Prospect magazine: Big thinking allowed

'Prospect' editor David Goodhart celebrates 10 years of his magazine that almost didn't get off the ground but has since become a home for intellectually rigorous essays, think pieces and even the odd cartoon
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The Independent Online

Prospect is a child of the post-Cold War era in another sense. It is not trying to save the world from anything, nor convert it to something. At Prospect we try to reflect and celebrate the messiness of our times. We are more liberal than conservative in political outlook but we have not tried to stand for much beyond good writing, independence of mind and an optimistic realism about human affairs.

After German unification I did return to London to work at the FT for another three years, but in 1994 I took a year's leave of absence to attempt to raise £350,000 to start the magazine (with the help of a friend and the first publisher of Prospect, Charles Seaford). Throughout the 1980s I had enjoyed a journalist's good fortune of often being in the right place at the right time. I was a labour reporter on the FT during the miners' strike of 1984-85 then switched to writing about companies and the City when the takeover boom took off in 1986-87. (In between I was at the Heysel stadium in 1985 when 39 football fans died and I flew into Moscow as the Chernobyl disaster struck in 1986.)

My luck continued to hold with Prospect. For 1994-95 turned out to be a good time to be raising money for a politically liberal, internationally minded magazine. The long Conservative hegemony in British politics was ending. Tony Blair had just become leader of the Labour Party. There was a ferment of new thinking on the centre-left, and few outlets for it. There was also growing anxiety about "dumbing down" and insularity in the British media and public life generally.

Such factors may have helped to make Prospect possible, but they did not make it easy. Nobody had heard of either me or Charles Seaford. I had no track record as an editor; neither did he as a publisher. But I had begun to think that creating this magazine was my destiny. And I did have some things going for me. After 12 years on the FT I had a fat contacts book full of names from both serious journalism and business. And despite having three children under five, my family circumstances were also favourable. My biggest risk was making a fool of myself.

If American money helped to make it possible, it was also American magazines that provided the inspiration. In the 1980s and early 1990s I would read the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and others. These magazines were a showcase for the kind of essay, that, if well written enough, would not only provide the pleasure of an absorbing read but also leave me at the end knowing more about the world. Why couldn't I produce a magazine that provided three or four such essays each month? I imagined a publication that was grounded in the world of politics, culture, literature and ideas, but was also in the intellectual entertainment business - providing clarity, rigour and good writing.

I had convinced myself that there was both a commercial and a cultural gap for a British magazine of essays, but could I convince anyone else? There was no problem finding writers. Finding investors was harder.

The man who turned out to be our saviour was the ex-Tory MP turned businessman Derek Coombs. Derek, who abandoned his old party over its hostility to the EU, had been interested in investing in a political magazine for several years. Charles Seaford and I went to see him and persuaded him that an essay-based monthly could have just as much impact as a weekly. Derek is now our chairman, the largest single shareholder and the commercial driving force behind Prospect.

When it became clear that we were going to reach the £350,000 target laid down in the business plan, we rather quickly needed some staff and an office. I was lucky to find a first deputy editor - Valerie Monchi - previously deputy foreign editor of the Jewish Chronicle, who became as committed to making Prospect work as I was. And after many depressing days trailing round potential offices in dowdy parts of London we found a surprisingly affordable attic in Bedford Square which became our home for the next eight years, and the place where we too often heard the dawn chorus on our deadline nights in those early months.

With the help of some friendly pre-publicity in the press and a big party organised by the PR company Hobsbawm Macaulay, our first issue was launched upon a somewhat indifferent world on 28 September 1995. We printed 50,000 copies of the first issue and sold about 11,000. In retrospect it doesn't seem a bad figure for a brand new, serious-minded magazine without much marketing behind it, but at the time I remember feeling disappointed that there might not be a reservoir of pent-up demand for a magazine of this type after all. Indeed, things got worse before they got better, with circulation falling to about 5,000 after the fourth issue, before it started its long, slow climb.

Comparing that first issue with one from 2005 there are strong family resemblances. We maintain a hybrid of forms: the short opinion pieces and one-page columns that could appear in a newspaper or weekly; the 3,000- to 6,000-word (usually polemical) essays which certainly couldn't; more information-based Economist-style special reports and briefings; reportage; and so on. Amartya Sen's first-issue cover essay on the interconnection between economic growth and political freedom - with special focus on China and India - is the kind of ambitious, big-picture argument that we might easily run as a cover story today.

There were plenty of stylish writers on display: Alan Ryan, Frederic Raphael and the then unknown comic writer Jeremy Clarke. Andrew Adonis, now a junior minister in the education department, then a journalist on the FT, wrote a prescient piece urging Tony Blair to be his own secretary of state for education when he became prime minister. Adonis went on to become an education adviser to Blair and, some said, the agent through which Blair was, indeed, his own education secretary.

Apart from a big essay by Brian Glanville on sports journalism, there was not much writing about culture. But since the arrival of Alex Linklater as my new deputy in 2001, culture and the arts have commanded more space (including regular columns on film, television, the visual arts and music) and there is more narrative journalism and interior life.

Today's magazine is printed on better paper, uses more colour and looks a far more grown-up product than the early issues, which had something of the smart student magazine about them. It also has more light and shade (cartoons did not feature for the first few years), and is more tightly edited. Looking back on those first issues I wince at some of the baggy, under-edited pieces.

But it was satisfying and motivating that few people, in the first year or two, gave us a chance of surviving. As relatively favourable comments began to flow in our confidence grew: the irritating phrase that was often pinned on us was succès d'estime. We certainly weren't a commercial success.

Now that we sell nearly 24,000 copies a month, things are more solid beneath our feet. We remain a small outfit with only nine full-time staff, and if we can use our redesigned website to increase international sales (now around 4,000) we may even reach the sunlit uplands of financial stability in the next couple of years.

Our readers are, in the main, highly educated, intellectually curious people but spread pretty widely across the professions. The biggest single group - people working in higher education - are only about 15 per cent of the total. And I still believe that if we continue improving the magazine and our marketing of it, we could double our circulation.

'Thinking Allowed: The Best of Prospect 1995-2005' edited by David Goodhart is published by Atlantic Books. To buy it at the special price of £14.99 (plus p&p), call 01903 828503 and quote 'Prospect 02'.