February 22, 2008

Debasing the Currency: the Decline of Political Journals

Don Paskini is right when he says that in general British political weeklies are not in an amazing state. My own view for what it is worth is that only the Economist, for its breadth, and Prospect (occasionally), for its depth, are worth reading (I disagree on the first with the Don)- the New Statesman is the same standerd as what you get in the Comment section of the Guardian every day, and the Spectator is about the same with respect to the Telegraph. One cause, as Paskini rightly argues, is that comment is now truly much freer. The internet allows you to surf sites that will beat the regular journals out of the ground- just by reading Matt Sinclair, James Hamilton, Chris Dillow, Vino Sangripillai, Unity, you can easily read as many quality articles in a day as are put out by the major journals and on as wide a variety of subject. I chose the five bloggers above to reflect what I mean- just take a brief look across them, Matt gives you political thought, James takes one area of society and provides rigorous analysis, Chris is one of the best economists out there in the blogosphere, Vino looks at all sorts of stuff briefly but often interestingly and Unity is the man for sweeping long investigations- by reading those five and more like them, you get everything you would want from a magazine that costs you a fiver (and that's in the immature British blogosphere, in the American the mind boggles as to the ammount of quality stuff)! Competition has drained the unique nature of the magazine and makes the Olympian look less austere.

But the magazines are less austere in themselves. You see ultimately all of us have day jobs, whilst the writers from the journals don't and therefore could be distinguished by specialist knowledge and research and to some extent in the Prospect and Economist that is what you get. But that is not always true. Journals have been killed in many ways by their own successes. Its interesting for example to read Byron York's essay on the American Spectator and wonder about the applicability of its doctrine more generally. York argued that the American Spectator had been killed by getting a burst of readers from a set of scoops about President Clinton: the journal bet that the scoops would continue and that the increased numbers would continue and it changed its nature and eventually it was destroyed by that change, in spectacular ways. Now noone in the UK publishing industry is being so foolish, but sometimes I wonder if in a more minature version that kind of thing is happening to the New Statesman and the Spectator in particular.

Take for example the most recent episode at the New Statesman. The journal published a poorly researched article from a journalist under the thesis that global warming had stopped: shortly after it published a rebuttal from its environmental editor. But that wasn't before the original article had caused a storm on the net and furthermore had undermined the magazine's reputation. You can imagine though the thought which led the editors to want to publish the original flawed piece- even though it was awful, it would create a buzz and a buzz is what leads to journals getting readers and hence money. The business plan seems to be to shock someone into buying the magazine in question. That means that often the quality of the article in question is neglected in the cause of its shock value. Whether that is a successful longterm strategy, I'll leave others to consider, but essentially the Spectator and New Statesman have sought to create larger readerships or to stop the decline in their readerships by getting people to sit up and notice. And its not a recent phenomena: the reason I decided never to buy the Spectator again was when they carried an item at some point in the nineties about the political preferences of the Spice Girls. The intrusion of more competition means that for the journalist its easier to rely on what they have (and what others definitely don't have- with a few exceptions) the story and to neglect analysis which its harder to be good at. In a sense the reason to read the journal becomes the inside knowledge that the journalist has, that none of us has. Whereas analysis is found elsewhere. Journalists do that because its easy in part, and because its an easy distinction to spot. I have never met Tony Blair, they have.

You see when I and Don Paskini complain about the major journals, I suspect we are really talking past their editors. What I want from a journal is something I cannot get from a blog- an involved, well written, thoughtful analysis done at a perspective. Something longer than a blog article, but shorter than a think tank report. Something digestible in ten minutes. And I want it written by someone who knows the subject, who may not be known to me, but who has worked on something for years and is telling me what they know about it: something like the TLS for example but about politics. What I get from the journals is hooraying for either side (something that I'm quite capable of imagining on my own or consuming from the papers, news or blogs) or gossip. Often in the New Statesman and the Spectator its gossip which takes itself seriously- the Peter Oborne school of journalism finds a trend in a government and proclaims the age of the lie or some such nonsense- and that reflects the desire the distinguish the magazine from the newspaper. That's why increasingly its the comment sections that the journals look like. I don't know that that is a viable business plan- to be distinct from your blogging competitors because you are in Westminster and they aren't and to be distinct from your newspaper competitors because you offer a facile kind of analysis. What I do know is that its not what I want from a journal, I'd prefer them to have people working on each article for three weeks and telling me something new- but then I'm not the consumer they want and nor I think is Don Paskini.

Ultimately I want analysis- and with a few notable exceptions there seem to be few journalists out there willing to provide anything that hasn't been said three thousand times before. The Decline of the Journal is a result of the Decline of Analysis and that proceeds out of many different forces within our society- market forces, both in terms of how journalists want to work and what they think their consumers want them to produce.