The People shows how little opinion mags have changed in a century

Journalists starred in a reading of the 1917 play Sunday night at Joe's Pub

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Reihan Salam, Henrik Hertzberg, and David Brooks at the Public Forum Drama Club: The People at Joe’s Pub at The Public on May 18. Photo credit: Simon Luethi

To anyone familiar with the working environment of a small opinion magazine, the scenes from The People, a 1917 play by Susan Glaspell, will resonate. The play was given as a reading, starring journalists, Sunday night at Joe’s Pub, part of the Public Theater’s Public Forum Drama Club series. And despite all the changes over the last century in the media, the economy, and politics, the challenges and tensions of running a journal of ideas remain mostly the same.

Glaspell, a contemporary of Eugene O’Neill’s, based the play on a socialist magazine called The Masses, which was shuttered in 1917 under the Espionage Act (usually invoked by journalists, nowadays, who are pointing out that President Obama uses it liberally to charge whistleblowers). She wrote the play, in which readers who wander into the office convince the magazine’s editor to soldier on, in part to hearten her colleagues at the Provincetown Players who first performed it. By the end, the editor, who was ready to give up on producing the magazine, is convinced by the readers to keep fighting the good fight. 

The reading was organized by Jeremy McCarter, who started his career at one such magazine, The New Republic. (McCarter is director of the theater’s “Public Forum” series, which brings together artists and thinkers to create a “theater of ideas.”) The cast of journalists assembled to read the play included many other alumni of TNR and other leading opinion journals both left and right, such as The Nation, The American Prospect, The Weekly Standard, and National Review. They were: David Brooks (the New York Times columnist), Michelle Goldberg (The Nation), Christopher Hayes (MSNBC),  Hendrik Hertzberg (The New Yorker), Maria Hinojosa (NPR),  Reihan Salam (National Review), Ben Smith (BuzzFeed), Bhaskar Sunkara (Jacobin), Garance Franke-Ruta (Yahoo! News), and cartoonist Tom Tomorrow. The performances were impressively adept for a group that had not acted since college, if ever. The readers, especially Salam, Brooks, and Sunkara, sounded fluid and conveyed the humor of the script.

Here were just some of the remarkable similarities between a magazine from 100 years ago and one today:

—Imperious, pretentious young people were known as “associate editors.” (In this case, the associate editor was played by Salam, and based on Floyd Dell, managing editor of The Masses.)

—The art department and the editors waged constant war over the space to be allotted for words versus images in the magazine.

—There was constant concern over whether the magazine would be able to pay its bills and last another issue.

—The editors struggled with the balance between “frivolity” and “seriousness” in tone and subject matter.

—The office—where eccentric intellectuals argued cacophonously—could seem like “a lunatic asylum.”

—The editor, played by Hayes and based on Max Eastman, jokes morbidly that The People: A Journal of Social Revolution, should drop its subtitle, since “the social revolution is dead.” (If you have ever subscribed to a left-leaning journal, you know that the left almost always feels defeated. That is, until it wins and immediately begins feeling sold out.)

—Editors feel the need to work, without pay if necessary, for the love of their work, while the printer, played by David Brooks, argues for the need to get paid “because we also love to eat.”

—The editor struggles with feeling contempt for, and frustration with, the population-at-large, whose interests the magazine exists to advance.

 After the reading, McCarter led a discussion of the issues raised by the play before an audience that sold out over a month in advance. One thing panelists of all political persuasions agreed upon: We are living in a golden age for small magazines. In recent years, a number of small intellectual journals of politics and culture, such as Jacobin, N+1, and Democracy have launched. Others, such as Dissent, are experiencing a renaissance. Some larger titles, such as Mother Jones and The Atlantic, have dramatically expanded their offerings and audience online. “I think this is a great time for small magazines,” said Smith. “There are lots of new places run by kids who want to overthrow the previous generation.”

And the role they play for their communities of readers is much the same as it was a century ago. As Hayes observed, there is something irresistible and valuable, if also exasperating, about the intense debates for an audience of thousands that are carried on in the pages of these journals. They also continue to introduce young intellectuals to a world beyond their immediate surroundings. Salam recalled browsing magazines in a now-gone Barnes and Noble near the theater when he was in high school and discovering The New Republic and Commentary there. “I was definitely one of those yokels,” said Salam, referring to the people who show up at the magazine offices in the play.

Brooks, while agreeing with Smith about the vitality of intellectual magazines, pointed out that in the middle of the 20th century they enjoyed an advantage they do not today: Some of the best social critics at the time, such as Jane Jacobs and Digby Baltzell, were writing for a general audience. Today, Brooks argues, they would remain in the obscure Ivory Tower of academia.

There is one other significant difference between the environment all publications today face and that of the last century: the empowered reading public. In the play, what the readers want, and what would attract more of them, was often only tangential to debates about what should be in the magazine. And at that time editors could only guess as to their readers’ preferences based on vague metrics. (As the play demonstrates, this did not stop anyone from claiming to know with utter certainty.)  Today, readers vote with their clicks every time they open or share a link. “We don’t live in a media moment where we can tell people what to think, or read, or care about,” noted Smith. But if the internet can stand in the way of high-minded journalism, it also can demonstrate that there is an audience for it. And it can reduce the costs of delivering serious content to its niche consumers. One thing editors of 1917 would envy about the editors today: the ability to do away with printers demanding to be paid.

Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.