National Journal. One of journalism’s great innovators.
Those two phrases may look odd together. Really? The wonkish magazine with the four-figure subscription price and the audience of uber-nerds? The journal with an index and (for most of its run) holes for handy binding? The place that during its heyday proudly ran articles with headlines like “Railroads Versus Coal Pipelines—New Showdown in the West”?
Right. That National Journal.
This issue marks the end of the magazine’s 46-year run. Before NJ came along, there was nothing like it. After it ends, there will be nothing like it. In between, it was revered by policy wonks, lobbyists, academics, and government officials but little known to the general public. Yet it demonstrably pioneered forms of journalism that are part of the furniture today.
In the 1970s, it pioneered data-driven journalism long before the term was invented. In the 1980s, it pioneered what later became known as the conceptual scoop. Throughout its run, it set the bar for explanatory journalism, never hesitating to dive into the weeds to subdue a complicated issue. It approached every story as a mission to provide sophisticated readers with right answers. It was not alone in its deployment of any of those innovations, but it combined them in a way that was, and remains, unique.
Fortunately, its innovations are alive and well, thriving in online formats that let journalists mash up reportage, data, big ideas, and explanatory detail without a second thought. “Writers coming up today have the ability to write a nerdy post about a political-science paper or a think-tank paper that maybe wouldn’t, in a more traditional newsroom, be one of the things that found space in a crowded newspaper,” says Ezra Klein, the 31-year-old editor of Vox, a startup website where explanatory and data-driven posts are the signature products. Wonk journalism has never been so cool or so widely practiced. “Maybe,” muses Klein, when asked about National Journal’s legacy, “it won.”
IN THE WINTER of 1968–1969, a band of refugees from Congressional Quarterly decided to start a new magazine. The idea was to do for the rest of the government what CQ did for Congress: provide in-depth, nonpartisan coverage for people who really needed to know. One of the first meetings was held at the home of Neal Peirce, who now leads Citiscope, a website on innovations in world cities. He came up with the name, he says, after hearing this line in President Nixon’s inaugural address: “To match the magnitude of our tasks, we need the energies of our people—enlisted not only in grand enterprises, but more importantly in those small, splendid efforts that make headlines in the neighborhood newspaper instead of the national journal.” Peirce figured the name would sound authoritative, opening doors for a fledgling magazine.
Eventually, it did. In the early years, however, the magazine struggled with overstaffing, unpaid bills, and an unclear mission, providing something more like hard-core research than journalism. Its embryonic stage ended with the appointment in 1975 of Newsweek alumnus John Fox Sullivan as publisher. NJ, he believed, should be a trade magazine for policymakers. (He would tell the staff that his three least favorite words in the English language are “general-interest magazine.”) He would run the magazine for 30 years, imprinting it with his love of politics and policy, and with his close attunement to Washington’s inner circles.
Sullivan, in turn, made the magazine’s defining appointment, promoting managing editor Richard S. Frank to the top job in 1976, a position Frank would hold until 1997. Frank was an owlish introvert whose knowledge of Washington was as encyclopedic as his nonpartisanship was fierce. “This is not a news magazine,” he would tell reporters; tiny NJ could never beat the dailies on news, so it had to provide detail and context. It had to offer, he now recalls (from retirement in California), “two kinds of stories: those that reported on subjects that the press in general didn’t seem interested in or wasn’t ready to write about, and those on subjects everyone else was writing about but offering much greater detail, including the positions of all key players, without taking positions in the debate.”
Frank’s fascination with policy and the inner workings of government was such that he was known to cull story ideas from the Federal Register. In 1981, he handed a summer intern—the author of this article, as it happens—a clipping about an arcane policy dispute over labor regulations involving industrial homework. (Don’t ask.) It turned out to be a microcosmic case study of the new administration’s attempt to bring the Reagan Revolution to labor policy (and it launched that young journalist’s career). Another intern that summer, Barton Gellman, whose subsequent accomplishments include breaking the Edward Snowden story for The Washington Post, recalls, “I was crestfallen when Dick Frank assigned me a long piece on sugar-price supports. Honestly, I could imagine nothing more boring. But it became a tale of politics and power and subversion of free-market rules. Digging deep had a way of surprising me. I found it could make nearly any subject interesting.”
Gellman was just one of dozens of journalists who trooped through NJ’s newsroom on their way to prominence and prizes; Frank had a sharp eye for talent. While the same was true of NJ’s other editors, his hires set the template.
ONE OF THOSE hires was Robert J. Samuelson, then (and still today, as a Washington Post columnist) a brilliant curmudgeon who adores data. In 1978, he got the idea of figuring out what share of government spending flowed to the elderly. What he found, in an article that became part of a National Magazine Award–winning submission, was that spending on the elderly was fast rising and gobbling up the budget; that other kinds of spending would be increasingly crimped, making budgetary austerity the new normal in Washington; and that “the growth in the elderly population seems sure to centralize more spending and power in Washington.” Today, the share of spending that flows to the elderly is a readily available statistic, and Samuelson’s findings are reality. In 1978, Samuelson had to develop his numbers by piecing together budget documents and calling federal agencies, and his findings were bleeding-edge.
Samuelson was in the right place: From its earliest years, NJ was waist-deep in data. In 1976, a team of reporters set out to determine which states were net winners and net losers in the contest for federal dollars. That data, like Samuelson’s, had not been assembled, and again, the findings—laid out in a 14-page article with charts showing the federal balance-of-payments by state, plus detailed breakdowns of what kinds of federal resources were going where—became a touchstone. “Federal tax and spending policies,” reported Joel Havemann, Neal Peirce, and Rochelle Stanfield, “are causing a massive flow of wealth from the Northeast and Midwest to the fast-growing Southern and Western regions of the nation.”
Mining data became a hallmark. In those days other outlets did it, but not as consistently or as well. In 1986, the late David Morrison combed through more than 2,600 line items in the Defense Department’s budget documents and found a startling 300 percent increase in the Pentagon’s “black budget,” its classified spending, during the Reagan years. The numbers he crunched filled a chart that spread across two pages. Twenty years later, in much the same vein and with equally unsettling results, reporter Corine Hegland trawled the unclassified records of 132 prisoners then at the Pentagon’s detention center in Guantanamo. In an eight-page article including a two-page, multilayered chart, she demonstrated that, far from being the worst of the worst, more than half the detainees were not accused of hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, and the majority had been arrested not on any battlefield but in Pakistan by Pakistani authorities.
Hard numbers could lead in surprisingly poignant directions. In a 2007 article on how military honors were awarded, defense reporter Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. told moving stories of combat valor, but the backbone of his article was the data he compiled. The rate at which the armed forces recognized valor, he found, was far lower in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters than in World War II and Vietnam, and the Pentagon’s failure to publicize awards left many living heroes publicly unnoticed. Moreover, the services applied widely divergent standards in choosing medal recipients, with capricious and inequitable results. Army awards “show a striking bias toward the higher ranks,” and the Air Force and Navy were awarding medals at rates far disproportionate to their share of casualties.
NJ constructed state-of-the-art congressional-vote ratings; devoted periodic issues to personal profiles and statistical analyses of all the top officials of both Congress and the executive branch; and biennially, and notoriously, tracked down and printed salary data on how much trade associations and nonprofits paid their CEOs. Beyond the special projects, the magazine infused its pages with data and nudged reporters to provide it. What NJ was early to figure out was that those who had the data could shape the conversation. “NJ encouraged this kind of stuff and we showed in a small way that it could be done and it could reveal things,” says Samuelson. “It changed the way people looked at the world.”
SAMUELSON WAS AMONG the pioneers of another kind of mind-shaping journalism. In 1980, after weeks of research, he published an article called “Money Makes the World Go Round—But What If It Can’t Anymore?” Frank gave him 13 pages to make his argument, one that induces a shiver of recognition today. International financial flows, Samuelson found, had become so voluminous and complex that not only were they literally out of control, but “the bankers didn’t really know what they were doing,” because they couldn’t reliably assess credit risk. What had occurred, wrote Samuelson, was “an act of creation,” an unplanned and unfathomable transformation of the way money moved across borders. He won NJ a National Magazine Award for that article, an early calling card for another National Journal specialty: the “conceptual scoop.”
The term was popularized by Paul Starobin—a National Journal reporter who was himself a leading practitioner of the art—in a 1996 article for Columbia Journalism Review. A news scoop, Starobin says, makes the reader exclaim, “Wow, that’s happening?”; a conceptual scoop elicits an “Aha!” reaction: the feeling of discovery that flows from seeing a previously unnoticed pattern or grasping a provocative new idea.
Frank, the editor, was more a detail man than a theoretician, but he knew a big idea when he saw one and never turned down a compelling pitch, even if it meant dedicating extra pages or time. In 1983, he hired Ronald Brownstein, now editorial director of Atlantic Media (NJ’s parent company), then a young reporter who quickly recognized that politics is a battle of ideas, and who covered it that way. In a characteristic 1988 article called “Losing Its Grip?” he marshaled political analysis, public-opinion data, and cutting-edge scholarship to argue that the public’s worries about national security were migrating away from traditional military spheres and toward economic decline, “terrorism, unresponsive (even ungrateful) allies, and a world that seems less malleable to U.S. policy goals”—an argument that remains relevant today.
From the grateful and still slightly astonished author of this article, NJ’s hospitable environment brought forth a stream of idea-driven journalism. One article in the 1980s identified a new school of “supply-side Democrats,” whose arguments for public investments echoed the case conservatives had made for tax-rate cuts in the 1970s. Another article probed the “parasite economy,” bringing public-choice economics to bear on Washington deal-making. “Demosclerosis,” in 1992, drew on economics and evolutionary theory to explain why the federal government was losing the ability to adapt and solve problems. Starobin, in 1998, announced the arrival of “The Daddy State,” a conservative answer to the Nanny State, aiming not so much to provide a safety net and curtail unhealthy behavior as to set limits and curtail anti-social behavior. Along the way, he cited rhetoric from both parties, various government programs, and (who else?) Aristotle.
“National Journal was trying to swim high up there in the food chain,” Starobin says. “This was kind of our value-added.” In an era when it’s not uncommon to see academic theoreticians blogging for news outlets, readers and writers alike take conceptual journalism for granted, but the media offered few homes or models for it when NJ set out on the path, as much out of necessity as choice. “Whatever we did should aim to be different from what subscribers could get for free or for a much lower price elsewhere,” says Charlie Green, who edited the magazine from 1999 to 2013. “We could be different by offering more original insights than other publications”—and, Green notes, by “being more comprehensive than other publications could afford to be.”
IF THE DEEP data-dives and ambitious conceptual leaps were splurges, NJ sought to distinguish itself every week, and in every article, by providing enough detail, comprehensiveness, and objectivity to make each major story a one-box kit for policy wonks who needed to understand an issue. The magazine pitched its work to an open-minded, sophisticated person trying to figure out some complex matter. “It rejected the idea that the entire debate was a repeated collision of competing spins,” says Brownstein. “What NJ always asserted was that it wasn’t just a matter of who was up and who was down, that there were consequential choices in the actual policy.”
The trade journals were detailed, the newsmagazines were comprehensive, and the better newspapers aimed for objectivity. But NJ, to a unique extent, provided the whole package, adding an element of insider sophistication all its own. A paradigmatic story was the aforementioned “Railroads Versus Coal Pipelines—New Showdown in the West,” by Richard Corrigan, a beloved reporter and editor who died on the job in 1991. Seemingly as dry as coal dust, the article provided everything you could ever want to know about a legislative struggle between coal interests, which wanted to ship coal (in a liquefied, slurry form) through pipelines, and railroad interests, which exploited their control of rail rights-of-way to block the pipelines’ construction and thus keep the coal aboard trains. Sections covered such topics as “status,” “coal production,” “coal projections,” “water,” “rail traffic,” and “future”; trade groups, politicians, and unions all had their positions explained. Everything was there in six pages. Read between the lines, and what you find is a wry Washington classic: a tale of two perfectly counterpoised business lobbies locked in a seemingly endless tussle—to the benefit of the lobbyists on both sides.
Creatures of Washington understood and appreciated that NJ occupied a special niche in the information ecosystem. “I can’t recall ever seeing a gotcha piece,” says Martin Corry, a seasoned lobbyist with Hooper, Lundy & Bookman, a law firm specializing in health care. “People looked to National Journal as a publication that would cover an issue in depth. You couldn’t read into it Republican or Democrat.” Bill Hoagland, a former senior Senate staffer now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, calls it the Cadillac of journalism, so reliable that he unabashedly lifted talking points from it for his boss’s speeches. “People respected the reporting as attempting to dig behind the normal headlines and truly understand why decisions were made the way they were in the halls of Congress,” he says. “Nothing comes close to its nonpartisan coverage in a town that has grown more partisan during my career.”
In government, NJ played the part of expert adviser. “It talked about people like us: people who had a sense of governance and a sense of the politics of governance,” says Stephen Hess, a veteran of the Nixon White House and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (where I am among his colleagues). In academia, “as a Washington outsider, reading National Journal, with its textured, substantive articles, helped me feel like a bit of an insider,” says Gil Troy, a professor at McGill University. Moreover, he adds, “As a contemporary historian, writing books about the 1980s and 1990s, again and again I would come across a National Journal article that stood the test of time. Most not only illuminated what was going on then but actually reflected the kind of perspectives historians like to think we have and journalists, writing the first draft of history, don’t.”
To browse back-issues is indeed to be struck by how often NJ’s above-the-news formula produced prescience. Today, many economists believe that the international capital flows that Samuelson wrote about in 1980 played an important role in the housing bubble of the 2000s—and thus in the collapse that followed. In October 2001, just a month after September 11, James Kitfield published “Next Stop—Baghdad?” in which he mapped the many vectors pointing the Bush administration toward a pivot to Iraq. In March 2003, just as the Iraq War was beginning, Julie Kosterlitz’s “Occupational Hazards” adduced examples both famous (American occupations of postwar Germany, Japan, and South Korea) and obscure (Cuba, the Philippines) to explain why running post-invasion Iraq would not be the cakewalk that many war advocates expected. Likely problems, she found, would include America’s responsibility “for everything that happens on its watch—from interethnic atrocities to famine”; the dilemma of “how to purge the system of the totalitarians and their henchmen while retaining enough skilled cadres to keep the trains running, food distributed, sanitation maintained”; and administrative confusion entangling the United States, the United Nations, and other coalition members and organizations. All of which came to pass.
AND ALL GOOD things pass. National Journal magazine says goodbye for many reasons, commercial and editorial. Time famine turned the long read into a luxury. Detailed, comprehensive reporting is expensive, often prohibitively so. The weekly tempo feels out of step with Internet rhythms. NJ’s model reader, the open-minded seeker of unbiased information, was increasingly supplanted by the partisan seeker of ammunition and affirmation. “The magazine was increasingly a victim of the polarization it was covering,” says Brownstein.
Its methods, however, live on. Outlets like Vox, The New York Times’s The Upshot, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, and Politico Pro have picked up various elements of the National Journal portfolio and re-purposed them for a new tempo and generation. “They made a terrific contribution to understanding of Washington politics and policy,” says John Harris, Politico’s editor-in-chief. “National Journal could be a great synthesizer of lots of things that were out there in the ether but hadn’t really been pulled together in a forceful way. There are lots of stories we do that would have been naturally at home in the National Journal of old.”
Harris recalls his greenhorn days as a young reporter at The Washington Post, where he sat near David Broder, the renowned reporter and columnist. “David’s office was a total rat’s nest, but the National Journals were always at the top of the pile. He raced for it and grabbed it when he came in. I overwhelmingly associated it with people who were really the definition of seriousness.”
Definition of seriousness. Not a bad epitaph, or legacy.