The Washington Monthly has always enjoyed an influence disproportionate to its circulation. Over the last 39 years, The Monthly has played an important role in public policy and as a training ground for young journalists. Far beyond its circulation of fewer than 20,000, it has mattered because of its ability to probe national policy—not just how laws are made, but how laws work .
Something seems to be wrong at The Washington Monthly , however. As anyone who keeps up with the magazine industry has heard, the magazine may be in trouble and may not survive its latest financial crisis. As of this writing, it has not published an issue since January (that one was called the Jan/Feb/March issue). Can the magazine—with its circulation at 19,606, down from 28,000 in 1999—survive intact? To answer that, it may help to look at its unique history, starting with its founder and his dream.
Born in West Virginia in 1926, Charles Peters was an attorney serving in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1960. While running John F. Kennedy’s campaign in Kanawha County, the iconoclastic Peters urged the future president not to bring his wife to campaign in the state because “they’ll think she’s a phony.” Kennedy ignored his advice, brought her in anyway and carried the state. Apparently Kennedy did not hold Peters’ advice against him; he asked him to set up a system for the newly established Peace Corps to evaluate the quality of its programs country by country.
Innovatively, Peters hired well-known writers—novelists as well as reporters—as evaluators, dispatching novelists James Michener and Mark Harris, and journalists Fletcher Knebel and Richard Rovere to Asia, Africa and Latin America, to survey Peace Corps programs. They were instructed to interview people at the lowest levels, people who, Peters thought, were the ones most likely to know what was really happening.
The evaluations were so readable that they soon won a reputation of their own. One, Mark Harris’, about his experiences in Sierra Leone, was published as a book, Twentyone Twice, 1966. All of this gave Charles Peters an idea. Why not start a magazine that would evaluate government, politics and public policy the way the Peace Corps evaluators looked at its programs?
In 1969 he put together a group of 43 thoughtful people whose interest was less in making a financial killing than in helping to support a worthwhile enterprise. John D. Rockefeller IV, who knew Peters from his days in the Peace Corps, contributed money to help create the new publication. Investor Warren Buffett, venture capitalist Louis Marx Jr. and Alfred Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, contributed too.
With initial capital of $400,000, Peters rented space across from the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, and launched the new magazine. Rent for the office was $475 a month. “It had fireplaces,” said Peters. “The first office was the nicest office we ever had.” The first issue of The Washington Monthly went on sale in February 1969, with a drawing of the American flag on the cover and a price of $1. It carried no advertisements but featured articles by famous journalists including David Broder, Russell Baker and Murray Kempton. One piece, “Legislate? Who, Me?”—typical of what was to follow—reported on policymaking in the U.S. Senate, contending that senators’ days were so packed with meetings and public appearances that there was no time for them to truly understand lawmaking or public policy.
This first issue paid writers $1,000 a piece, generous for those times—too generous, it turned out. Four years later, Peters ran out of money and in 1973 his magazine filed for bankruptcy. It kept publishing, but with a new personnel strategy. Peters decided to pay his staff “very poorly.” He would hire bright and ambitious people right out of college, provide them with exceptional training and experience, but pay them only $9,000 a year, with the expectation that these idealistic recruits would work for him for two years or so and use that experience to launch their careers. “If you were really careful and hired people in their twenties, you could get really good work,” said Peters. “And they just kept coming.”
And going. His first staffers jumped from The Monthly to responsible jobs at other impressive publications. Suzannah Lessard, who was working as a secretary at Random House when Peters hired her in 1971, left in 1974 for a staff position at The New Yorker . Taylor Branch, hired as an assistant editor at The Monthly in 1970, departed to become the Washington editor of Harper’s in 1973 (and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his biography of Martin Luther King Jr.).
The Monthly launched the careers of many other young journalists, among them Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter (Monthly editor, 1981 to 1983), Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows (Monthly editor, 1972 to 1974), Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green (Monthly editor, 2001 to 2003) and Columbia Journalism School dean Nicholas Lemann (Monthly editor, 1976 to 1978). “There is nowhere else that you can come in with no experience and end up running a magazine,” said Amy Sullivan, now the editor of “The Nation” section for Time, who was at The Monthly from 2004 to 2006.
As an opinionated publication, critical of Washington’s governmental and political culture, The Monthly was never able to attract much advertising and had to keep going with meager revenues, a fact of life for many small magazines. It acquired a reputation for telling the stories no other magazine had thought to tell, and also for telling the stories other magazines would tell—months or years later. And The Washington Monthly could not be pigeonholed politically, although some observers characterized it as “neoliberal.” It was often critical of Democratic policies and sometimes praised Republican initiatives. Some of the stories it broke:
1. Greg Easterbrook’s April 1980 piece, “Beam Me Out Of This Death Trap, Scotty,” reported that the NASA space-shuttle program was not only delayed and over budget, but terribly dangerous. Six years later NASA’s Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight.
2. Nicholas Lemann’s May 1977 piece, “The Other Washington,” documented the growing power of lobbyists in the nation’s capital.
3. In 2002, The Monthly first predicted the shift in congressional power back to the Democrats, which happened four years later in 2006.
4. When others were praising the efficiency of the Bush administration, Joshua Micah Marshall’s January/February 2003 piece, “Vice Grip,” dramatically demonstrated the White House’s decision-making incompetence.
Working for The Monthly and producing such stories could be a harrowing experience. The young talent soon learned that the magazine’s achievements had a lot to do with the demanding standards of its editing; a piece might go through as many as 12 drafts. It was not a pleasant process, but it was effective. “That helped me to create tightly constructed arguments,” said Amy Sullivan. “It was maddening and yet good training. It gave me confidence in my own voice.”
Central to this process was what became known as the Peters “rain dance.” He would call his writers into his office and roar at them about the flaws in style, structure and assumptions of the articles in front of him. But the rain dances had to end eventually. In 2001, at the age of 74, Peters retired from day-to-day work at the magazine he invented. He had been talking about leaving for years—the demands of working at The Monthly became more onerous as he grew older—and in 2000, he began paving the way for his departure. He came to believe that he had to leave so that The Monthly could learn how to survive on its own. Staying on would have been “dangerous,” Peters said, both to his health and the health of the magazine.
People wondered whether the magazine could stay alive without him. He certainly didn’t have the financial resources to keep it going. He never took home more than $24,000 a year in salary during his Monthly tenure; it was only his wife’s job at a local private school that kept his family from starvation. But his long career in Washington and his background in law and policy gave Peters access to people with money who could be cajoled and persuaded to bankroll the magazine.
Peters determined that before he could leave, he had to do two things: find a suitable successor and make the magazine a nonprofit entity. He felt that nonprofit status would benefit The Monthly, which had never made any money, because it would allow it to take advantage of philanthropic contributions. As for the succession, Peters said that he and others expected that Nicholas Lemann, a former editor at The Monthly and then a longtime contributor, would replace him. Lemann, however, has a different take on this: “Charlie and I had discussed my taking over for years, but he did that with a lot of people. It was never clear that he was actually going to leave.” As the first step in Peters’ plan, Lemann and another Monthly alumnus, James Fallows, agreed to help set up a nonprofit corporation and prepare for Peters to turn the magazine over to someone else.
In the fall of 2000, Paul Glastris, a former Monthly editor and U.S. News and World Report correspondent, was working as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House. He invited several Monthly editors and writers to come to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to meet the outgoing president. After the meeting, one of them, Nicholas Thompson, spoke with Glastris about the plans to turn the magazine into a nonprofit. Lemann and Fallows had set up a 501(c)(3) corporation, but the magazine needed more money to be financially stable, and Lemann was talking to potential funders. Glastris told Thompson he would be interested in taking over the magazine.
In 2001, when Peters stepped down, he hired Glastris as editor. In the first few months Glastris did not get paid but worked to find the money to sustain the magazine. He approached Markos Kounalakis, a journalist and businessman who had recently given $1.2 million to Georgetown University to establish an endowed chair in Hellenic studies, and asked him to support The Monthly.
Kounalakis, a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek, was the executive vice president of AKT Development Corp., a Sacramento real-estate company. He was impressed by The Monthly and believed that it had the ability to change policy in Washington, to reverse what he saw as the damage the Bush administration had done to civil liberties and the rule of law, and to help the country’s progressive movement achieve success. He said yes to Glastris, became the publisher of the magazine and donated more than $200,000 to it, promising to contribute up to $1 million, if needed. It looked like The Monthly finally had a business plan.
And all was well for a while. But in April 2004 The Washington Monthly—true to its history of being ahead of the news and sticking its neck out with forecasts of things to come—published an article, “There Goes the Neighborhood,” in which Benjamin Wallace-Wells, a Monthly staffer, warned that the housing bubble would burst soon. “Within the next year or two, that bubble is likely to burst,” he wrote, “and when it does, it very well may take the American economy down with it.” Wallace-Wells, now a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, admits he was nervous about the piece, “but it turned out to be really prescient.” Perhaps too prescient. Wallace-Wells said that after he had gone through multiple rewrites, Glastris said to him, “You realize if this happens we’re in trouble?” Most of Kounalakis’s money was invested in real estate.
In 2007 Kounalakis, whose company, AKT Development, had been highly dependent on the overvalued real estate market, could no longer afford to subsidize The Monthly. He recognized the magazine’s needs, but he could not bail them out again.
The Monthly looked at several options to address the cash-flow problem, and then Kounalakis came up with a creative idea. He suggested that the magazine consider merging with Common Cause, a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 to counter the forces of special interests in Washington and promote the power of citizens. From 1980 to 1996, Common Cause had published its own magazine, Common Cause, a bimonthly specializing in investigative journalism. During the deep recession of the Eighties, however, the organization was forced to make cuts, and in 1991, it cut Common Cause back to quarterly frequency and reduced its staff. Five years later, it shut it down completely.
The Monthly is currently “right in the middle of discussions” with Common Cause about a merger, said Glastris. Former staffers expressed great faith in Glastris’ ability to steer the magazine in the right direction with Common Cause. Nevertheless, mergers are never simple matters, and The Monthly does not want to become a house organ for an organization with its own agenda. Charles Peters views the prospect of The Monthly’s union with cautious optimism. “This relationship with Common Cause could be great for The Monthly, could be great for Common Cause,” Peters said. “But The Monthly must maintain its courageous spirit.”
Common Cause and The Washington Monthly have similar philosophies, or at least there is a significant intersection between their two philosophies, but “I think there’s a real journalistic question,” said Wallace-Wells, who noted that Common Cause is “a worthy organization, but it’s definitely got an agenda.”
Glastris, however, believes that the joint venture can work, because of the compatibility of the missions of Common Cause and The Monthly. “There’s nothing that they’re for that we aren’t also for,” he said, adding that many magazines, including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, Sierra and Smithsonian, are owned by nonprofits and maintain their editorial independence.
Common Cause has the potential to save Peters’ magazine. As this article goes to press, The Washington Monthly is weighing what it stands to win against what it could lose by joining forces with the sort of organization about which, in the past, it might well have written an unexpectedly critical article.