Fifty issues on, we're an inviting Prospect

It's taken blood, sweat and tears, but 'Prospect' has put out 50 issues and is here to stay, writes editor David Goodhart
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The Independent Online

"Prospect," announced the Evening Standard after our first issue, "will melt away like the snows of spring." The Standard was not the only sceptic. One of our own investors (a respected publisher) said "it's a worthy idea. Here's some cash, but don't bet on being around for more than 10 issues".

"Prospect," announced the Evening Standard after our first issue, "will melt away like the snows of spring." The Standard was not the only sceptic. One of our own investors (a respected publisher) said "it's a worthy idea. Here's some cash, but don't bet on being around for more than 10 issues".

The idea that a high-brow current affairs/cultural monthly produced by complete unknowns could survive, and survive commercially, did indeed seem to be stretching a point. With our 50th issue put to bed it is, perhaps, a moment to be generous to the sceptics.

The magazine now has an audited circulation of just below 17,000 and a political/intellectual influence far beyond its size and age. Yet the sceptics were not completely wrong. Despite an investment of more than £750,000 over the past four-and-a-half years and a penny-pinching operation, the magazine does not yet break even. It has been a struggle.

It is significant that out of the original 10 core Prospect people, only four survive: myself, my deputy editor Valerie Monchi, our designer Susan Buchanan and our long-suffering chairman and largest shareholder Derek Coombs. Prospect has sometimes been a cruel master.

Toby Young, the former editor of the Modern Review, wrote to me just before our launch with these words: "You should prepare for your life to become complete hell ... It will be an unending crisis, putting out one fire after another. The only things which will keep it going are blood, sweat and tears ... I don't mean to discourage, but I hope you don't have a family." I am married with four children, and Young was right - at least for the first couple of years.

But at 50 issues we have grown up. Thanks in part to a more professional business and marketing team, we are now an established cultural and commercial fact. And it is worth considering why we have succeeded in such a short time. Britain, after all, does not have a recent tradition of intelligent, essay-based, monthly journalism. As I wrote in the editorial of the first issue: " Prospect will occupy that large space between the 'instant' and the 'academic'. Many people regard this space as a black hole for publishing ambitions, but their economics is out of date and their cultural pessimism unjustified. The British are no less interested in ideas, in the well-written discursive essay, and in intellectual and editorial rigour, than the hundreds of thousands of Americans who buy monthlies such as this."

On the economics, desk-top publishing has become cheaper and more efficient and the Internet helps in all sorts of ways, including reaching international subscribers. Culturally and politically our timing has been good too. The "end of history" both internationally and domestically (Blairism) has left in its wake a more opaque world. Even the best newspapers and weeklies find it difficult to grapple with its complexities given their limited space and tight deadlines.

We are also a beneficiary of "dumbing down". This is not because we are so clever, indeed compared with Encounter of 30 years ago or even the more self-consciously intellectual reviews like the New York Review of Books or London Review of Books, we are rather accessible. The reason is that we connect. Dumbing down, it seems to me, is as much a matter of "spreading out". There is still a huge amount of good, intelligent writing and talking about the world going on but it is more spread out than it used to be in the Fifties and Sixties. Prospect tries to bring a representative slice of it back together between two covers every month. There is little in the magazine that could not appear elsewhere, but the combination of breadth and depth is, we think, unique.

Moreover, unlike our monthly predecessors in Britain, Encounter on the right, and Marxism Today on the left, we are not a political "cause" magazine. We start from premises that are more liberal than conservative, but we are as eclectic in our politics as we are in our subject matter.

This happens to suit most of us intellectually but is also a commercial necessity: if you alienate all thoughtful people of the committed left or right you leave yourself too small a potential market to survive.

But how can you be an ideas magazine without definite ideas of your own, people used to ask. We are a forum, for the ebb and flow of informed argument. "The magazine is really improving," people often say. It used to irritate me, because I thought it was always good; "you're just getting more used to it," I would reply. But I just went back to look at the first issue and we have got better.

We are now less earnest, more cultural, more distinctive in our writers and subjects; and it looks a lot sharper, superior paper, more colour, better use of photographs. After another 50 issues, I hope we will be filling the same gap that we do now, that we will be making money and that I won't need to take a copy to dinner parties in case there is someone there who has not yet heard of us.

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