Leftwing journal capitalises on growing interest in UK politics overseas

Founded by the socialist Fabian Society and long considered the in-house journal of Britain’s Labour party, the New Statesman magazine is embarking on what its editor describes as the biggest expansion in its 108-year history — bankrolled by a data industry entrepreneur.

The editor, Jason Cowley, has set his sights on engaging an overseas readership — with a focus on the US, Germany and France — in an attempt to approximately triple its paid-for readership to 100,000 and emulate the international success of other UK-based publications such as The Economist.

“The UK has suddenly become quite interesting,” Cowley said. “Because of Brexit, because of Boris Johnson, because of the potential break up of the UK. The crisis of the British constitution is a big subject. We find these are subjects that an international audience wants to read about.

“We have convinced the owner that we are a title worthy of investment,” he added, referring to Mike Danson, founder of the London-listed market research company GlobalData. “We have an investment plan.”

Brexit and the potential break up of the UK has made British politics much more interesting for international readers © FT Montage/New Statesman

Other current affairs titles are also growing their readership, bucking a long-term decline in the wider UK magazine sector that has forced some publications to abandon print.

The total number of UK print magazines sold dropped 55 per cent between 2010 and 2019 to 660m, according to research company Enders Analysis. The pandemic has accelerated the decline and circulation fell to 513m last year.

In contrast, sales of The Spectator, the New Statesman’s right-of-centre rival, are higher than ever. In the US, readership of The Atlantic rose 24 per cent year on year in the first six months of 2021, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, compared with an 18.4 per cent decline for magazines overall.

“We’re all bombarded with information, and a weekly digest just seems to make an awful lot of sense,” said Douglas McCabe, chief executive of Enders Analysis.

“This is a very resilient sector,” he added, drawing a comparison with other genres that “are all but disappearing”, such as celebrity gossip and men’s interest.

Since he became editor in 2008, Cowley has brought in fresh voices, published longer essays and sought to make the New Statesman more politically “unpredictable” by loosening its ties with Labour. The title introduced a digital paywall two years ago and the website was recently relaunched, along with a redesigned print title.

After decades of dwindling circulation and under-investment, the strategy has started to bear fruit: total paid-for readership has risen from less than 20,000 when Cowley took over to 36,000. About 17,000 of these are print-only, with the remainder either digital-only or print and digital bundles.

Perhaps surprisingly for a title whose traditional mainstay is British politics, about a third of the New Statesman’s online readers are in North America. More live in New York than any UK city other than London.

“The ideas and the areas we’re interested in — ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance], global economy, crisis of liberalism — we think there’s a big market for us beyond the UK,” said Cowley.

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley has tried to make the magazine more ‘unpredictable’ by loosening its ties with the Labour party © FT Montage/New Statesman

Among the editorial positions he is looking to fill are a Brussels bureau chief, an Asia editor and a writer on China.

An enlarged editorial budget is being provided by Danson, who took a 50 per cent stake in 2008 after he netted £165m from the sale of his Datamonitor business to Informa. The following year he bought the remainder of the magazine from Geoffrey Robinson, former paymaster general in Tony Blair’s government.

His other media interests span the luxury lifestyle title Spears and the Press Gazette trade magazine, as well as a majority stake in GlobalData, whose market capitalisation has swelled to £1.6bn. But he keeps a low profile.

“He wants to run it [the New Statesman] as a business: it’s not a vanity project,” said another person close to Danson, who described his politics as “middle of the road”.

Danson’s deep pockets have already financed a hiring spree at the New Statesman, adding about 16 journalists to the now 45-strong team in the past year, including Tim Ross from Bloomberg to run its UK politics coverage.

“I feel like a soccer coach with a transfer budget for the first time,” Cowley said. “Rather than retrenching during the Covid recession, Mike invested.” The publication is moving to new offices in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery quarter, in the new year.

The first edition of the New statesman from 1913, and from 1959 © FT Montage/New Statesman

Formed in 1913 with the stated aim of “permeating the educated and influential classes with socialist ideas”, the magazine — much like the Labour party — has a decidedly less ideologically strident tone under its current editor.

“There were certain perceptions about the New Statesman: it was seen as a mouthpiece for the Labour party, or a rainbow coalition of disaffected leftwing voices. That didn’t interest me: the journalism I admire is sceptical, open minded, high quality.”

The journal was highly critical of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom Cowley described in print as resembling “a late-Seventies red-brick university sociology lecturer”, although he now acknowledges that the title “misread” his rise to the leadership.

Jeremy Corbyn supporters protest outside New Statesman’s office in 2017 claiming it is biased against him © Matthew Chattle/Alamy

It has also been sceptical of Corbyn’s successor, Sir Keir Starmer, running a special issue on Labour’s “crisis” after the disappointing local election results this year. “I know Starmer found it very painful,” Cowley said of the edition.

Is he even a Labour party supporter? “Personally? Not at the moment.”

He added that he still regards the publication as being “of” the left. Yet it all arguably sounds rather far from the Fabians’ ideals.

Will they not be turning in their graves? “No. The Fabians would be delighted. We’re still interested in the interventionist state and the good that government can do. That’s true to the original Fabian mission. And we’re as committed to quality as they were.”

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