Nathaniel Mehr looks at what the future holds for progressive print media - are there inevitable hurdles which left wing journalism can’t leap?
Nathaniel Mehr is the assistant editor of Review 31
It is now a few weeks since Tribune, the left-wing Labour weekly, found itself on the very brink of closure after Tribune Publications 2009 decided to end its involvement with the magazine. Fortunately a deal was struck at the eleventh hour, and the magazine will henceforth be run as a cooperative.
This was the second time in the last three years that Tribune found itself dangerously close to going under.
While its survival can only be a good thing for the left in Britain and for the pluralism of British political discourse generally, the circumstances surrounding its near-demise highlight a singular set of challenges facing progressive publishers in the internet age.
Despite a substantial cash injection and an impressive re-vamp in 2009, the magazine was unable to accrue enough subscriptions to remain economically viable. The other side of this coin is that intelligent left-wing journalism is alive and well on the internet, where it appears free of charge.
This is, of course, part of a wider crisis affecting print publications generally – but mainstream or rightwing publications, which find it easier to generate a healthy revenue stream from advertising and sponsorship, are better placed to weather the storm.
Tribune has been a bastion of the Labour left for 75 years.
In recent years it has provided an invaluable reference point for progressives looking to steer the party back to its traditional roots after the cynicism of the New Labour years; over the past 18 months it has taken a strong and consistent position against the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, voicing its opposition to the cuts not merely in a partisan way but also in terms of a constructive criticism of Labour’s strategy in opposition.
Few other print publications on the left can boast comparable longevity or quality: the Morning Star, Britain’s only socialist daily, offers plenty of incisive comment and analysis, and many of its contributors are relatively moderate social democrats – but it remains one of the few publications in which you can come across a genuine advertisement for the next meeting of the Joseph Stalin Appreciation Society; then there is Red Pepper, a magazine which, despite its many strengths, appears so self-consciously aimed at people defining themselves as activists as to alienate the general reader.
There is little else out there.
For its part the New Statesman wears its limited left-wing credentials as a sort of mask of self-effacing contrition – hardly what is called for in the midst of the greatest economic catastrophe for over half a century but, crucially, good enough to keep the advertising revenues coming in from the likes of BAE Systems and the Halifax.
There is still enough quality journalism in the magazine to make it just about credible, but it has gone to great lengths to broaden its appeal, regularly filling its pages with the ill-informed musings of television personalities and stand-up comedians in a reasonably successful attempt at branching out into the still ‘light entertainment / lifestyle’ market – an initiative that almost certainly began with a round-table meeting and a consultant and a power-point presentation featuring the phrase ‘Heat magazine generation’.
In seeking to broaden its appeal to a numerically shrinking market, the magazine has thus locked itself into a self-reinforcing dynamic that has turned it into the New Labour of centre-left publishing.
It is perhaps the only commercially viable policy at this time of great change in the publishing world.
For a more serious, politically committed perspective, readers can access a plethora of free online publications that are daily growing in stature and sophistication; in a pre-internet era, many of their readers would have been paid magazine subscribers.
And here is the crux of the problem: Rupert Murdoch’s ongoing (and so far inconclusive) experiments notwithstanding, it is beginning to look as though the era of subscription-funded publications is coming to an end.
This would leave advertising rates as the principal source of revenue for independent publications – the fear is that would result in a stifling of editorial independence as publications drift into mediocrity and banality, in a sort of pre-emptive self-censorship, as a matter of sound business prudence.
Certain niche publications should remain impervious to the effects of this process, because they will continue to remain at least partly subscriber-funded.
Glossy magazines about conceptual art, for example, will continue to draw on the support of the enthusiasts who read them; similarly, trade publications have captive audiences who are willing to pay for their products. But in a world of online current affairs magazines, bloggers and Twitter, the presence of the general reader as a paying customer is diminishing.
This is a development that will inevitably impact disproportionately on the left: the right will not mind if engaged political discourse is confined to the readerships of The Spectator, The Economist and Total Politics; but if progressive politics is to remain relevant, it cannot be allowed to become the preserve of academics and activists; they play an important role, of course, but they need the ear of a wider community.
Otherwise we may go the way of the United States where, despite the fractious rabidity of the rightwing Republicans, they are not too far off having a one-party politics.
But amid the uncertainties of this changing landscape, there are plenty of grounds for optimism: Tribune is still publishing, and there is a vibrancy and a vitality to so much of what is happening online; after all, if suppressing the idea of social justice were a simple matter of monopolising the media, Rupert Murdoch would have long ago succeeded in destroying democratic debate in Britain.
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• Leveson Inquiry hears of the ethical rot of Fleet Street – Alex Hern, October 7th 2011
• De Piero: High time Labour redefined its relationship with the press – Shamik Das, September 22nd 2011
• Look Left – The week the press were finally reined in – Shamik Das, July 9th 2011
• Despite Mosley’s court defeat, press freedom remains under attack – Michael Harris, May 11th 2011
• Balls in Tribune & on QT: “When the facts change, I change my mind” – Claire French, September 17th 2010