I’m allergic to editor’s letters. You know, the columns at the fronts of magazines where editors explain, with disquieting cheer, just what a cracking good issue the staff has put out, once again. I particularly didn’t want to start the premiere issue of Miller-McCune with that sort of predictable blather. So I asked someone with a talent for intellectual surprise, longtime Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, to help out by interviewing me. I expected Fallows — an author of acclaimed books, an editor of significant magazines and a speechwriter for a president, among many accomplishments — to take the interview in unexpected directions, making it engaging enough to interest readers in the magazine as a whole. I suspect my expectations have been realized, but I know you’re smart enough to read the e-mail conversation below and decide for yourselves, without any cheerleading from me.
James Fallows: There must be chancier undertakings than starting a new magazine. Running for president is one. Opening a new restaurant in Manhattan is another. Maybe thinking as a high schooler that you can make it into the NBA.
But a magazine launch is tough in two ways — and I speak from having been involved in several. It’s tough commercially, for reasons affecting the entire media. And it’s tough intellectually, because you’re basically claiming that the thousands of magazines and newspapers and the millions of blogs already in operation have left an information hole for someone to fill. And that people already swimming in information will have time to pay attention to more of it. And this is apart from the day-by-day challenge of actually getting writers, editors, illustrators and all the other team members to meet their deadlines and produce a readable magazine.
So the question is: Why this magazine? Why now? Is it one more case of the power of hope over experience? What is the reasoning, or the hoping, that led to this debut?
John Mecklin: Asking startup editors about their odds of success is a little like talking divorce with newlyweds. They’ve just taken the leap; why would they want to look down now?
Still, after three decades in journalism, I like to think my analytic process for career decisions goes a little deeper than hope. On the business side, Miller-McCune and Miller-McCune.com have a foundation I’d call solid, even if I weren’t involved with them. The magazine and Web site are published by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, a nonprofit public benefit foundation that has financial commitments to cover many years of future operation. (And no, as a matter of competitive ambiguity, I’m not going to say how many years, but the fuse on this project is not short.) The center was created by Sara Miller McCune, founder and chairman of the board of SAGE Publications, a leading international publisher that has launched hundreds of academic journals. Sara is not just a successful entrepreneur; she’s dealt closely with major public policy research, researchers and publishing for decades. A consumer policy magazine is different than an academic policy journal, of course, but Sara and the other publishing professionals behind Miller-McCune and Miller-McCune.com really have impressed me, close up, as smart, organized and pragmatic.
Business success will eventually depend on audience, and you’re right: To grow a significant readership, Miller-McCune and Miller-McCune.com will have to distinguish themselves editorially from the print and Internet media masses. Here’s the general Miller-McCune approach, which takes a little explaining but is actually fairly simple: Most public interest journalism focuses on revealing or explaining problems, the theory being that society will respond appropriately, once journalists make the problems known. But the modern American experience (particularly the last 10 years of it) has proven the theory to be insufficient, maybe even delusional.
Serious problems — think of global warming and health care, just to name two — have gone unaddressed over achingly long periods of time because the “solutions” put forward by government really boil down to partisan advantage-mongering, thinly disguised as policy. When essentially all expert study shows, for example, that fencing a 2,000-mile border will cost billions of dollars and do nothing to reduce undocumented immigration, but Congress still authorizes a border fence and subsequent news coverage highlights the political dangers of supporting more reasonable immigration reform efforts, something is clearly wrong with the national debate — and missing from the media mix.
Miller-McCune and Miller-McCune.com will focus on practical options for solving serious problems, particularly if the options are backed by quality policy research and researchers and the research goes against common Beltway wisdom. The magazine will be eclectic in terms of anything that might be called ideology, making no attempt whatever to please the left, the right or the center. In an age of fact-free spin, blowhard punditry and abject truthiness, I honestly think there is a huge potential audience for well-researched solutions provided in an engaging way that doesn’t descend into happy-talk or “good news.”
But I sense I’m beginning to write the manifesto rhetoric that infects a lot of magazine debuts, so I’ll end by suggesting your “information hole” theory is incomplete. Yes, Miller-McCune and Miller-McCune.com have to differentiate themselves from other magazines, newspapers and Web sites. But the difference will involve more than the approach outlined above; it will include something I call personality. People don’t read The Atlantic just because it fills a hole in their information needs; they read The Atlantic because it is interesting to them, in the way a good friend is interesting, because it has a particular personality. To put it another way: People may begin reading James Fallows because they are interested in airplanes or computers or China. People keep reading Fallows because they find the way he thinks and expresses himself to be interesting, even when he’s writing about something they didn’t know they were interested in.
So we’ll grab them with solutions, and keep them with our style.
Of course, for our solutions and style to work on them, readers have to find us in the first place. Any thoughts on the acquisition, uses and dangers of buzz during the early stages of Miller-McCune?
Fallows: Thanks for your reply. The (tragic) secret of most good magazines is that they are in some way insulated from immediate market pressures. They are prestige loss-leader parts of larger business empires (the situation of The New Yorker much of the time, under Condé Nast). They are owned by nonprofits (The Washington Monthly, Harper’s) or foundations and universities (Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Tech Review). They have individual patron-owners — benign (The Atlantic) or otherwise (examples too numerous to mention, but I’ll start with U.S. News [& World Report]). They have figured out gimmicks (movie stars for Vanity Fair, Seventh Avenue fashion for The New York Times Magazine). So I’m glad to hear that Miller-McCune has figured out a formula that will give it a decent chance at establishing its voice and finding its readers.
I also like the idea that your niche will involve the “how things actually work” department. You’re right in saying, or at least implying, that theory-heavy policy essays are the cheap-gimmick specialty of most “serious” magazines. They’re a cheap gimmick in the literal sense: Just as the cheapest form of TV programming is calling in a bunch of talking heads, so the cheapest way to produce a magazine is to have academics or experts write the latest version of their familiar views. Reporting is expensive, because you have to pay somebody to go out and produce that scarcest of commodities: new information (as opposed to new opinions). Your emphasis on “practical options” will work if, and only if, your writers can bring in new information about how the world of public policy works in day-by-day reality, not just in the realm of intention or theory.
(I can’t leave this point without noting that my first job in the magazine world was with The Washington Monthly, which had exactly this “meanwhile the realities” charter — and that a spinoff Washington Monthly foundation called Understanding Government carries out the mission.)
Now, with that lulling setup, I have two more specific questions about your intent. First: Can you give us a few examples of the kind of perspective you think you’ll be able to add? I know this question is unfair. You can’t know what you’re going to publish over the next year or two, and it’s what you actually put into those now-unforeseeable issues that will establish the magazine’s identity and role. Still: I know that you’ve had to provide sample article ideas as part of the process of getting the magazine going. So can you share a few with us?
Second, about the buzz factor, which you rightly identify as a crucial part of getting the magazine noticed: The easiest way to do this, if you’re talking about public policy, is with some kind of exposé. The feds are wasting your money! Terrorists are about to board your plane (or cross the border, or sell poison toys to your kids). You ask me what my thoughts are — but, hey, I’m asking the questions here! I would be fascinated to hear how you have thought this issue through, at this point. If you could pick an upcoming story, or even topic, most likely to get buzz soonest, what can you tell us about it?
Mecklin: For competitive reasons, it’s difficult-to-impossible for an editor to publicly discuss stories he’s planning down the line. So at this point, let’s just say that I’m generally happy with the magazine’s first cover story (about 4,000 words that, I hope, provide a fresh look at U.S. immigration policy) and the other full-blown features in the issue. By the time anyone else reads our exchange, he or she will be able to turn a few pages and judge the quality of those stories for him- or herself.
But I can give you an idea of my journalistic approach by describing a story I would like to publish but likely will not, for reasons to be discussed in a moment. In December, the U.S. intelligence community released a declassified version of a National Intelligence Estimate saying, among other things, that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program years earlier. The revelation clearly made it harder for the Bush administration to maintain international support for its policy of isolating Iran. Having worked in the White House, you know that large decisions are seldom made in the neat, top-down fashion that the organizational flowcharts suggest. The bureaucracy has a life of its own, and every player brings his own personality, power and ulterior motives to the decision dance. How and why the new estimate came to exist, and then came to be released, seems likely to be a story full of characters and dramatic tension. But the story of the December NIE is not just likely to be interesting; it is also important.
The release of the NIE has been viewed differently in different ideological universes; some observers see it as a heroic act that staved off a military action against Iran, others as a nearly treasonous politicization of intelligence. I’d like to see the story that determines whether the release constitutes an improvement in intelligence reporting, a dangerous politicization of the intelligence process, or a one-time event unlikely to be repeated. More to the point: In Miller-McCune, I’d like to see that story focused primarily on solutions and authoritative ideas on how the intelligence agencies might hand up politically charged analyses more routinely, and with less opportunity for political massage. As I suggested above, I don’t necessarily expect to get this story, because only a handful of journalists have the intelligence sourcing needed to pin it down, and I don’t happen to be closely acquainted with any of them.
As far as buzz goes, I’m going to focus my time on making the magazine as good as I can make it. We’ll be doing some Web promotion, and of course I’ll be talking to friends in the journalism world, but I’m old school enough to believe that all the buzz creation in the world won’t make a bad magazine successful, and quality wins in the end. Call me sentimental.
Fallows: Both of the stories you describe sound very good — in their own right, and as indicators of where you think you will be taking the magazine. Let me say a word about both.
On immigration — good topic, a point I make mainly because I so totally disagree with the way the issue has generally been discussed in this year’s political races. From my perspective over the last 18-plus months in China, immigration is far and away the unique and unmatchable ingredient in America’s strength. In corners of China I have come across now literally thousands of people who have spent years or decades in the United States. The ones who have returned for good to China have (usually) been Americanized in ways more profound than they realize. At the least, very few of them come away from the experience with a harsher view of America, its ideals and its people. The ones who stay in the United States are also (usually) adding to America’s intellectual, cultural and, most obviously, economic strength. That is America’s strength: to be able to use talent that has come from all around the world. That’s a bromide, I know, but it is one whose truth I see displayed to me every day.
But obviously I realize that the issue is not completely that simple. There are all kinds of immigrant flows and all kinds of effects inside the United States. To the extent that American politics, economics and culture are being distorted by the ongoing polarization of incomes and situations in life, parts of immigration that aggravate that trend need to be controlled, or at least judged more critically.
The rhetoric of presidential campaigns is of course a blunt instrument for dealing with any issue that can’t be reduced to “For It” or “Against It” categories. Precisely because our politicians can’t do so, journalism has an opportunity — sigh, a duty — to explain the other ways we should think about such issues. If your new issue will do so, then Godspeed.
On the NIE: One of the richest categories in journalism is the rare article that combines anthropology, psychology and good old political-analytical sophistication. Long before I started working for The Atlantic Monthly — a time frame that takes us back to prehistory — the magazine published a wonderful article by the late China scholar James Thomson, explaining how Vietnam policy had “happened.” He wasn’t mainly saying that it was a mistake. He wasn’t saying what they should have done. Instead he mainly said: It was this combination of personalities, that collection of institutional biases, this reading of history, and that set of deadlines or outside pressures that led to the result. Since that time, The Washington Monthly magazine has made a specialty of this kind of analysis, and other magazines (including my own Atlantic) have done it as often as they can.
There is far, far too little of this sort of analysis — and maybe I shouldn’t use the word “analysis” at all, since that can be misunderstood as meaning something dry and abstract. I mean a chronicle with gusto. Human characters; narrative drive; the details that convey how real people saw the real world; and then of course the most insightful conclusions the author and editor can draw. Journalism is chronically short of these chronicles, which means that the public is chronically short of this fully dimensioned understanding of the business done in the public’s name. The sort of analysis will help us understand why and whether the next administration — McCain, Clinton II, Obama or whoever else is in play when this issue debuts — can do any better job than we have seen in past years. If you can add to this understanding, then Godspeed once more.
So I guess I don’t have any further questions, except: Can you really do this? Over to you, thanks for this exchange, and best wishes on this promising start.
Mecklin: It would be nice to be able to answer your final question by saying that we’ve already attained the journalistic brilliance you describe, and readers are holding the proof in their hands. But as much as I believe this to be a worthy debut issue, full of good stories and talented writers, I know Miller-McCune is a magazine in infancy. To succeed over time, we will have to grow up reasonably quickly and in a lot of ways, jumping a variety of startup hurdles on both the editorial and the business side, paying a lot of attention to reader response, online and in print, and resisting, at every turn, the temptation to look down.
Comments on this column and the rest of this premiere issue of Miller-McCune are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org and through our Web site, Miller-McCune.com.