Lofty ambitions on a low budget

Prospect (monthly)
November 7, 1997

Two years ago Prospect was launched upon the world. Its founding editor, David Goodhart, had left the rich pastures of the Financial Times to fill what he believed was a yawning gap in the market. Since the demise of Encounter this country had lacked a general intellectual monthly magazine, unless we include Marxism Today, which had also gone to meet its maker. There are, of course, those hardy political weeklies, The Spectator and the New Statesman, but Goodhart was aiming at something a little loftier, with longer articles less obviously pegged to transient news.

There are those who said he would never make it. Atlantic Monthly may sell nearly half a million copies in the United States. The New Yorker, with a similar circulation, used to till adjacent intellectual pastures before its recent makeover. But the American market is famously short of quality newspapers. If you are living in the back of beyond in Wisconsin, a glossy intellectual magazine may be your only lifeline to sentient thought. In this country we have almost more national broadsheet newspapers than we can bear, and if they are somewhat more popular than of yore, they still contain enough serious journalism to make the likes of Prospect redundant.

So ran one argument against Goodhart. Some had quite other reasons for believing that he might not pull it off. They doubted whether there was still a large enough intellectual class to support a magazine such as Prospect which, so its inaugural editorial told us, was aimed at "the intellectually curious reader (and) will occupy that large space between the 'instant' and the 'academic'''. In the minds of these people, we have all become too obsessed with our little specialities. Fewer of us have the broad intellectual interests of a magazine such as Prospect. We are all experts now, assiduously hoeing our little patches but generally unconcerned about what is going on elsewhere on the farm.

Two years on, it is still too early to say whether those soothsayers of doom are right. Like Encounter before it, which was driven to accepting hand-outs from the CIA, Prospect is struggling a bit. The money its 50 original investors put into the magazine has long ago run out. Financially speaking, it lives in permanent intensive care. A German gentlemen has recently come to the rescue, and his 20 per cent stake now rivals that of the magazine's chairman, Derek Coombs, a former Tory MP of decidedly wettish aspect. More injections of cash will be needed. The problem is that Prospect is selling no more than 13,000 or 14,000 copies a month - a fair way short of break-even. Such sales are too small to attract seriously lucrative advertising. In short, the magazine needs more revenue.

There are other difficulties inherent in a small circulation. It is possible to produce a very successful monthly journal for acupuncturists that is read by only a few thousand practitioners of that craft. Prospect is not a specialised magazine. It is meant to appeal to the intellectual classes. To make an impact, for us to feel that we must turn to it, it must achieve a certain critical mass which it has not yet reached. The Spectator (weekly sales of 55,000, and profitable) and the New Statesman (25,000 and still loss-making despite a relaunch) have both got there. We hear people refer to articles in these magazines. We feel that in some way they may be important. Prospect is more revered than talked about. Appearing only once a month, and selling in very modest numbers, its displacement amid an oceanful of media is as yet too slight for it to be taken as seriously as it should be.

Let me here declare that I like this magazine very much. But there are aspects of it that annoy me considerably. I confess to being somewhat repelled by the covers. Too often they are coarse and garish, as though straining to attract readers who are surely not so easily tempted. A magazine needs to develop a style for its covers, and this Prospect has so far not managed to do in the way that The Economist or The Spectator have. There are also too many cover-lines, as though the editor is not quite sure which are his best pieces to advertise, and so offers us a giddying display of wares.

More seriously, there is a larger proportion than one has any right to expect of "so whatish'' pieces. The besetting sin of British - as opposed to American - serious journalism is its laziness. Too often the reader suspects that the writer has not stirred very far from his armchair in mind or body. Perhaps the explanation often comes down to money: if you are paid so much less, as is frequently the case in this country, you may feel disinclined to roll up your sleeves and burn the midnight oil. The writer for Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker can expect several thousand dollars for his pains. Not so the scribe who sets pen to paper for Prospect. But if this is sometimes an explanation, it is never an excuse. Brilliant articles can be coaxed out of poorly paid writers. When I look at a perfectly serviceable 2,000-word piece about inequality by John Gray in the current issue of the magazine, I cannot help wondering if it could not be a lot better.

All this is a way of saying that the magazine has its flaws. But it also has very many graces. As much as I hate the covers, I love the restrained and elegant design inside, which is the work of Susan Buchanan. As readers of modern quality newspapers, we are treated like children whose interest cannot be engaged without crude tricks of typography and splashes of colour. Sub-editors and their whizzo computers have gone wild. The world of Prospect is clear and calm. The magazine also enjoys the benefit of being "perfect bound'', which is to say that it has a spine, like a paperback book. This helps to lend it a certain air of permanence, besides encouraging one to feel that one has got one's money's worth at Pounds 2.95. It has the authoritative look of a monthly, something one might keep on one's shelves when more ephemeral weeklies, let alone dailies, have long been consigned to the dustbin.

The key test for Prospect is whether you can find in it pieces that you cannot read in other publications. The lazy, inconsequential articles I have mentioned can be encountered almost anywhere. Prospect certainly does offer long essays about all manner of subjects. Naturally they do not always work, but the best ones stick in the mind, whether one agrees with them or not. I can recall an essay by Irving Kristol explaining why he, as an American conservative, does not feel at home with English Conservatives. As an editor of Encounter he once rejected an article by Michael Oakeshott, which has become a famous essay. I remember a excellent piece by Robert Skidelsky about the rehabilitation of Keynes, though perhaps we have read that elsewhere. Also a tour de force by the American writer Samuel Huntington on the West's excessive pride.

Then there are occasional interviews at a length and of a depth one is unlikely to find in any Sunday or daily newspaper. A few months ago Jason Cowley interviewed Martin Amis and produced a piece of 5,000 words that was in part a critique of Amis and in part a disquisition on the modern British novel. It was published in abridged form by The Times. Last month Isaiah Berlin gave an almost unheard-of audience to Steven Lukes, no mean philosopher himself. His thoughts were reprinted, again at shorter length, by The Sunday Telegraph. I do not suppose that Cowley or Lukes were paid very much, but they each produced something much more than the run-of-the-mill Sunday newspaper profile or interview, which is why their pieces were bought.

There are short stories, sometimes quite good ones. There are also correspondences between opponents on some of the great issues of the day. Not surprisingly, these are a bit hit and miss. A rather bone-crunching example of the genre is provided by Lords Cranborne and Chandos in a debate about the hereditary peerage in the current issue. But if some writers are inclined to take themselves more seriously than they have any right to, other correspondences, such as the one between Polly Toynbee and Melanie Phillips on divorce, can be gripping. Toynbee thinks divorce a fundamental human right. Phillips, once in the same liberal camp as her sparring partner, believes it is responsible for many of our social problems.

Some readers may object that, unlike Encounter or Marxism Today, Prospect champions no political cause. In that sense it is a publication of our times: "postmodern" would be the cliche. The monthly editorial is short and uncontentious, and as the issues go by seems to get even briefer. It serves only to tell us what to expect, like a headmaster selling his school's wares to new parents. Prospect has no ambition to change the world by deploying a constant set of political arguments. There is no shortage of politics - in fact the early issues had rather too much for some tastes - but the tone is that of the policy forum rather than the barricades. Its political heart, if it has one, does not lie very far from new Labour, but there is no shortage of right-wingers: David Willets, Irving Kristol, Mario Vargas Llosa, Noel Malcolm, Paul Johnson, Roger Scruton, John Keegan and P. J. O'Rourke have all written for the magazine.

So for those who yearn for controversy and an occasional bit of political biffing, Prospect may be a disappointment. Even I sometimes find that the magazine has a slightly comatose air. But then who, apart from ghosts, is there left to biff? The dragons Prospect seeks to slay are not so much political as cultural. Goodhart's passionate belief is that there remains a quite sizeable intellectual readership not fully satisfied on the one hand by the quality papers and the weeklies or, on the other hand, by specialist academic publications. In an era of increasing specialisation, it wants to de-specialise.

I believe Goodhart is right, and that when Prospect has made itself known to a wider audience it will succeed, though perhaps never on the scale of its American counterparts, even when adjustments for comparative populations have been made. Our world may be full of specialists, but some of them yearn also to be generalists. We still want to connect, and we know that we cannot do so if we remain within our little intellectual laagers. There are great issues that concern us all and which, as intelligent non-specialists, we aspire to understand. Prospect may be weak in some areas - science for example - but it does, preposterous though it may seem, attempt to cover the water front.

Serious newspapers do not, or at any rate not in the same way. We have a much larger quality press than most other nations, but under pressure of competition these papers have changed and continue to do so. They were always by their very nature bustling places in which it was difficult to find time for calm and reflective thought. Now they have become rather like supermarkets in which the old quality goods can still be found, if you know where to look, though sometimes they are a little moth-eared and covered in dust. They are also increasingly surrounded by mountains of trashier wares that we do not necessarily want to buy and that are sometimes offensive to the eye. Intellectually, modern broadsheets cannot be fully satisfying. Those who say they obviate the need for a magazine such as Prospect are wrong.

Goodhart seeks only to stock quality goods, which to some will seem a very old-fashioned idea. Not all of them are put together with the care they might be. But the intention is there, the hope extant. At its best, Prospect triumphantly shows that in an age of dumbing down it is possible to be highbrow without being boring.

Stephen Glover writes the Media Studies column in The Spectator.

Prospect (monthly)

Editor - David Goodhart
ISBN - ISSN 1359 5024
Publisher - Prospect
Price - £2.95 monthly; £38.50 annual sub; £19.50 students

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