New Statesman: Straight out of Left field

The challenge facing any editor of the 'New Statesman' is how to stay true to core values while producing a title original enough to command attention. Is it a trick that John Kampfner is pulling off? Andy McSmith meets him
Click to follow

John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman, is looking pleased with himself. Sales are up, the magazine is making money and it's winning awards, the latest of which was to Kampfner himself when he was named editor of the year in the current affairs magazine category at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards last week. It has just signed up a new columnist, the comedian Shazia Mirza, and it is on the verge of launching itself on the internet.

In the summer, rumours were going around of tension between Kampfner and the magazine's proprietor, the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson - not over its political line, in which Robinson never intervenes, but over whether the money spent on a redesign was having the expected impact.

There were also rumblings that Kampfner had ambitions larger than his job - he is on the airwaves more often than his predecessor, Peter Wilby - which surfaced in Private Eye. One interested reader also contacted The Independent with a suggestion that when Kampfner wrote a cover story about Israel two issues ago, he said more about himself than the Palestinians. This is not quite right. A precise count shows that the words "I" or '"me" cropped up 22 times in Kampfner's 2,400-word piece, and "Palestine" or "Palestinians" 24 times.

"All editors need a certain profile," Kampfner explains. "It's important to have it for your publication, but the most important thing if you're an editor is to do that job well. What I want to be judged on is what I'm doing here in my journalism, the journalism of the magazine. I want people to think, well he managed to raise the profile - not just the circulation; to get to a point where it is socially awkward among intelligent members of the public not to have the NS every week."

It is hard to argue with a string of awards that the New Statesman has collected this autumn - for its political editor, Martin Bright, and television critic Andrew Billen, plus a commendation for Peter Wilby's media column, and two awards for the designers, Stephen Coates and Simon Esterson.

The magazine took on a larger format in the summer and acquired a new masthead. The old design allowed the editor to plug only one cover story below the masthead; now he can flag up several. Kampfner is confident that its success will show in the next set of audited sales figures. "I'm very confident that our ABC circulation figure for the six months to the end of this year will be around 30,000 or above, which is set against 24,700 for the equivalent six-month period at the end of 2005. That's over 20 per cent up, and our highest circulation since 1982."

From the end of this month, the entire magazine will be available free online, a move that Kampfner hopes will bring in new readers, and allowing the magazine to engage more directly with political activists. It will also help a drive for overseas sales, which have been "minimal".

Kampfner believes the same factors that have contracted the market for daily newspapers are working in favour of magazines. "Us, The Economist, The Spectator, the New Scientist, The Week, Time Out - we're all doing pretty well. Saturday and Sunday newspapers are all doing pretty well. Monday to Friday daily newspapers are encountering quite considerable difficulties.

"People in the working week get their information and their bite-size comment from the internet, from free newspapers and from 24-hour TV. But when it comes to the weekend what you want are one or two seriously enticing and intelligent reads that can just give you a different perspective on what's going on and that's why the entire sector can continue growing strongly."

But a strict comparison shows that The Economist has audited sales of 162,112 in the UK alone; New Scientist sells 96,861 in the UK and almost as many abroad; The Week sells 120,777 worldwide; Time Out and The Spectator sell 92,233 and 70,090 respectively - so even if it reaches 30,000, the New Statesman will be less halfway towards parity with any of these magazines.

Kampfner is convinced, however, that he can push circulation much higher, as he aims at the readership of The Guardian and The Independent with an improved mix of news reporting, polemic, humour and criticism. He has felt the need to be rough with some of the magazine's contributors, which may explain some of the stories about him.

"What I don't want to do is what I call 'anti rhetoric'," he explains. "I was contacted by a writer six months ago who said, 'I want to do you a really strong piece about how the Olympics are ruining London.' I said: 'Interesting. Can you send me an e-mail just setting out what evidence you've got?' To which he declared: 'Evidence? I don't need evidence. I write for you regularly.' To which I said: 'I'm sorry, I don't want a piece like that. Tell me something I don't know, write it in a compelling way, and we'll publish it.' It's not because I'm for or against the Olympics or whatever, it was just 'I'm so angry because...' is lazy journalism. I want our writers to either give me a new angle I hadn't thought of or give me new information that I hadn't had."

John Kampfner was a foreign affairs journalist who moved to political journalism relatively late. After nearly a decade as a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in Berlin and Moscow, he moved to Westminster in the mid-Nineties as chief political correspondent of the Financial Times. He wrote the biography of the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. He then moved to the BBC as political commentator for the Today programme, but left in December 2002 to go freelance. He wrote Blair's Wars, which came out in 2003, an account of the foreign conflicts in which the Labour government had been involved. He supported Blair's early military missions, but not the Iraq war. He joined the New Statesman as political editor in June 2002, and replaced Peter Wilby as editor in May last year. Moving into Wilby's chair was "amicable", he says. "He gives me advice and I shall give advice to my successor - if they want it."

The New Statesman certainly appears to have benefited from the turmoil at the top end of the Labour Party. A magazine that was seen as an irrelevance by the architects of New Labour a decade ago is now, seemingly, a desirable forum. Of the troubles of last September, when a letter went around calling for Tony Blair's resignation, Kampfner says: "We had an absolute torrent of requests from senior Cabinet ministers and senior figures in the general firmament eager either to be interviewed by us or to write for us. We got to the strange position where I was having to tell cabinet ministers, 'Sorry, you're in the hold queue. You'll have to wait for a couple of weeks because one of your colleagues is in this week.' And they would say, 'Who is it?', and I would say, 'Well, you'll just have to wait and see.'

"They were beginning to see us as an absolutely vital part of the debate, which is what we should be. Although, having said all of that, I am absolutely rigorous and determined that our journalism will be as tough and as rigorous as it has ever been.

"I have not run two or three pieces by Cabinet ministers because they weren't journalistically rigorous. The same criteria we use for journalists we use for politicians: 'Tell us something we don't already know'." So perhaps he has reason to be pleased. It is a magazine that punches above its market weight.