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Ian Burrell: By embracing feminism, the New Statesman beat its old rival

Media Studies: The growth of the site has raised the profile of the magazine, rather than undermined its appeal

In the New Statesman's darkest hours, when the venerable leftist periodical looked like it had no viable future, few would have seen feminism as the source of its salvation. It is an ideology aligned, in the minds of many, to the bra-burning and peace-camp protests of a gender politics which predated Tony Blair's modernisation of the Labour Party. Why would a magazine that was attempting to be relevant in the 21st century return to the battlefields of a bygone era?

Yet it is feminism which ensures that the New Statesman has not only made it to its centenary but can celebrate that anniversary this week with confidence that it has the caught the attention of young readers, especially young female readers.

Last Thursday, at Conway Hall in London, it hosted an event called "The Future of Feminism", at which the magazine's "crack squad of feminist bloggers" – many of them in their twenties – held forth before a sell-out audience.

In many ways, the occasion encapsulated the New Statesman's business strategy in coping with market conditions that are unforgiving to print media. The feminist event was filmed for digital distribution and recorded as a podcast. It promoted New Statesman writers such as Bim Adewunmi and Laurie Penny. And it was hosted by its web editor, Caroline Crampton, and featured deputy editor Helen Lewis among the speakers. Lewis has been integral to growing website traffic to a record 1.4 million unique users last month.

Jason Cowley, the New Statesman's editor, has observed these developments with some satisfaction. The internet, which could have meant the death of the magazine, has instead been "utterly transformative". When he arrived as editor in 2008, the right held the upper hand in political blogging. "The big players were Iain Dale, Guido [Fawkes] and [The Spectator 's] Coffee House. All the action seemed to be on the right and the left was playing catch up."

Today, the New Statesman website comfortably beats that of The Spectator, against which its success has long been measured. Importantly, the growth of the site has raised the profile of the magazine, rather than undermined its appeal. The two formats are quite different.

"The magazine is more scholarly and high-brow and committed to long-form essays and reportage – whereas the website is nimble, quicker and comment-driven," says Cowley. Circulation stands at 24,910, which includes some 7,200 freely distributed copies, but does not include nearly 5,000 sales on Kindle and in overseas markets.

The editor says the magazine, with its compact staff of 15, will come into profit this year, which should please its benefactor, Mike Danson, who bought out former owner and Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson in 2009.

Cowley's model for the magazine, which is popularly known as the "Staggers", is The Atlantic in America, which has also embraced the internet while keeping its print product distinctive, and has developed new revenue streams through branded events. Next week the New Statesman will hold another debate – "The Left Won the 20th Century" – which will see the unlikely pairing of leftie Mehdi Hasan and Daily Mail polemicist Simon Heffer arguing against The Independent's Owen Jones and the Tory blogger Tim Montgomerie (newly signed up by The Times), who will be contesting the idea that the left has prevailed.

It is typical of Cowley's editorship of the New Statesman that he has given a platform to Tory voices, despite the Fabian roots of a magazine founded in 1913 by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. After "decades of neglect and decline" it had to try something different, he says. "From the mid-1980s to the late-2000s it was kind of a burned-out ruin. Other editors did great jobs in that period but they were working in really difficult circumstances."

Cowley has won attention with some inspired guest editorships, including one by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, which provoked a political storm. Another, by Jemima Khan, included a Hugh Grant article based on the secret recording of an interview with the former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan. Headlined "The bugger, bugged", it generated much publicity for the magazine.

The editor has also made a commitment to commissioning long essays. He brought back cartoons and poetry and long book reviews. He is seeking to emulate the values of Kingsley Martin, who made the New Statesman's reputation during three decades of editorship until 1960, "his great gift was to capture and articulate the aspirations of a whole generation," Cowley says. The New Statesman will recognise its roots by publishing an archive edition for £5.99, showcasing some of the finest writing that has appeared between its covers in the past century. John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, JB Priestley, George Orwell, the editor reels off a long catalogue of famous names. He then pauses and acknowledges a paucity of women in his list. Emmeline Pankhurst was a contributor, he notes, as was Virginia Woolf.

But he is not short of female writers now. Beatrice Webb's old publication has "a whole new generation of very powerful feminist bloggers," whose prose is a product of their medium and who have a collective humour, attitude and savoir faire of modern media which brings a fresh excitement to their subject. "It's not the Greenham Common feminism that got unfairly characterised as humourless and dull," says Cowley. "It's the wit and energy that I like."

Simpson hope for Mandela moment

John Simpson, the great panjandrum of BBC news, has given The Spectator an exclusive on his employer. The BBC, it transpires, lined up a tribute programme to mark the 90th birthday of Nelson Mandela in 2009 but its ambitions were cruelly snubbed. The BBC would have made its film “freely available around the world as an act of homage”, says Simpson, who does not say if he would have presented the show, or interviewed Mandela for it. Because Mandela’s advisers were uncooperative the broadcaster had to show an archive retrospective instead. South African President Jacob Zuma said last week that “Madiba” is making a slow recovery from a recent bout of pneumonia. Simpson, whose fondness for pitching up to cover historic stories is sometimes referred to by resident BBC foreign correspondents as “big-footing”, seems unconvinced. The frustrated BBC world affairs editor compares the ANC leadership and its culture of “news management” to the regimes of Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev. “It’s time the government was more open and honest about the condition of the best-loved man on earth,” he rails, as the refusal to identify Mandela’s hospital denies him the opportunity of what would be a momentous stand-upper. When we already know that this is a 94 year-old man who has been in hospital four times in the last two years, what else do we learn by exposing him to more forensic media scrutiny?

Keeping abreast of high society

What would the New Statesman’s crack squad of feminist bloggers make of the latest Tatler magazine, with its double-page spread – headline “Titler” – devoted to “the most magnificent, marvellous breasts in all society”? There, with the lens staring straight down their cleavages, are The Marchioness of Cholmondeley (“Stately Tits”), Lady Dalmeny (“Sotheby’s Tits”), Florence Brudenell-Bruce (“Sloane Tits”) and Lady Annabel Goldsmith (“Matriarchal Tits”), among dozens of other well-bred gals. It’s almost as if the editor, Kate Reardon, has cut a deal with Dominic Mohan, the editor of The Sun, who is fighting a determined campaign to get him to scrap the paper’s Page 3 topless model feature. Elsewhere in this month’s Tatler there is a topless fashion feature inspired by the art of Gustav Klimt and an interview with model Lily Aldridge in which the writer makes reference to her “perfect, perky breasts”. The leftish bloggers might approve more of a warm piece on Britain’s first black marchioness, Emma McQuiston. At least, until the part that describes the young aristo as “delicate, with an athletic frame, miniscule waist and perky breasts”.

Twitter: @iburrell