Against all odds, the smart strategy for dealing with 2017’s onslaught of news is to step back from the 24-7 babble and to consider events periodically.
In defiance of all that noughties-era wisdom that the immediacy of new media platforms and the shortening of attention spans meant that only the speediest of news publishers could survive, many monthlies and weeklies are thriving.
It is a media story of the tortoise and the hare, where the fleet-footed media outlet is distracted by the endless demands of tweeting and live blogging. Meanwhile, news junkies on both sides of the Atlantic recognise in tumultuous times the value of considered analysis and long-form writing and are subscribing in ever-growing numbers to publications such as the New Yorker and the Atlantic in America, and the Spectator and Prospect in Britain.
The success of these titles is partly a story of adroit use of digital platforms to promote and protect print sales. It is also a question of rhythm; the pace of social media-driven news means both reporters and audiences struggle during the working week to fully comprehend the implications of an evolving story.
For exactly a year, Tom Clark has been editing the monthly Prospect, having previously worked (as head of the editorial board) at the Guardian, which battles to meet the relentless demands of daily journalism. He admits to being initially disconcerted by the painfully slow process of watching the magazine begin its week-long journey, via the printer, to the retailer. “We are condemned to be out of date,” he says. “That’s how it feels when you get here from a daily but then you realise that maybe this is a liberation.”
He now sees the “monthly rhythm” of Prospect as a distinct advantage and thinks it possible to produce work that not only retains relevance for four weeks but stands the test of time for years to come.
Prospect has just declared its best total circulation figure, of 44,545, continuing a three-year upward graph line curve of record distribution. Its print subscriptions are up by 5.3%, underpinned by 40,000 active users of its newsletter and 14% year-on-year growth in traffic to its modestly-resourced website, which operates a porous paywall that highlights the title’s fine writing. The circulation figures are boosted by some print subscribers being counted twice for upgrading to a digital/print bundle but Clark is happy to be “going in the right direction” after a decade of fighting the decline of print in newspapers. “It’s wonderful to come into an environment where that aspect of things is going the right way.”
Prospect aims to influence thinking at the heart of power, providing every issue of its magazine to every member of the British parliament. It covers, in long reads of 3,000 or 4,000 words, subjects largely untouched by the rest of the newsstand, such as physics and philosophy.
In attempting to define the magazine’s approach, Clark turns to the three words “Distilling the Frenzy”, the title of a 2012 book by the Cambridge historian and former Times journalist Peter Hennessy that attempts to identify abiding themes in post-war Britain.
“I think that’s a lovely phrase for what we are trying to do: distilling the frenzy,” says Clark. “All journalism tries to do that a little bit, some people say it’s the first draft of history. But if the aim of thoughtful journalism is distilling the frenzy to make sense of the time, I think you have got some hope of doing that in a monthly [but] you’ve got much less hope of doing that in a daily or maybe even a weekly.”
Using history to provide context is a recurrent feature in Prospect, which takes a presence at the annual Chalke Valley History Festival in Wiltshire. The stance provides a counterweight to those news outlets who try to make themselves heard above the competition with frenzied claims that they are uncovering something totally new. These references to themes from the past can give reassurance to readers in political times that many find disconcerting.
“We have had Brexit, the Trump thing and then the elections and election result that no one saw coming,” says Clark of his first year in post. “The news hasn’t stopped and I think that people want something that is going to guide them through times that in some ways don’t make sense and keep defying predictions.”
Clark takes the view that it was economic historians who best made sense of the recent downturn and that a similarly broad perspective can be helpful in figuring out the likely consequences of other big stories. Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky writes in the current edition on Britain’s fiscal policy options, while Columbia University history professor Adam Tooze recently produced one of Prospect’s most successful pieces, “The Secret History of the Banking Crisis”, pinpointing the crucial stabilising role of currency “swap lines” between central banks.
This month’s cover story again turns to history to examine the threat to the monarchy posed by Prince Charles if he chooses to play the part of a “meddling” king.
'Refusal to be told'
Prospect was founded in 1995 by editor David Goodhart and publisher and former Conservative MP Derek Coombs to be “a home for intelligent debate”. It is now published by investment firm Resolution Group and run as “part of its not-for-profit, public interest activities”, in order “to tackle the big challenges confronting society, through rigorous thinking and fine writing”.
Clark says he has a double-pronged test for commissioning articles: “Has this person got something new to say, and can they write?”
Unlike notable rivals in the UK periodical sector, the right-of-centre Spectator and the left-leaning New Statesman, Clark’s magazine is trying to target a broad church in an era of polarity and division. Prospect readers, he says, are “united by intellectual curiosity” and their “refusal to be told”.
So when it holds events, such as it did on Brexit and on Donald Trump’s election and at the literary festivals and political conferences that are important fixtures on its calendar, it tends to attract a politically-diverse crowd. Clark estimates that 20 per cent of readers are Brexit “Leavers” and describes them as a “non-negligible minority”.
Whereas politically-aligned periodicals do a good job of “reporting inside their own village”, Prospect is attempting to stand apart, Clark says. “We are above the fray and we are not tribal.” So he likes to commission writing from political mavericks, such as the Labour peer Lord Glasman (who self-identifies as a “radical traditionalist”), and the Scottish Tory MEP Adam Tomkins, who Clark says “really does think for himself”.
The idea is to provide an alternative to the self-affirming bubbles created by social media feeds and agenda-led newspapers. “We like to have a range of perspectives in any issue so that our readers can step outside the echo chamber which I think an awful lot of them want to do,” Clark says.
Prospecting for new voices
Since becoming editor he has taken steps to “freshen” Prospect’s appearance so that it looks less like a dusty journal and more like a magazine. Alongside the traditional 3,000-word reads, there are one-page articles and information boxes, a new questionnaire (this month: Garry Kasparov), and a a graphics-based “Speed Data” feature looking at subjects such as air pollution and immigration.
Clark has brought in as his deputy editor the international affairs specialist Steve Bloomfield, formerly with Monocle magazine. And he has hired Stephanie Boland to head the digital operation, where Prospect publishes several commissioned articles each day. “It’s a way to broaden the mix of voices because we are aware that historically Prospect hasn’t had as many women writers as it should have done,” says Clark. “We are bringing in some interesting female voices now and some younger voices.” Author Amanda Craig recently wrote to Clark to complain about the lack of women in the magazine, although the editor points out that several of her suggestions of writers – Eimear McBride, Fay Weldon and Elizabeth Day – have actually been contributors.
No doubt it is challenging to please a “bookish and educated” audience that Clark admits has “a slightly awkward squad mentality of wanting to question and sometimes disagree with the conventional wisdom”. Especially when you are seeking to provoke reaction with surprising ideas and opinions from across the spectrum.
But there’s one significant area where Clark admits to struggling - he can’t find clever writers willing to take up the intellectual cudgels on behalf of the US President. Whereas on most issues we try and have a range of perspectives, it’s pretty hard to find anyone thoughtful who is a big fan of Trump,” he says.
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell