Concrete Suggestions for Making the New Statesman Better

Sensible observers (here and here) are observing that the New Statesman is a bit shit. It’s time for concrete suggestions to help the new editor make it a better publication, before even dinosaurs like me who spend far too much money on magazine and journal subscriptions realise just how bad it is and cancel ours. I’ll start the ball rolling.

1. Get rid of US editor Andrew Stephen who is incapable of writing anything interesting, but who is given pages and pages in which to show off his incapability.

2. Martin O’Neill‘s column to move from the web to the magazine.

3. Make sure Nick Cohen‘s occasional interviews don’t return (though this may have been sorted out alread).

Please continue in the comments…

13 thoughts on “Concrete Suggestions for Making the New Statesman Better”

  1. I think the problem is that the project of revitalising the Staggers is not dissimilar to the project of revitalising the Left: as regards which problems

    (a) I don’t know the answer
    (b) I don’t think anybody knows the answer and I wouldn’t trust anyone who said they did.

    I suppose one possibility might be to offer regular employment to some of the better and better-known left and leftish bloggers (say Chicken Yoghurt for instance – if I don’t name more it’s because somebody’s bound to say “oh, we don’t want them” about somebody).

    And perhaps try and keep their distance from the Westminster village and not worry unduly about who they’re influencing.

  2. But I’m not sure the problem with the Statesman is connected to a failure of left politics. It regularly publishes along quite a wide spectrum, from John Pilger’s Indecency to Martin Bright’s Decency, and they even have a Tory party correspondent with a characteristically stupid name.

    And I think that’s probably what it should be doing: of all the weeklies, it’ll always be the one that tacks closest to a Labour Government, but if it’s going to do that, then it’s good if it’s still publishing pieces substantially to the left of that Government (which it does) and if it maintains an editorial line to the left of that Government (which it also does).

    The trouble (it seems to me) is just that when I read it, I glance at each article and think, “no, that’s probably not worth reading”, “no, that’s probably not worth reading”, and so on, and I motor through the paper very fast indeed. And I don’t think that’s an especially unusual response to the NS these days.

  3. I wonder if there’s a widespread feeling, conscious or unconscious, among leftists (which may or may not be justified) that we’re not getting anywhere and not going to get anywhere – and that may reduce our own enthusiasm for reading our own stuff.

  4. Funny, but I remember Andrew Stephen being quite good when I used to subscribe to the magazine a few years back. Unlike most foreign correspondents, he did at least have a feel for the country he was reporting on.

    Occasionally when I’m in Borders I’ll leaf through the New Statesman to see if there’s anything worth reading. There never is. Could be worse though – Prospect for example?

    Justin – well maybe, but I’ll read New Left Review, Left Business Observer, or even Red Pepper happily enough. I wonder if New Statesman’s problem is more that its too close to Labour, and as a result has been infected by their intellectual bankruptcy. I mean there are new ideas on the left, and even some of the old ideas are good ones. But what does Labour have these days? Even the shallow ideas of New Labour seem thoroughly exhausted.

  5. I’ve not read it properly in a couple of years. But based on the magazine that I didn’t renew a subscription for:

    i) More caricature, less photography. It seemed to decide in about 2001 that cartoons and illustration were old-fashioned, and should be replaced by photography; the photography chosen was mostly not-very-good current affairs stock stuff, making it look like a dull British version of Newsweek; the cartoons seemed to be there on the basis that some people liked them but the editor didn’t really understand them. Illustration can impart a lot of character to a journal of analysis/opinion. They need to hire a cartoonist who can pursuade other cartoonists to offer them good work (Michael Heath does this role for the Spectator). They also need a picture editor can pull stuff out of the photo libraries with wit and lateral thinking, as well as having an eye and a budget for illustration; and a sub who can come up with entertaining captions.

    ii) Resolve to treat your readers as if they’re smarter than you are. I always got the impression that the NS regarded much of its readership as rather contemptible paleo-lefties, to be sweetened with shouty headlines and dollops of John Pilger and then educated on the current correct party thinking. It needs to assume a bit more knowedge and a lot more intelligence, take a less hectoring and excitable tone, and try to come up with arguments that can show where current debates may go next rather than positions on where they are now.

    iii) Try to commission on writing quality rather than name; the NS I gave up on was full of bad stuff begged from notable people, rather than good stuff from people trying to become notable. Edit mercilessly for dullness and flabbiness and hardly at all for appropriateness to editorial line. They have had good discoveries (Bee Wilson on food was one I remember) but not enough to cope with them being poached, and far too much stunt commissioning (has Roger Scruton’s wine column died yet?).

    Not sure how concrete, or achievable, any of that is.

  6. “The trouble (it seems to me) is just that when I read it, I glance at each article and think, “no, that’s probably not worth reading”, “no, that’s probably not worth reading”, and so on, and I motor through the paper very fast indeed. And I don’t think that’s an especially unusual response to the NS these days. ”

    Ditto.

    My suggestions for making it better would be to avoid/leave the trap of trying to compete with other glossy, political minded magazines by being “flashy”. Quit with the big catchy headlines in silly font, over-sized photos and OTT ‘specials’ on big issues/topics (e.g. ‘Africa’, ‘The London Mayor’, ‘Brown’). What i’ve noticed about these ‘specials’ is that usually there is one decent article and 6 or 7 half-arsed ones of poor journalism saying nothing of interest.

    Just make the whole thing more ‘sensible’, more ‘old fashioned’, if you will: rather than pandering to the ‘get interactive’ generation, which it is assumed won’t pick up a political publication unless it is splashed with colour and exclamation marks, publish a magazine which is preeminently serious. It is my utterly unresearched intuition that people who read the NS read it because they have a set of political convictions, and not because it looks, sitting on the shelf, more flashy than the Economist (which pound for pound is a far better publication, in spite of fierce disagreement with its general political stance and editorial line). Consequently, these people want serious opinion and discussion, so i’d recommend giving them that.

    Perhaps that could be summarised as “be as little like the New Internationalist as possible”.

  7. Mmmm, but the NI has probably been rather more successful than the NS in recent years, no?

    It can’t really be averted that the audience for the NS has shrunk enormously. When I first saw it, in my teens, there were a varge large number of conscious socialist activists in Britain. I’d reckon now that there are fewer than any any time since, ooh, I don’t know, maybe the 1870s.

    Now while the readership of the NS doesn’t and shouldn’t consist of only “socialist activists” (an over-prescriptive phrase that I’ve only really chosen for want of time to think of a better one) it probably does consist largely of people who are reasonably well-disposed towards such activities. I don’t believe it’s going to appeal to people who think “well, I buy the Spectator and maybe I’ll also buy the Staggers if there’s something I like in it”. I suspect that segment of people is very small and largely confined to London.

    It’s one thing having something to say: it’s another thing finding somebody to listen. Who is there?

  8. Who reads the new Statesman now- I should imagine there target audience is primarily university educated public sector professionals, Labour./Lib Dem/Greenpeace/FoE members. High proportion of people with post grad qualifications, but not wealthy/interested in fashion/conspicuous consumption.

    So people for whome the “life of the mind” matters. This of course, makes lifestyle features rather difficult. I’d suggest:

    1. A vegetarian restaurant reviewer (preferably one who can write.)
    2. Some shameless stealing from New Scientist on technology/research type issues. Less religion, more science.
    3. A series of features on the strange death of progressive britain- and where next? 40 years ago there was the left book club, Holiday fellowship (this still exists), CND with hundreds of thousands of members etc, etc etc. These provided a progressive superstructure that seems to have all but died. It’d be interesting to read that story -esp in the NS.
    4. The New Yorker. Shamelessly culturally elitist, but always something you want to read. Some longer form pieces might be worth considering. I remember one the NYer ran on kitchen workers in La vegas that has stayed with me for years. Sy hersh tends to publish his stuff there too. Pieces like that might generate the sort of must read factor the NS lacks.

  9. I’ve never bought a copy of the NS, and the reasons listed above accurately summarise why this is so. It has always looked rather light weight and vacuous to me, too much like an extended Observer Magzine with an emphasis on Westminster politics. As someone pointed out above, compare with the NLR, which features international writers discussing topics that it is difficult to find addressed anywhere else. It’s also unashamedly elitist and, like it or not, politics and ‘the life of the mind’ are (for the time being at least) elite pursuits.

    The kind of magazine I would really like to read would be a left-leaning version of the Economist: a low-fat, high content analysis of what is going on in Britain and the world at the moment of publication.

  10. “too much like an extended Observer Magzine ”

    except the reverse, i’d say: the Observer magazine has decent length articles that go into depth. Whenther i’ve read the New Statesman, i’ve been horribly irritated by how inadequately short a great many articles are (though sometimes that’s a blessing) – so i’m agreeing with Hopi Sen, i think.

    ejh: i think the NI probably has done better. I was just saying what I want to see, not what i expect to be commercially viable and unit-shifting.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with your second suggestion, Chris. I think that my column should definitely move from the NS website to the magazine itself. But, then again, I may not be the most impartial judge on this matter…!

  12. At the risk of being shot down, I rather like the New Statesman.

    In terms of concrete suggestions, I would get rid of Kevin Maguire’s column. If I want low-grade rumours and tittle-tattle, I know where Guido blogs. Ditto, the tactical briefing.

    I’d like to see the columnists given more room, particularly Darcus Howe and Ziauddin Sardar; I do always rather enjoy their pieces.

    Brian Cathcart’s page is usually pretty good. It’d be good to have a similar page around PR (said the PR man).

    xD.

  13. Very interesting discussion. I lived in Germany, and still read the big-selling German current affairs magazines (Der Spiegel, Focus, Die Stern). A friend asked what the English equivalents were. I replied that it should be the NS, but it was embarrassing to compare. What strikes me reading the NS since I returned is the very shallow pool of writers it has. You very rarely read something by someone who doesn’t already have a column in a national newspaper. It is also very London and national politics focused.

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