The Media Today

As election season heats up, two historic magazines get new faces

April 9, 2019

In recent months, with the 2020 election approaching fast, a bevy of major news organizations have made significant changes atop their mastheads. Adam Moss, the iconic, long-time editor of New York magazine, stepped down, and was replaced by David Haskell. This week, John Harris, the founding editor in chief of Politico, made way; Matthew Kaminski, the site’s global editor, will replace him. Bill Keller, founding editor of The Marshall Project, is passing that site’s reins to Susan Chira. The LA Times, under new-ish owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, has staffed up impressively across the board; most recently, it added Shani Hilton, a top talent at BuzzFeed, as a deputy managing editor. In the world of TV, CBS News appointed Susan Zirinsky as its new president, while the morning shows of CBS, ABC, and NBC all now have female executive producers—a first. Nancy Barnes, formerly of The Houston Chronicle, is settling into her new role as editorial director at NPR. The list goes on.

Yesterday, two storied magazines announced a changing of the guard. Katrina vanden Heuvel is stepping down as editor of The Nation after 25 years in the post. (She’ll stay on as publisher and editorial director, working on strategy and with “select writers.”) During her tenure, vanden Heuvel sought to style the progressive magazine as an “early journalistic alert system”—warning against the war in Iraq, corporate oligopolies, and the “Murdochization” of US media—and oversaw significant subscription growth during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Yesterday, she told my colleague Alexandria Neason that she’s used the “Trump bump” to “build out” the magazine through podcasts, newsletters, and an expanded web presence; it’s in the process of hiring its first executive web editor. Younger readers comprise an important part of The Nation’s digital audience, vanden Heuvel says. “I think we’re connecting with the energy of movements—of ideas—of a newly empowered, progressive, left, young cohort.”

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Thanks in large part to these burgeoning movements, vanden Heuvel is stepping back at a growth moment for many left-wing publications. “It is a moment of relevance for The Nation,” she tells Neason. “But I would also argue that the insurgent progressive left ideas”—such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and the $15 minimum wage—“that are now being debated front and center in our politics have long been championed in The Nation.” Compared to newer, more radical publications such as Jacobin, vanden Heuvel sees The Nation as a “convening place… between liberals and radicals, between socialists and conservatives with a conscience.” Nonetheless, she says, “The fight goes on every day now to ensure that the ideas we’re talking about are not dismissed, are not treated as marginal, are not treated as unrealistic.”

The tenets of that philosophy are shared by D.D. Guttenplan, a long-standing presence at The Nation, where he will soon take over as editor. Vanden Heuvel says the timing of the transition was less to do with preparations for 2020, and more based on “a sense of extraordinary change across so many areas of our work that led me to think that it was time for a set of fresh eyes.” But campaign coverage, needless to say, will form an important and immediate part of Guttenplan’s remit. “Our job is to see who is coming up with really interesting, useful, provocative ideas among the Democrats, and try to lift up the ones that we think are worth thinking about more,” he tells Neason.

Another new editor with 2020 on his mind is Chris Lehmann, who yesterday was named editor of The New Republic. (He comes from The Baffler, where he’ll remain an editor-at-large.) CJR’s Andrew McCormick spoke with Lehmann yesterday. “I want to approach the coming election cycle as what I think it will be: a convergence of social movements as opposed to a top-down, party-driven spectacle,” Lehmann says. “The parties are increasingly hollowed-out institutions that are unable to contain the activist energies within them in the way parties would like. That’s all good for journalism, because journalism is about conflict.”

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Editors come and go for all sorts of reasons, but it’s usually best to get changes out of the way before a critical election season gets in full swing. The new crop of editors across our industry must all urgently grapple with campaign coverage that failed, in 2016, to serve readers consistent, substantive information on candidates’ ideas. Different outlets will take different approaches going forward, of course: NPR is not The Nation; the LA Times is not The New Republic. But some truths are universal. “The daily press can hyperventilate about this trend, that trend—the boom for Buttigieg, the Beto boom, do they really like Elizabeth Warren—whatever piece of daily trivia you need to get your clicks,” Guttenplan says. “But I think that’s not our job.”

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Below, more on comings, goings, and left-wing media:

  • Entry and exit interviews: In January, McCormick did an exit interview with Adam Moss as he announced his departure from New York. Moss and David Haskell, his replacement, later discussed the transfer of power on our podcast, The Kicker. Last week, CJR’s Zainab Sultan spoke with Bill Keller about his departure from The Marshall Project. And Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Susan Smith Richardson, who was recently named CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.
  • What if a socialist wins? Neason asked Guttenplan whether a socialist winning in 2020—a less distant prospect than in the past—would change The Nation’s approach. “I’m optimistic and looking forward to the fight very much for 2020, but I don’t think one election is going to change it,” he said. “One election may open the door, but there’s a lot more to do.” A socialist winning the White House, he added, would likely be bad for the magazine’s circulation.
  • An invitation: On April 30, CJR and The Nation will team for a joint event, Covering Climate Change, at Columbia Journalism School in New York. Together, we’ll discuss why news organizations have (mostly) failed to tackle the biggest topic of our time. You can find more details here.

Other notable stories:

  • Gizmodo Media Group, whose properties include The Onion, Jezebel, Deadspin, and Splinter, has a new owner. Univision is selling the portfolioat a knockdown price—to Great Hill Partners, a private-equity firm. It’s too soon to say what private-equity ownership will mean for staffers at the group, though a note from their new boss, Jim Spanfeller, raised eyebrows yesterday. “While editorial independence is critically important, there needs to be a healthy and productive partnership with the business side for the company to be truly successful,” he wrote. “Without an audience we have nothing to offer advertisers, eCommerce partners or subscription efforts.” Watch this space.
  • Trump continued his “purge” of top officials at the Department of Homeland Security as he seeks to steer immigration policy in a (yet more) hardline direction. The hardliners have been winning out for a while: whenever Kirstjen Nielsen, the now-outgoing secretary of Homeland Security, pushed back on a draconian directive from the White House, Stephen Miller, the administration’s top “anti-immigration zealot,” would undermine her by leaking stats to the right-wing Washington Examiner, Heather Timmons reports for Quartz. Nielsen—painted in much coverage as a restraining influence on Trump—carried out his child separation policy last year. Yesterday, a senior official told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the president still “just wants to separate families.”
  • Media Matters for America’s Evlondo Cooper reports that Democratic presidential hopefuls are keeping climate change on the agenda of Sunday morning political shows. “The five major Sunday shows aired a combined six segments in March that included substantive discussion of climate change,” Cooper writes. Jay Inslee, the Washington governor running as a single-issue climate candidate, spoke in two of the segments; the others featured Pete Buttigieg, Seth Moulton, Amy Klobuchar, and John Hickenlooper.
  • Israel goes to the polls today. Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, is seeking an unprecedented fifth term in office, though Benny Gantz, a retired general, may stand in his way. As Yardena Schwartz wrote last year for CJR, Netanyahu has been weakened by allegations that he interfered with media companies to sway coverage in his favor. As results come in, Schwartz will follow them live on a panel hosted by The Times of Israel and the Shalom Hartman Institute. You can catch it here.
  • India also has elections this week. For CJR, Aliya Iftikhar writes that the assassination, last year, of Shujaat Bukhari, a prominent journalist in Kashmir, has stoked a climate of “fear and censorship” for the press. “It is still unclear who was behind the murder and what, exactly, provoked it. Any party—Pakistan, India, or Kashmiris—might be at fault,” Iftikhar reports. “With no clear answers, reporters in Kashmir are suspended in fear.”
  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which recently executed two rounds of layoffs, is considering outsourcing the jobs of more journalists and production staff—talks with the paper’s News Guild are ongoing, though sources told Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard they believe Advance Publications, which owns the Plain Dealer, hired a local PR company to “run interference” on the negotiations. ICYMI over the weekend, The New Yorker’s Charles Bethea spoke with Tom Feran, a veteran Plain Dealer reporter who volunteered to be laid off so a younger colleague could keep their job.
  • And in Georgia, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill authorizing a “Journalism Ethics Board” with the power to sanction reporters who violate certain standards. For CJR, Stephen Fowler reports that the proposal could curb scrutiny of politicians. Richard T. Griffiths, head of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, tells Fowler, “This is the kind of proposal one might expect to see surface in a banana republic, not the Peach State.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.