hen I worked at U.S. News & World Report, we had an editor, a world-weary veteran of Time, who liked to tell the following story. In 1979, he said, Time ran a cover story on cocaine, then a hip, growing but still fringe phenomenon. That issue of the magazine turned out to be one of the worst-selling in Time’s history. Two years later, when coke had spread to the American mainstream and was wreaking all kinds of havoc, Time published another cover story on cocaine. That issue became one of the magazine’s all-time bestsellers. The lesson, he said, was that it is dangerous to get too far ahead of the news; what readers really want is sense made of the news they’ve already heard about.
I thought of this editor’s story as we were putting together the current issue of the Washington Monthly, which celebrates the magazine’s fortieth anniversary. Flipping through stacks of yellowing old issues, looking for great pieces that would make engaging reading today (you can find all of the excerpts here), I was struck by how often the magazine did precisely the opposite of what my U.S. News editor recommended. The Monthly has long made a habit of publishing stories that were months or even years ahead of the news, usually for the purpose of sounding alarms about unrecognized problems—alarms which often turned out to be well worth heeding.
A few examples: In 1980, Gregg Easterbrook wrote a cover story explaining that the space shuttle, then under construction, had so many problems—especially its solid rocket boosters and heat-shielding tiles—that it risked being destroyed in flight. Which, alas, happened in 1986 and then again in 2003, for precisely the reasons Easterbrook foresaw. In March of 2003, Nicholas Confessore predicted, rightly, that the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq would undermine the readiness of our already-overstretched all-volunteer army and lead to falling reenlistments and crushingly burdensome redeployments. A year later, Benjamin Wallace-Wells looked at the supercharged real estate market, the Fed’s loose money policy, and Alan Greenspan’s odd pronouncements about the splendors of adjustable rate mortgages, and predicted that the housing bubble “is likely to burst, and when it does it may very well take the American economy down with it.” Those are just three of the many, many stories the magazine called right (there are a number we called wrong, too; you can see a collection of both here).
So what is the secret to our prescience? Part of it is frequency of publication: when you’re putting out a monthly (now bimonthly) magazine it’s nearly impossible to be on the news, so you have to learn to be ahead of it. Part of it is the blessing, as it were, of having a relatively small, already-well-informed readership that is looking for something beyond the daily headlines. But more than anything, it is a consequence of the unique mission founder Charlie Peters set out for the magazine, a mission Nicholas Lemann reassesses in this issue. Charlie wanted the magazine to scrutinize the performance of government with fierce honesty but also with the intent of making it work better. Where the traditional investigative reporter probes government agencies and programs looking for illegality, the classic Monthly writer looks for bureaucratic weaknesses and policy mistakes which, if left unattended, could lead to disaster. It is the opportunity to do this kind of thinking-man’s reporting that has lured so much great young talent to the Monthly over the years. These journalists have typically gone on to positions of prominence at more mainstream publications, bringing some of the Washington Monthly sensibility with them.
Today, that mainstream press is suffering a drastic downsizing. As a result, there are fewer and fewer reporters covering government, even as government itself is growing in size and reach. While we can pray that our current political leaders are skillful enough to manage this expansion deftly, their ability to do so would be greatly enhanced if there were enough journalists out there on the front lines providing early warnings of trouble in time for adjustments to be made.
The big debate in journalistic circles right now is whether bloggers and smaller niche publications can fulfill some of the watchdog role that the traditional news organizations are abandoning. The answer is not at all clear, but the Monthly’s forty-year track record provides some clues. Yes, large media companies with big mass audiences have advantages. But a smaller audience can bring with it freedom from pressure to follow the herd. Yes, a lot of bloggers are young and amateurish. But most Monthly writers have been young and relatively inexperienced, too. Easterbrook, Confessore, and Wallace-Wells were twenty-nine, twenty-six, and twenty-five, respectively, when they broke their big stories, and none had written on those subjects before.
What the journalistic landscape will look like in coming years is anyone’s guess. What’s clear is that the model of journalism pioneered by the Washington Monthly is more relevant and more needed than ever.
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Paul Glastris is editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.