Can National Review do more than preach to the choir?

Photo by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash

If National Review once resembled an elite seminary, the new publisher, E. Garrett Bewkes IV, hopes to transform it into a megachurch. He plans to grow the magazine’s audience and revitalize its influence mainly by overhauling a derelict digital product. Though financially and philosophically daring, that agenda is now a matter of necessity. NR’s membership has mostly held steady, but a church is in crisis when depravity flourishes around it. In today’s conservative movement and media, barbarians outnumber Buckleyites. 

From its beginning in 1955, National Review has been devoted less to traditional journalism than to a kind of evangelical calling. “The mission is to spread the gospel,” the magazine’s former publisher, Jack Fowler, explained on the phone as he prepared to help lead Easter services at his church. By “gospel” he doesn’t mean the word of God—though NR is emphatically Christian—but rather a vision for conservatism enunciated by the magazine’s founding editor, William F. Buckley Jr.

For the past decade, the magazine’s mission has been hampered by shoddy technology. As one customer wrote in an iTunes review last November, “The Obamacare website works better than this app!”

ICYMI: Voices on the left are rising in the US. Why aren’t they in mainstream media?

Three years ago, National Review invested more than $250,000 to rebuild its website. “For the amount of money we spent, it was a slow, clunky site,” Fowler says. “It crashed my computer I don’t know how many times,” and pages could often take 30 seconds to load. “It was a genuine attempt to build a more hospitable website and it just didn’t happen.” On February 1, Fowler stepped down. The company decided it could no longer afford a print-centric mindset, so it turned to the associate publisher, a zealous 30-year-old (now 31) whose business instincts were honed working three years at the New York Post, mainly on the digital side.

Garrett Bewkes unveiled an attractive, efficient new website in mid-February that has thus far cost about $800,000 to build*, he says, and he has big plans to expand the site. In two years, he wants unique monthly views to have doubled, from six million to 12 million. Along with occasionally driving readers crazy, the old site couldn’t provide the sort of data Bewkes learned to leverage at the Post. He wants to use that data to implement elaborate performance metrics for writers, an initiative he says he’s yet to review with editorial staff.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

His top priority will be convincing readers to pay $99 a year for NRPlus, the new digital membership package. “Membership,” not subscription—the company’s approach should be “a little less speaking at,” Bewkes explains, “and a little more how can we engage with.

“We are a cause with a business, not a business with a cause, and that’s a big distinction,” he told me in his office in Midtown Manhattan, three blocks from News Corporation and a short walk from Time Warner, where his uncle Jeff is chairman and CEO. Unlike at CNN, where they celebrate soaring ratings under Trump, or at the New York Post and Fox News, where political advocacy is mainly a business tactic, revenue is a means, not an end, for National Review. As of 2015, the magazine is owned by the National Review Institute, a nonprofit, and has depended throughout its history on (non-deductible) donations. Reader loyalty, despite the sometimes-maddening past experience of reading National Review on a screen, gives Bewkes faith his publishing strategy will succeed.

That said, his aggressive plan for expansion will raise some existential conflicts. What would Buckley do? is National Review’s north star, and the appeal of the magazine was defined by the founder’s aristocratic tastes and flamboyant intellect. In politics and media, those features are now less fashionable.

National Review remains America’s preeminent conservative magazine, and print circulation hovers around 100,000, close to what it was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan entered the White House and toasted Buckley as his ideological inspiration (giving the editor “girlish pleasure”). The ultimate goal of proselytizing, after all, is reach, not reputation, and National Review will be tempted to compromise in order to grow its audience. It’s hardly a new dilemma, but chaos within the conservative movement injects a sense of urgency.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Buckley was 29 when he founded the magazine, and he always embraced young talent. Rich Lowry was named editor in 1997, also at age 29, and Charles C.W. Cooke became editor of the website two years ago, at 31. Bewkes’s office includes a bar and a Nintendo Wii, with enough games on the shelf to convince visitors the console isn’t just decorative.

The new publisher is full of energy, but can talk as though dictating a prospectus. Over an hour-long interview, he noted that National Review will be “leaning into,” among other things, subscriptions, reporting, live events, and an online store. The company must earn more without cheapening its product. “Selling out for the revenue would’ve been more of what a Breitbart [News] did,” Bewkes says. “Look at who Andrew Breitbart was. He would not stand for what his name is being associated with today. As a media company, they went for the dollars, not for the political philosophy. We held strong.”

He says National Review is “one of the few places where I can go and actually have my opinion changed. Every day when I read The Wall Street Journal, I’m pretty much shaking my head and saying, ‘Obviously.’ Every day when I read the New York Post, that’s kind of my entertainment. That’s what I read to relax my brain.”

Despite its reputation for headache-inducing digital products, NR helped launch one of the first conservative websites, TownHall.com, in 1995, and created one of the first political blogs, The Corner, in 2002. Many of the magazine’s top contributors—Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, Reihan Salam, Katherine Timpf, David French, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Geraghty—appear in a variety of other outlets, which is why Bewkes says they’re best thought of as “political influencers” rather than “run-of-the-mill writers pushing out piece after piece hoping for something to go viral.” They’re also not a gang of “woke feminist magazine writers,” as Critic-at-Large Kyle Smith once proudly observed.

Print editions of National Review include profiles, book and movie reviews, cultural criticism, and ambitious longform essays. The need to dumb down for wider reach is “a theoretical conflict,” Lowry says, “but our brand has always been much more tilted toward high-end, thoughtful commentary. I don’t want to brag about this—maybe it speaks of my limited vision—but it doesn’t occur to us to do cheap stuff. The Web is faster and shorter, but we’re not doing clickbait headlines or half-naked women.” (With the new website, they did begin publishing bizarre, off-brand slideshows with wire-service captions, as in “NBA Playoff Picture” or “Brazil’s Rainforest Jaguars.”)

National Review has nine employees on the business side and a full-time editorial staff of about 30, although it has always relied on outside contributors. Bewkes expanded the purview of his publishing team to include scripting and producing videos, and selecting art for stories**. Fewer writers are allowed to post directly to the site. His team also began designing “key performance indicators” for writers. Elaborating via email, Bewkes says he plans “to pull data and analyze the ‘true value’ of what each contributor (and employee) brings to the table.” The simple sum of page views doesn’t capture a writer’s net impact, in other words.

Publisher of National Review E. Garrett Bewkes IV (Photo courtesy Garrett Bewkes)

“I cannot hold writers to serious standards for their livelihood,” Bewkes explains, “if I cannot prove my requests of them are fair and based in sound logic much beyond, ‘Please go get me as much traffic as possible.’”

Close to a dozen hard-news reporters at mainstream outlets today were poached at some point from National Review, including The Washington Post’s star political writer Robert Costa, whose breakthrough came while covering the government shutdown for NR in 2013. Some of the first material on National Review Online, in 1998, was reporting from Washington, but the magazine is less focused now on covering news. Although the spring fundraising campaign seeks $60,000 for a financial reporter and $50,000 for a “content provider”—which Fowler calls “a fancy-pants way of saying ‘reporter’”—Lowry tells CJR, “Our audience is definitely more interested in commentary. During the last couple of years when we’ve been thinking about allocating scarce resources, we’ve doubled down on commentary.” As part of that reallocation, NR stopped maintaining a Washington office about a year ago.

The best opinion journalism is still grounded in reporting, and a commitment to reporting seems to elevate everything a magazine does. This might partially explain why, during Lowry’s two decades as editor, NR has been nominated for one National Magazine Award, while its liberal counterpart, The Nation, has been nominated for nine.

Buckley wanted his magazine to unify conservative thought, but Trump has been a challenge to that unity. After National Review published an issue with its editors unified “Against Trump” ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries, the magazine was disinvited from co-hosting a Republican debate, and Trump tweeted, “National Review is a failing publication that has lost it’s way [sic]. It’s circulation is way down w its influence being at an all time low. Sad!” Bewkes says the magazine still feels the fallout. Thousands of readers canceled their subscriptions, although thousands of dollars arrived in unsolicited donations. The lasting damage is to NR’s reputation, if opposing Trump is seen as obstructing the conservative agenda.

Or, it reaffirmed the magazine’s status as “the flagbearer of the conservative movement,” as one of the guest contributors to that issue, Erick Erickson, tells CJR. He thinks NR is now more influential than it was during the Obama years, when its writers were reliably lined up against the president. Trump has served to “free their editorial voice.”

Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist at The Daily Beast, thinks National Review does an admirable job of policing its ranks, although Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter come to mind as exceptions. A website “can be boring and irrelevant or flashy and provocative but lose its reputation,” Lewis explains. NR has done “a remarkably good job navigating that,” especially with its 12 podcasts.

 

We are a cause with a business, not a business with a cause, and that’s a big distinction.

 

Jonah Goldberg, a longtime senior editor who pushed for the anti-endorsement, says, “I was just stunned by one guest after another on Fox saying, ‘Who is National Review to tell people who to vote for? How dare they try to influence the voters.’ I knew they knew better, but there was this weird madness that took over.”

“One of the defining characteristics of populism is deep suspicion of elite institutions,” he adds, “and criticism of Trump is taken very personally by a lot of people. That creates a challenge for a magazine more concerned with the health of the movement than getting Republicans elected.”

A February cover story by Victor Davis Hanson made “The Case for the Trump Presidency.” The next month, Lowry wrote a polarizing column attempting to differentiate “Against Trump” from Never Trumpism, a tricky needle to thread after calling Trump “a menace to American conservatism.” Meanwhile, the Web editor Cooke, like many on staff, continues to believe “the president has no guiding principles or coherent worldview.”

ICYMI: Headlines editors probably wish they could take back

Buckley wanted competitors in conservative media to prosper, but he viewed his greatest achievement, according the biographer Alvin Felzenberg, as having helped eliminate “extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites, and racists” from the conservative movement. Those types now thrive online, and, Trump’s taunting aside, National Review’s influence does seem smaller. Then again, Buckley also sought to groom conservatives who would go on to populate mainstream media. From direct disciples—including David Brooks at the Times, David Frum at The Atlantic, and George Will at The Washington Post—to second- and third-degree influences, the journalism descendants of Buckley, who died in 2008, are “as numerous as the stars in the sky.”

A sign of National Review’s digital desperation came in 2014, when it hired Benny Johnson, who had been caught plagiarizing at BuzzFeed, to be its social media editor. Johnson, a master of viral content, and National Review could have made “a formidable combination,” CJR observed, but after a few months Johnson bolted for Independent Journal Review. A year later, NR launched one of its many “webathons,” this time to raise $25,000 for social media outreach.

“Because of some older ways of thinking in the past,” Bewkes says, “we’ve lost a great deal of the attention of the paid, subscribing public, and that’s why I’m here: to grow that base back.”

 

When Bewkes arrived at National Review, he says he was told, “Print is on auto-pilot. Don’t worry about it.” It was clear that the digital subscription—simply a download of the magazine—was inadequate, and that the website and app would need to be rebuilt.

While doing all that, “it occurred to me that print was not on auto-pilot,” he says. The magazine has the aesthetic boldness of a senior living community quarterly. It’s as if the articles were printed out and stapled together. The April 16 issue, with a newstand price of $5.99, includes ads for anti-aging pills, discount jewelry, and collector coins. Many covers appear faded, as though they’d been left to sit beside a window.

The magazine is published twice monthly, with an annual subscription costing $59.95 a year. (Each congressional office receives four free copies of every issue.) Asked whether he plans to change the print schedule, Bewkes says, “On the record, no.” He does speak openly, however, about the essential questions facing print publication. “Magazines are going to have to step back and think, why does anyone want the print magazine? It gets there later and it doesn’t even make good kindling paper.

 

The magazine has the aesthetic boldness of a senior living community quarterly. It’s as if the articles were printed out and stapled together.

 

“That doesn’t mean future generations won’t want it,” he adds. “Maybe we change the print stock. Maybe we need to make every issue feel more like a collector’s item. Maybe we make each issue twice as thick and release it once a month.”

The majority of National Review’s revenue still comes from print subscriptions, followed by digital ads, print ads, then donations. The company also hosts the annual Buckley Legacy Conservative Cruise, for which single rooms “begin at a very reasonable $2,699.” Bewkes wants the magazine to host more events, with more affordable options.

For now, though, he’s most invested in growing NRPlus—which is quite similar in construct to Slate Plus. Digital subscribers can access unlimited Web and magazine content, are treated to a variety of other features such as exclusive podcasts, and see about 90 percent fewer ads. (Bewkes describes the complexity of curating NR’s online advertising: “We have a very conservative audience, many of whom are very Christian in nature and don’t like seeing a crop top in an ad, for example.”) There’s also a private Facebook group available to NRPlus members. Bewkes wanted to wait and correct kinks before advertising the new Web products, and he expects to start doing so this month.

For years, National Review resisted publishing directly to social media. Reihan Salam, the executive editor, ruminated recently about ideological division in politics after his former colleague, Kevin Williamson, was fired at The Atlantic. Salam concluded by suggesting, albeit half-heartedly, that people “withdraw from social media entirely, on the grounds that it trains us to be reactive rather than reflective, and it rewards a bullying posture.”

Previously, readers were required to log in with Facebook to comment on posts. “The problem I have with that,” Bewkes says, “is that is already Facebook. The world does not need another Facebook. If anything, I think the world would be a far better place without Facebook. And I’m not just saying that because of recent turmoil.”

He goes on to describe a cousin of his who does liberal advocacy work in DC. On Facebook, the relative can be insufferably provocative, Bewkes says. “When I see him posting, I think, ‘Jesus Christ, this is inciting violence, almost. This is inciting hate.’ He’s pulling the Martin Luther King thing, saying, ‘I don’t advocate violence,’ but meanwhile he wanted the fire department to be spraying down protesters on national TV. That’s kind of what my cousin is doing now, and it drives me nuts, and it almost makes me dislike my own family!”

After a big laugh, Bewkes adds, “This is terrible.”

On the new site, only NRPlus members can comment on articles, where the “like” thumbs up is replaced with a “respect” handshake. “Too many people are so focused on clickbait or the Trump bump,” Bewkes says. “We’d rather just create a safe, quality, premium place to digest content but also interact and meet people.”

“NRPlus was our way of creating a community,” he explains—one whose population is kept pure by a big, beautiful paywall.

ICYMI: Editor fired after self-publishing article he claims was blocked by publisher

*This figure reflects the total cost of revamping the website, including its new video components.

**This article previously stated the publishing team decides when and where articles appear online. That is done in collaboration with editors. We regret the error.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt