes it says three things: “The magazine is not going to play the game of false hype. We have a sense of humor – we take the world seriously but not ourselves. And it says, you can trust us. We’re not going to say something is happening when it’s not happening.”

The Nation is often criticized for "its ideology." It’s part of the ideology of the mainstream media, according to Navasky, to deny that they have an ideology – they have the ideology of the center. Navasky gave the example of The New York Times corrections, published daily on page two. About once a month, there’s an editor’s note, which Navasky points out is much more interesting than typical corrections. These say things such as, we shouldn’t have published this sentence because “it’s against New York Times policy to print anonymous pejoratives.”

As an exercise, Navasky has the interns copy out every editor’s note they can find – maybe 25 – to determine what the office considers right or wrong. What are the assumed values of the mainstream press, using the Times as an example?

Hypothesis #1: “These rules don’t apply to children.” The Nation got a manuscript from a twelve-year-old girl saying kids should have the right to vote. Navasky called the girl to ask her to add in the age she would like children to vote – he thought it was a great article, and very funny, but this information would make it more serious. The girl wouldn’t give the age when kids should be allowed to vote – her case was, you can vote until you’re over 100, there’s no cut-off on that end. Why shouldn’t you be able to vote whenever you want to vote?

Hypothesis #2: “These rules don’t apply to prisoners.” #3: “These rules don’t apply to Communists.” “To foreigners.” “To poor people of color.” “Equally to Israelis and Palestinians.” As you determine whether these rules apply to certain groups, you begin to get a sense of what the assumed values of this newspaper are. That is the ideology of the paper.
3) “The difference is not that we’re ideological and the mainstream press isn’t, but that we admit it.”

4) It’s independent.

E.L. Godkin, the first editor of The Nation, got heat from his publisher for printing “trivial” stuff like “a day at the races of Saratoga.” In the mainstream, an editor would get called into the office of the owner and read the Riot Act and told to shape up. Here the editor called in his shareholders, said they didn’t fit his vision, and he fired the shareholders. He found better ones and published what he pleased. “A Day at the Races” writer turned out to be Henry James, who wrote more than 250 articles for the magazine. “There’s a lesson there,” said Navasky. “I’m not sure what it is, but it’s in there.”

5) William F. Buckley bought National Review with his family’s money. Though he didn’t make a profit, he famously said, “You don’t expect the church to make a profit, do you?” Marty Peretz bought The New Republic with wife’s money. The Nation set their investment up like a Broadway show. They protected the magazine’s investors from being responsible for the content. This suited the magazine well, Navasky explained. Nobody, ultimately, is in it for the money, and you don’t want your shareholders to be in it because they expect to make a killing. As their ad campaign goes, “Nobody owns The Nation. That’s why so many somebodies read it.”

Once on the Tonight Show, [one of the writers, whose name I’ve missed in my notes] was asked how much he’d been paid for an article. He used a line Navasky had told him – the number was “in the high two figures.” Navasky explained that he ended up making in the low three figures. This writer had the nerve to turn in a two-word poem, or a four-word poem, depending on how you count it. Because he was paid their standard for a poetry submission, Navasky joked, this piece made him the best-paid poet in the Western world. It was about the O.J. Simpson case: “O.J., oy vey.”

6) When Navasky arrived, they had 20,000 subscribers, but 8,000 were libraries. His friend Jack Newson said, “Oh, and the other 12,000 are nursing homes!” Their joke became: “When our subscribers expire, they really expire.”

Though The Nation was told the internet would eat their publication alive, it did just the opposite. The internet created a new subsidiary right. The Nation obtained 40,000 paying subscribers last year just from the website. And 15,000 – more now – are “nation associates” who send extra money for the magazine because they like the magazine.

The Nation took their joke about readers’ expiration to heart: “We started a legacy group, asking people to remember us in their will, which they started doing! As they dropped off, we would be the beneficiaries of their demise!” A NY Times reporter called them, astonished. The Nation is technically for profit, so that they can endorse candidates for president, Navasky explained. Why couldn’t they behave like schools and other places that asked for legacies? Navasky told an anecdote where he was asked if he would donate a copy of The Nation for the White House library. The staff talked it over and decided to give the White House library the student rate for a subscription.

Writers like Doctorow and Lionel Trilling are not only the ones who like the magazine, they’re the only ones who can afford to write for publications like this.

“The truth about these quirky journals is that their insolence is way disproportionate to their numbers,” Navasky explained. Participating in the national dialogue is more important to the magazine than getting credit or making a profit.

He quoted an editor who said, “When I had the idea to work for a socialist magazine, I thought I’d be an editor and I ended up being a beggar!” The publisher left in 1935, and founded The New York Observer. He offered to sell The Nation to Navasky for a million dollars, no money down.
Here’s one fundraising story that happened to be a success (“most fundraising stories tend to be failures”): Paul Newman. Doctorow managed to make an appointment to call him, but it took three months to sit down with Newman. They went to restaurant of his choice (one might call it Newman’s choice, ho, ho, ho!) on the Upper East Side. Navasky found out there would be four of them at the restaurant – he loves Joanne Woodward, but expected that if Newman was bringing a spouse, it meant bad news. After Newman and Woodward arrived, they all chatted for a while. Doctorow and Newman reminisced about Kenyon College. Navasky talked with Woodward about book he’d written, Naming Names. Newman eventually asked what they were here for, and Navasky explained why it was important for The Nation to exist, why its influence was disproportionate to its numbers, and so on. He said he had two people who had expressed some interest in contributing funds who wouldn’t exert influence over content.

Newman said, “How much are you asking for?”
Navasky responded, “A million dollars.”
Newman said, “Well, that’s very rich.”
And Joanne Woodward piped up, “So are you, dear.”

Newman asked if the magazine was nonprofit. Navasky explained that they couldn’t influence legislation or endorse candidates if it was nonprofit. Newman said he’d take home the prospectus. Navasky told this part of the story proudly. He said to Newman, “Look, if you take it home and study it, and decide to give at the end of the year, we’d be grateful. If you decide to give to the institute, generations of interns will thank you. But if you’re going to go home and call your financial advisor, I can save you what your financial advisor will tell you now, because it’s not a good financial investment. On the other hand, if you agree with the political analysis of the situation and that these journals as a class are important to the democratic culture and you tell me now that you’re interested, you’ll save us.”

Newman set down his beer and said, “What about fifty-fifty?” He meant half for the magazine and half for the institute. He turned out to be the ideal shareholder. Because Newman got involved, they could raise the rest of the money. Navasky and his staff called shareholders and asked for $5000 each year for three years. Subscribers made this commitment. “It was a good lesson for us… Every magazine has to find its own investment. Happily, we found ours,” Navasky reported.

He also suggested anyone starting his own magazine should get a great artist. Ed Corin (who I cannot find online to confirm the spelling) designed stock certificate for them. When you have a great artist, Navasky says, people feel good when they invest in your magazine. He used to tell shareholders, “The value of your shares may go down, but the value of your stock certificate, which is signed by Ed Corin, may go up.”

7) You have to do all the things that other magazines do, but you have to do it better. Do everything more professionally.

When Navasky was at Yale, he started Monocle, a “leisurely quarterly” (it came out twice a year). Yale had a graphics school, and he and his staff persuaded dean to give the artists from the graphics school credit for working on their magazine. Then they went to all restaurants in neighborhood and had the artists do ads for these places before the restaurants had even bought the ads. (He had a genius ad salesman, too, who wouldn’t leave the Laundromat until the Cleaners took the ad.)

Website turned out to be an unexpected source of revenue for The Nation. He has put in for a MacArthur grant to research the relationship between magazines and their websites. Nobody knows the best way to mediate between these yet – as the Vanity Fair editor said earlier this week, it’s “like the wild west.” Who has the final say: the website editor or the magazine editor? How much is free and how much do you charge for? There is no business model for the website except selling ads. The more traffic, the more ads you can sell. More posts mean more traffic, which means more ads. People who run the website want to post, post, post. People who run the magazine have standards: fact checking, copy editing. But if you abide by this standard, Navasky says, the website “across the street” comes out within ten minutes about the Obama-Hilary debate. Nobody knows what anyone’s doing. So The Nation as a research forum, and conducts survey online.
Navasky recommends doing special issues. They’re great for selling advertising, because you can go to advertisers whose subjects relate to the title. They’re good for magazine awards. (There are fewer magazines to compete against.) But they’re not a good thing to do for three-quarters of your readers, because they’re interested in variety. Here editorial ingenuity comes into play. Someone leaked to The Nation a year’s worth of minutes from White House Cabinet meetings. This sounded great! Until they read them: the minutes were boring, boring, boring. “We gave it to four people to review as though it were a document, a book. One was the novelist Kurt Vonnegut… who had a clear vision of what was right and what was wrong… The second was Marcel Ophuls, director of The Sorrow and the Pity, the third was a guy who was a radical activist Marcus [whose last name I neglected to spell in my notes]… and Bob Cheryl, who was banned from the White House because he once socked somebody.”

Here Navasky launched into another story: I.F. Stone would never go to off-the-record meetings in Washington, but he would talk to journalists as they came out and he would report from that. This way, Navasky explained, “He had the benefit of the information and not the detriment of the obligation.” This special issue was similar, in Navasky’s mind.

One special issue that was Navasky’s favorite: Russian artists who had come to New York, who specialized in satirical realism – really imaginative guys living in SoHo named Alexl Melamid and Vitaly Komar. In Russia, you could only paint what the czar would let you paint. They believed there was a new kind of censorship in US: You could only paint what collectors wanted to collect. Their goal was to paint art for the people. Felt collectors knew nothing about art, especially not art for the people. Great discovery: America had already created something to tell you what the people wanted – the public opinion poll. They sent a letter to a half-dozen pollsters asking what it would cost to take a poll and analyze it to find out what kind of art people want. Gallop said they would do it for $80,000. Then these artists wanted to paint the most desirable exhibition. The Nation didn’t have the money to sponsor the Gallop poll, but it had a friend who was a pollster and an art collector. This friend agreed to do the poll for half of the price, and wanted a painting. First meeting to determine questions – potential investors were there, all promised pictures – every investor was baffled by what questions they would put on the poll.

Komar said, “Is simple. You like big art or you like little art? You like yellow art or red art?” Nudes? Circles or angles? Thick paint like oil or no thick paint like watercolor? Then they painted the most wanted picture in America: it was the size of a dishwasher, and featured George Washington with blue sky above him and grass below him. Then they painted the least wanted: a tiny painting of small shapes bumping into each other. The show sold out. It was called “By the Numbers.” The New York Times covered it. Farrar Straus & Giroux made this into a book.
8) Go to ancillary businesses. Essence used to use a music festival in New Orleans. The Nation runs line of books – it’s partnered with Perseus. The Nation has its own book program on the radio. And it’s in the cruise business! Every year it brings culture heroes and writers on a cruise with Nation lovers who are in the mood for boating. Navasky said they worried the guests would throw Ralph Nader overboard – he was a guest right after Kerry lost the election – but he charmed everyone with his own analysis of the two parties. (He attacked The Nation later when they wrote a letter urging him not to run again, but he was well-behaved on board the ship.) Mark-ups are so great, the magazine can make as much as $750 a passenger. This helps subsidize the magazine. And they give special guests a free vacation.

9) There’s the minor business of magazine itself, its energy and contents. The Nation has a monopoly on weekly progressive journalism. “If it’s bad for the country, it’s good for The Nation.” When government is bad, circulation goes up. Disapproved of Iraq War from day one, and many people are reading now because they don’t want to feel alone in their opinions.

10) Navasky was at a democratic convention 4 years ago in Boston, at the Kennedy School. Jim Lear of Nightly News Hour was there, and other news anchors, and during the question period a Harvard professor asked, “Why is it that so many students get their news from Jon Stewart?” The answer everyone gave was that students were too stupid to get that the news was different from Stewart’s jokes. Navasky disagrees. Part of the formula of the television world is to pretend that you have no politics yourself, that you have no ideology, that you’re an honest broker of opinion. Stewart is in the business of exposing hypocrisy, and you can identify with someone like that. Reader can have a different trust relationship with that.

[May I insert here that our generation has more interesting in stories with opinion than objective reporting. Hence Jon Stewart, hence blogging, hence The Nation.]

During the question and answer period, Navasky was asked to share his thoughts on the New Yorker cover: he said the reaction is “a way overreaction” to it. But it was not a fully successful cartoon because message was not fully apparent.

Next he told a related story about a cartoon at The Nation. This cartoon was by David Levine, who “used to do the world’s best caricatures.” Levine called and asked if The Nation would be interested in a cartoon he’d done accompanying report Henry Kissinger had just done [I believe it was on America’s Pacific basin]. This picture featured Kissinger screwing the world under a blanket of the American flag. It was a “brilliant and exquisite caricature of Kissinger… he had a look of evil and ecstasy. And there’s no way to not publish that.”

But shortly after Navasky accepted the submission, a petition landed on his desk requesting that the cartoon not be published – three-quarters of the office had signed it. Never before had there been “a storm on the office” before an image had gone to print. Navasky called a meeting and set down some ground rules: They would have no vote at the end of the meeting, because it was wrong to have a majority vote on aesthetic questions (luckily, Navasky laughed, no one asked why). He was offered this cartoon on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, so they couldn’t go back and ask Levine to draw a third-world man instead of a woman beneath Kissinger’s body. Lastly, Navasky said, “We’re free to change our mind as a magazine, but if we do, we’ll be accused of censorship [since they had already accepted the picture] …but we can live with that if it’s the wrong thing to do.” He brought Levine in. Levine said all the wrong things for the staff in the meeting.

But Hitchens was there in a white suit. A very articulate woman on the staff felt the sex scene was too stereotypical. Hitchens turned to her and said, “You know, this is not an act of sex, as with a man and a woman, it’s an act of rape… It’s a statement about imperialism.” She pointed at the hand of the woman on the mattress and says, “I don’t think so – it looks like the grip of passion.” Hitchens leaned over and grabbed her hand, saying, “Trust me, my dear, it’s not the grip of passion.”

They ran the cartoon.
The Nation is full of word people, Navasky said. “So what is it that’s so threatening about art in these controversies?” He has been mulling it over, and concludes, “if you don’t like an article, you can write a letter to the editor… if you don’t like a cartoon, you can’t write a cartoon to the editor.” He ended with, “The New Yorker controversy is only the latest controversy in a series [to cartoons].”

Navasky answered a few questions about a book he wrote with Christopher Cerf titled Mission Accomplished: How we won the war in Iraq. It’s about “a collection of experts who are wrong.”

He has been asked, Who are you to say experts are wrong? “Our response was that we weren’t experts. We like to think of ourselves as meta-experts – but we were expertologists. We have a sign we move from place to place.” Navasky promised to ask Christopher Cerf to put it up at his house at our goodbye party.

When asked about the conservative magazines similar to his publication, Navasky cited a Buckley review article he’d written after Buckley had died. Buckley “did things that were unseemly and unforgivable” on one hand, “and on the other hand, he started a magazine modeled on The Nation and The New Republic… [in an effort to] put forward that he wanted his magazine to do for conservativism what these had done for liberalism. And he did.”

Buckley, like The Nation, set out to nourish ideas. He rallied the troops around a time of trouble. It was “not just letting you know you’re not alone, they can literally rally, which National Review would do on occasion.” And National Review discovered new writers: Garry Wills, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, George Will. The publication may be his opposite, but Navasky says, “I read ’em. And you should, too.”

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