Victor Navasky -- The Nation’s editor for 18 years, publisher for 10, and now publisher emeritus -- has a saying about the magazine: “What’s good for the nation is bad for The Nation.” Founded by abolitionists in 1865, the “flagship of the left,” as it’s come to be known, has indeed seen its subscriber rolls swell in periods when liberals have been out of power, and slip when progressivism is ascendant.
But as the country’s oldest weekly news magazine celebrates its 150th year, it is the changing media landscape that poses the greatest challenges.
“We are in a transitional, revolutionary movement,” says Editor-in-Chief Katrina vanden Heuvel. “The media changes are more defining for us than who’s in the White House.”
The magazine’s editor-in-chief since 1995, vanden Heuvel has presided over an unprecedented expansion in The Nation’s readership and influence. The magazine has long been a sounding board for the intellectual left, publishing the works of Ralph Nader, Hunter Thompson, James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal, among other liberal luminaries. But during the presidency of George W. Bush, its subscriber base swelled from under 100,000 to 186,000 (by comparison, the influential, center-left New Republic only has 44,000 subscribers). The magazine’s editors and writers have become fixtures on MSNBC’s lineup, with editor-at-large (and former Washington editor) Chris Hayes and contributor Melissa Harris-Perry helming their own shows.
Even President Barack Obama chimed in to congratulate the magazine on its 150th year. “[The Nation is] more than a magazine,” he writes in the publication’s commemorative issue. “It’s a crucible of ideas forged in the time of Emancipation, tempered through depression and war and the civil-rights movement, and honed as sharp and relevant as ever in an age of breathtaking technological and economic change.”
But like many legacy publications, The Nation is faced with the challenge of bridging the divide between its past and its future -- that is, the older print readers that make up its donor base and the online readers that account for the bulk of its audience. According to vanden Heuvel, this is one of the main goals of The Nation’s yearlong 150th anniversary celebrations, which include town hall-style events in 13 cities; a college tour; a documentary by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple; a website redesign, scheduled to launch in June; and an oversize, commemorative issue currently on newsstands.
“This is about honoring the magazine’s history but also about introducing The Nation to a new generation,” vanden Heuvel says. “Part of what we’re doing with the anniversary is traveling around the country to meet with new audiences.”
Besides engaging progressives on college campuses with Student Nation, a section of its site that reports on student activism, vanden Heuvel says attracting young readers means championing young voices. Historically, The Nation has done this through its large and long-running internship program, which has helped springboard the careers of many prominent journalists, including Mother Jones editor David Corn, The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg, Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Eidelson and labor journalist Sarah Jaffe. (Disclosure: I started off my career as a Nation intern.)
Vanden Heuvel has also sought to bring young writers and contributors on staff and into the magazine’s pages. MSNBC’s Hayes was just 28 when he was named Washington editor, and investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill wrote extensively for the magazine in his early 30s before helping found the The Intercept, a journalism upstart focused on national security. Last year, The Nation also hired 26-year-old Sarah Leonard from Dissent. The current roster of bloggers includes young writers of color like Michelle Chen, 34, and Mychal Denzel Smith, 28.
“Nurturing younger writers takes more time, but there’s a commitment to doing that,” vanden Heuvel says.
Under vanden Heuvel’s leadership, The Nation has also sought to hire and promote the work of journalists of color -- a challenge for a publication that has drawn heavily from the ranks of the majority-white Boomer generation. The publication has been slower than others in reflecting the increase in minority voices entering the profession, in part because it experiences much less turnover than its competitors. But the magazine recently poached Kai Wright from Colorlines, an online magazine that covers race, as its features editor, and promoted Richard Kim, who is Asian-American, to executive editor, making it one of the few political magazines with minorities in its senior leadership.
One respect in which The Nation is hewing to its tradition, however, is in its commitment to longform and investigative journalism.
“You may remember discussions people had about how no one would read longform on the Internet,” vanden Heuvel says. “That was just not the case -- it’s a conventional wisdom that was upended.”
While breaking news will continue to migrate online, vanden Heuvel says that The Nation’s print product “retains a distinct mission” as a home for more considered opinion and longform investigations. The magazine recently published a 9,000-word piece on the legacy of the Vietnam War.
In the lolcat, Buzzfeed era of journalism, the magazine's commitment to investigative journalism and analysis speaks to its greater commitment to the world of ideas. As The Nation enters its 150th year and the Obama presidency draws closer to the end, the magazine remains as committed to economic equality and social justice as the day it was founded.
“We’re in the fight of our lives when it comes to citizen control of our government and inequality,” vanden Heuvel says. “It’s going to be an important period for rebellious and dissident voices.”