The Magazine’s Mark

How National Journal changed Washington journalism for good.

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Jonathan Rauch
Dec. 11, 2015, 5 a.m.

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.


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