Former National Journal reporters share memories from 46 years of National Journal Magazine.
WE WERE A HIVE OF QUIBBLERS AND CARPERS
By Paul Starobin
It was the era of trucking deregulation and the misery index, and I was smitten—with a magazine stamped with punched-in holes for keeping back issues in two-ring binders. In 1979, fresh out of college, I couldn’t afford a subscription to National Journal, “The Weekly on Politics and Government,” but my better-endowed employer, the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took one—and it seemed to me that staff correspondents like Robert Samuelson and Richard Corrigan had the best jobs imaginable.
Ten years later, now the time of the S&L crisis, I joined NJ as a staff writer at the invitation of the editor, Richard S. Frank—endearingly gruff, with a (lit) cigar ever in mouth, absent flaws except for an attachment to the Yankees. I reported to Dick Corrigan, by then a managing editor, a gentle man forgiving of a young reporter’s mistakes and harboring mischievously irreverent sentiments about Washington’s puffed-up people of power.
One morning, I got a call at home telling me that Corrigan had died of a heart attack suffered at the office. It was a death in the family—my new family—and we took it hard.
Like any proud family, we also railed at the injustices meted out to us. None rankled more than the Morrison “black budget” Pulitzer Prize affair. David C. Morrison was our fiercely competitive—well, just plain fierce—national security correspondent. He was a piece of work, apt to show up at the office, and not just in summer, in white T-shirt, black shorts, and black hiking boots. His “N.J. Upchuck: A Monthly Diatribe from the Coffee Czar,” signed by “Turtle Shit Head”—ostensibly a memo to let us know how much we owed him for his management of the communal coffee pot—excoriated editors for their manifold deficiencies. But David’s flip-the-bird attitude served him well in ferreting out the sort of information the control freaks at the Defense Department strove to keep hidden. His formidable talents, both as an intrepid reporter and a trenchant writer, were displayed in his March 1986 groundbreaking cover story on the Pentagon’s secret spending on clandestine weapons systems and military operations.
Less than a year later, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series on the Pentagon’s black budget, for which it won a Pulitzer Prize. The Inquirer’s articles made no mention of NJ’s pioneering work. Standing up for his reporter (to no avail), Dick Frank asked the Pulitzer board to “reconsider” the award, since the Inquirer’s series “plows no new journalistic ground.”
The episode resonated for us because this sort of thing—the apparent appropriating of an idea first explored authoritatively by the magazine—was a common occurrence. NJ was a kind of tip sheet for a lot of reporters in town. The press crew understood that reporters like Morrison (and later James Kitfield) on defense, Julie Kosterlitz (later Marilyn Werber Serafini) on health, Rochelle Stanfield (later Margie Kriz Hobson) on the environment, Bruce Stokes on trade, and Richard E. Cohen (aka “The Dean”) on Congress were true experts in their fields.
Of course, sport could be made of a publication with an acronymic penchant for eye-catching headlines like this one from 1997: “Budget Deal May Still Hang on a CPI Fix.” (Still!) Michael Kinsley, ever the wit, once told me that, all things considered, he preferred to read the D.C. telephone book. But genuine policy wonks craved this fare. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, a wonk’s wonk, for whom the latest wrinkle on CPI was a double scoop of ice cream, was a devout NJ reader. On one occasion he welcomed this NJ reporter into his inner sanctum for a one-on-one chat. (The ground rules: No quoting, not even on deep background.) He was known to do his reading in the bathtub at his Watergate digs. The image lingers.
R.W. “Johnny” Apple was an attentive reader, too, during his stint as Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. One day in the fall of 1993, he rang up Dick Frank to growl about a piece containing sharp criticisms—from Clinton administration officials and others—of the health-reform coverage of veteran Times reporter Robert Pear. Dick wasn’t around to take the call—he later, with a chuckle, played back Apple’s voice-message recording for some of us to hear.
The editorial shop, mostly male and virtually all white, would have flunked any diversity test. If there was anything that united us by character, perhaps it was a disposition to argue. We were a hive of quibblers and carpers. Our newsroom was a place of contention, a home for irascible, anti-authority, often expensively educated, egghead warriors (with a couch, in Dad’s office—yes, we called Dick that, when he wasn’t around—for the occasional Jim Barnes snooze). CNN’s Crossfire had nothing on the sniping between Peter Stone, from the Left, and Neil Munro, from the Right, on matters ranging from the war on terrorism to immigration. Clinton’s impeachment—and Ken Starr’s inquisition (as I certainly thought of it)—angrily divided us, nearly bringing us to blows. Good for us, because it was anger born of strong feeling, even of passion, about what constituted good government. Had we been cynical, or merely indifferent, we would have had no enthusiasm for our feuds.
And yes, we could laugh, at Morrison’s “diatribes” (the classic of the genre had our pampered publisher bathing in Arabian mare’s milk) and at Jake Welch’s game-show-like gift for barking out, from the production bullpen, for a reporter scrambling to meet deadline, the middle initial of virtually any Washington policymaker in our Index. Jake knew every m.i. by memory, from Leon E. Panetta to Henry J. Aaron. Kirk Victor maintained by his cubicle a contributions-welcome candy bowl and, on Halloween, ritually donned his Tricky Dick Nixon rubber mask (the one with the eerie grin, a favorite of bank robbers) and stalked the halls while flashing the “V” sign and croaking, “I am not a crook.”
Management forced us to work as lackeys at the national political conventions to put out a (highly profitable) tabloid-style daily. For Houston 1992, they housed the reporting crew in a roach-infested motel with a green slime of a swimming pool seemingly best suited for roller skates, while the publisher and senior editors nestled under the covers at the Four Seasons. But we got even by violating our expense-account strictures in every possible way—Yes, Johnny, the seared scallops are good, more champagne, anyone?—and daring the paymasters not to reimburse us.
We fended off, as best we could, the advertising department’s occasional encroachment on editorial’s turf. Sometimes we lost such battles—as we did when we took exception to the bad idea to bestow awards for exemplary service on government managers. (Our point: We shouldn’t be handing out honors to the people we cover.) Management no doubt thought we were pains in the butt—because we were—but, hey, journalism really is about speaking truth to power, even if that means the power in the front office.
Starting in the late 1990s NJ got hip, sort of. The holes in the magazine disappeared, and so did its staid maroon borders. Under new ownership, there was money available to commission exquisite cover illustrations. (Political-convention accommodations got sharply upgraded, too.) Reporters were encouraged to do more TV—a distinct challenge for our scruffier scribes, unacquainted with a comb or perhaps even a shower stall. We talked about manufacturing “buzz”—the trendy word that somehow migrated from the sound that certain winged insects make to the captivating drone that journalists were now supposed to generate. But there could be no out-buzzing the listicle likes of Buzzfeed, and the core mission of the NJ reporter, to spend three weeks or so probing some topic worthy of deep exploration, remained stodgily unaltered.
Is National Journal, the magazine, then, a victim of “natural” causes—a casualty of a media environment radically transformed since the publication’s founding during the Nixon administration? My own answer to that question, as the proprietor is well aware—in my experience, he has always welcomed reasoned argument, in venerable NJ style—is a decided no.
I’ll boil it down. Yes, we live in the digital age. Maybe newsprint is dead; maybe the future, for all magazines, is exclusively online. But the appetite, certainly in Washington, for the signature sort of NJ magazine piece, the compelling framing of some weighty matter of policy or politics, is alive. Trucking deregulation yesterday, climate change today: Someone needs to explain and analyze the issues, and it takes more than 140 Twitter characters to do it. Speaking truth to power is a timeless mission, and by the way, the Pentagon still has a black budget.
… … … … … …
This piece is written in memory of David C. Morrison, 1953–2013.
WE WERE ABOUT AND FOR INSIDERS
By Timothy B. Clark
National Journal started with grand ambition: We would systematically cover all the sources of power in Washington, mapping the networks of influence that produced new executive and legislative priorities. Our founders (I was one) came from Congressional Quarterly, which had pioneered close coverage of the legislative branch. But we thought that focusing on Congress was not enough: Executive agencies, the White House, and innumerable interest groups pressed their agendas with decision-makers and the media. National Journal could help all of them, and Congress too, better understand and navigate the corridors of power.
Tom Schroth, who had been dismissed as editor of Congressional Quarterly, became our first editor. We quickly staffed up, occupying a whole floor of 1730 M Street. New York entrepreneur F. Randall Smith, heir to the Capital Cities broadcasting fortune, supplied the dough. Randy was a character, who’d fire up his ice machine and begin pouring cocktails at about 5:30. Then we’d repair to Freddy’s Bar next door to plot our investigations. Randy’s partner from New York, Anthony C. Stout, lived the high life; from my desk, I could hear his secretary booking rooms at Claridge’s in London and slots on the shooting moors of Scotland.
From the beginning, we attracted great people. Neal Peirce, political editor at CQ, was a founder, and he went on to become the nation’s leading journalist on the political economies of cities and states. Dom Bonafede came to us after years of reporting at The Washington Post, New York Herald Tribune, Newsweek, and The Miami Herald. We attracted two Ph.D.s who had been teaching history at Yale, Bill Lilley and Claude Barfield, and later, Harvard Ph.D. Bill Schneider, who became an on-air political analyst for CNN. Their careful, academic approach to reporting set standards for others on the staff. Cliff Sessions, distinguished for his coverage of integration battles in the South, was our managing editor. Another founding editor was Roan Conrad, scion of a distinguished North Dakota family (and brother of Sen. Kent Conrad), who went on to serve as political director at NBC News for 14 years.
The first issue, dated November 1, 1969, carried stories on 20 federal departments and agencies, and sections on Congress, the courts, lobbying, and politics. It featured the first of a series of departmental profiles—a 12-page feature on the workings of the Treasury Department, including an interview with Secretary David M. Kennedy. The issue, tightly packed into 60 pages, conveyed a clear message: An ambitious new player had joined the Washington media scene.
Detailed coverage of actions and trends in government was the magazine’s bread and butter. But we wanted scoops as well. One memorable story in 1971 detailed the disproportionate casualty rates of African-American soldiers fighting in Vietnam—a reporting coup by Andrew J. Glass, another Herald Tribune alumnus who went on to head the Washington bureau of the Cox newspaper chain.
We wanted our subscribers to see us as a valuable reference tool, so we gave them big red binders and numbered our pages consecutively throughout the year. In 1970, the first full year, we published 2,850 pages.
Every new venture needs endorsements, and I reached out to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a family friend who was working in Richard Nixon’s White House at the time. Moynihan, later a senator from New York, served up a quote we used for years: “What a grand enterprise … and already indispensable. Insofar as many of us do without that which is indispensable, may I also say irresistible.”
We appealed to many because we were about and for insiders. In 1981, for instance, an NJ staffer dialed random White House–prefix numbers until one was answered in the president’s office. We published that and the numbers of dozens of other White House officials. Realizing that we had a better list than theirs, the White House sent for 600 copies—and quickly changed the number of President Reagan’s secretary. The phone list grew into a semi-annual book, The Capital Source, more than 100 pages long. It was authoritative on names, titles, and phone numbers of hundreds of key players on the Washington scene.
In 2003, we launched our Insiders polling project, which was dreamed up by political reporter James A. Barnes. Barnes recruited dozens of Democratic and Republican political operatives and experts to answer a few questions each week. Topics ranged from future election results to the prospects for pending legislation.
We also relentlessly profiled key actors and influencers in Washington, publishing special issues with titles like “The Decision Makers,” “The Washington 100,” “The Influence Industry,” “The Hill People,” and “Congress’s Rising Stars.” “The Hill People” was deeply “inside”—profiling not members of Congress but rather their staffs. We were just as deep in the weeds with the National Journal Convention Daily, published at each of the national political conventions from 1984 to 2012. We uprooted our entire staff, established offices in the convention cities for a week, and served up news and gossip for all the political insiders who attended.
The economics of all this worked because of John Fox Sullivan. He wasn’t among the founders, but after his arrival in 1975, he became the heart and soul of National Journal. Sullivan had graduated from Yale, then from Columbia Business School, and he had been working at Newsweek. When Stout called, he was eager to make the move from New York to Washington. He knew his job was to lead the business side, but he loved the inside-the-Beltway “game,” as he called it, and he quickly became acquainted with many of its players. He was out most every night, mingling with the downtown lobbying crowd, people from the Hill, and the town’s influential media players. In one particular compliment to Sully’s quick-witted and good-natured persona, he was taken in as the youngest member of the Carlton Club, whose members headed the Washington offices of major domestic and international companies.
He understood that people like his friends in the Carlton Club were always looking for better ways to reach government decision-makers. So he had the inspiration that National Journal might carry advertising delivering policy messages to its audience. His initial advertising proposition had an elegant symmetry: $2,900 for a page of advertising to reach the magazine’s 2,900 paying subscribers.
Advertising saved the enterprise. We carried every major policy campaign, from the fight to regulate tobacco to the epic battle among telecommunications companies over broadband policy to the struggles by major defense contractors to build the next big weapons system. If a company—or an industry—needed image rehabilitation, our pages were the place to be seen.
Circulation was always a challenge—and we found ourselves competing against increasingly aggressive players focused on the Hill. But Sullivan conquered the Hill, so to speak, with an innovative “site license” negotiated with the House. At a discounted price, we agreed to serve every representative’s office with five copies of each issue—assuring at a minimum that their staff would come to know NJ. The circulation coup was crucial to our success with advertisers.
Sully treasured validations of our status that would come our way—Dick Cheney’s unsolicited endorsement; The Washington Post’s coverage of our 20th anniversary; the time when George H.W. Bush, challenged by the press on the wisdom of choosing Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running-mate, held up a National Journal issue touting the young senator as one of “Congress’s Rising Stars.”
John Sullivan is retiring as publisher-at-large. But in a fitting end to a long run at the heart of intelligent journalism about government and politics, the publisher has become a politician himself: the mayor of Washington, Virginia. From his library full of mementos of his life in the capital, from his regular table at the elegant Inn at Little Washington, and from the old City Hall that he has filled with political books from his own collection and those of his friends, he presides on sewer issues, economic development, and other matters of interest to his 134 constituents.
RELEVANT AND REVEALING
By Alexis Simendinger
When I left National Journal in 2010, I hauled boxes of old magazines from the office to my basement, thinking I’d sort through the mess eventually. After joining the reporting staff of RealClearPolitics, I found myself digging through those old issues more frequently than I had imagined. Gov. Bobby Jindal aspired to be president? Where was that interview I conducted with Jindal when he was inaugurated as governor in Baton Rouge? The governor, ambitious from the get-go, wanted to be taken seriously nationally, and appearing in the pages of National Journal met his definition of elite coverage. While he campaigned for the White House this year, I showed him the old article before asking him to discuss his state’s wobbly balance sheet.
And how about that 2010 NJ article in which a smiling Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner described their strategy for bringing Republicans to power? They didn’t succeed in making Barack Obama a one-term president, as McConnell told me they hoped to do, but each man dominated his respective chamber and rose in power with Obama in the White House. I dug out that 2010 Q&A with renewed interest after the GOP gained control of the Senate.
There are other treasures in those basement boxes, many still relevant and revealing years later. The Affordable Care Act’s vulnerabilities? NJ’s health care expert, Marilyn Werber Serafini, foreshadowed the course of future events in her excellent coverage. The fraying clout of national political parties? Jonathan Rauch’s early account was like gazing into a crystal ball. The rise of the intelligence state and cyber-risks among governments? Shane Harris was far ahead, and NJ readers were his beneficiaries. Money in politics? Eliza Newlin Carney not only assessed the seismic shifts underway but invented a term for a new legal entity: “super PAC.”
As Washington insiders fell out of favor among voters in 2015, I revisited NJ’s old Insiders Poll, an intimately elite endeavor invented by Jim Barnes. Dog-eared copies still offer retrospective insights about how experienced influencers unwittingly frayed ties with a restive electorate.
That’s a long way of saying National Journal had a masterful run producing nonpartisan, influential, and prescient reporting about politics and policy, people and bureaucracies, and emerging trends visible and overlooked. It was an honor to learn from such smart reporters, editors, columnists, artists, and photographers for more than a decade.
These days, I report for an online news organization, where things move faster and deep research might consume a week, not a month. Online news organizations are fond of listicles, so here’s one:
• NJ had impact: The magazine’s revelations and conceptual scoops sparked congressional hearings and policy changes, outrage among lobbyists and advocacy groups, and even a constitutional clash between the executive and legislative branches. Think Hillary Clinton’s State Department email habits were newsy? Former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove conducted more than 90 percent of his government work via nongovernmental email accounts. NJ was the news organization that exposed his off-the-grid communications.
• NJ innovated: The daily newspaper that NJ distributed every four years in national political convention cities proved to be a novel and lucrative invention well ahead of what later became possible with Internet publishing. Lots of insider information, packaged rapidly and disseminated to an audience devoted to the same subject, isn’t too tough to pull off online. NJ’s pop-up daily tabloid, on the other hand, was a feat.
• NJ attracted important news consumers: Those in top positions of influence in Washington and many state capitals felt the need to read the magazine (or at least have staff clip from it). During the George W. Bush presidency, I remember the White House Press Office asking me for an urgent extra copy of the magazine at the request of the visiting George H.W. Bush.
• NJ was fair and balanced before that became a slogan: Media trends and cable television nudged journalism toward attitude, opinion, and speed. But well-written and deeply reported substance, presented without bias or favor, is enjoying a bit of a comeback. What National Journal created remains valuable and timeless, even with the extinction of weekly, paper-based magazines.
I’m sad this will be the last issue of such a fine magazine. But I’m in luck. When I want to delve into current events and the context of events, I can pull out the boxes in my basement. All those National Journal issues still have plenty new to teach.
NOT JUST ANOTHER MAGAZINE IN THE STACK
By Charles Green
If you’re reading this article the old-fashioned way (that is, in print), odds are that your magazine was delivered on a Friday. Therein lies a story.
John Fox Sullivan, the longtime publisher of National Journal and the person most responsible for its success, bucked tradition in deciding the day of the week NJ would come out. Conventional wisdom dictated that weekly news magazines should be distributed on a Monday so that they could reflect the events of the week before. For many years, Time, Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly, and other publications followed this formula. Sullivan, however, didn’t want National Journal to be just one more magazine in a stack on office desks. Better to have it delivered on a Friday, he reasoned, so people could read it at the end of the week or on the weekend.
As usual, Sullivan was right. His decision helped differentiate NJ from its competitors for much of its 46-year run. But it also created some interesting challenges for the editorial staff.
The first big one I faced was in November 2000, about a year after I had been named the magazine’s editor. George W. Bush and Al Gore were locked in a tight presidential race, and the election was a few days away. Election issues were always a heavy lift because of National Journal’s production schedule. In order for copies of the magazine to be on delivery trucks before dawn on Fridays, NJ had to be printed on Wednesday nights and Thursdays—not all at once, but in sections, which were then stapled together. The cover was among the first parts of the magazine to go to print because it needed time to dry. Typically, the newsroom would finish its work on the cover on a Tuesday, but for a Tuesday election we would push the deadline and send the cover out around noon on Wednesday.
For the 2000 election issue, we created two covers—one to use if Bush won, the other if Gore won—and told the printer to prepare both. As it turned out, we couldn’t use either. As you no doubt recall, no one knew the day after the election who had won, and no one knew when we would know. Maybe a winner would be declared on Thursday. Maybe on Friday. Either way, any cover printed on Wednesday would be outdated.
Sullivan and I discussed every possible scenario. Finally, we decided to delay publication. By the next day, Thursday, it was apparent that a winner wouldn’t be declared anytime soon (although no one expected it would take more than a month). We decided to produce a cover on the election chaos, print the magazine over the weekend, and deliver it on Monday.
I mention the 2000 experience not to revel in nostalgia (although it was an exciting time to be a journalist in Washington) but to suggest that it is relevant to the decision to discontinue the print version of National Journal. News consumption has changed so dramatically in the past 15 years that the notion of delivering an election issue of a magazine six days after voting concluded seems almost unfathomable today. It’s hardly a news flash that the explosion of online content, which doesn’t have to wait for presses to run and covers to dry, has made print news magazines something of a relic. So while this is a sad moment for those of us who worked at National Journal, it is probably an inevitable one. That’s why I will read this final issue with appreciation, not regret. Appreciation for what
National Journal accomplished over its long, distinguished run.
Working at NJ was a privilege. We were able to explore the most important issues of the day for the most important people in government and politics. The magazine’s circulation was small, a result of the high cost of a subscription. But its reach was large. To be successful, we knew, NJ couldn’t be just another publication covering Washington. National Journal needed to justify its status as an expense-account item by helping readers do their jobs better, whether they were members of Congress writing legislation, lobbyists influencing legislation, or political operatives trying to win elections. We tried to help readers better understand the forces, issues, and people shaping Washington, the nation, and the world.
Sometimes we did that by being more comprehensive than other publications, other times by providing sharper insights, writing with more depth, or tackling subjects our competitors weren’t covering—all the while remaining studiously nonpartisan and nonideological. Readership surveys consistently found that National Journal commanded a trust matched by few other publications—a trust shared by Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
We had our faults, of course. Reporters and editors sometimes confused length for depth and a lack of analytical rigor for a lack of bias. We weren’t always as engaging and timely in our coverage as we should have been. And we occasionally fell into the trap of writing for other journalists rather than for our core audience. But, on balance, we produced a magazine worthy of our subscribers’ time.
Here are a few of my most vivid memories from my 16 years at NJ:
• The awful morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and the exceptional work that followed. We ripped up a magazine that was largely finished, produced a new one solely about the terrorist attacks, and wrote cover stories on the subject every week for the next three months.
• The awful morning of April 4, 2003, when we learned that former NJ editor Michael Kelly had died in Iraq. Mike was a gifted writer and editor. He was also indescribably fun to have as a colleague.
• The touching letters and emails we received from young Marines in awe of our correspondent embedded in their artillery unit at the start of the Iraq War in 2003. His name was George C. Wilson. He was 75 at the time.
• Our staff’s distinctive coverage of important issues and institutions, including economics, energy, demographics, health care, national security, politics, Congress, and the White House.
• The exhaustion and exhilaration associated with producing daily newspapers every four years in the host cities of the Democratic and Republican conventions. There’s nothing quite like walking into your hotel’s restaurant for breakfast and seeing most of the other patrons reading the paper you finished producing six hours before.
• The unsolicited notes and phone calls from subscribers praising—and sometimes panning—our magazine stories and covers. One cover that generated complaints featured a photo of chickens being burned alive because of the avian flu. Advice to cover designers: Avoid burning chickens.
• The satisfaction (after the issues were finished) of having profiled hundreds of congressional staffers in our Hill People issues, hundreds of administration officials in our Decision Makers issues, and scores of new members of Congress in our election issues.
• The sinking feeling I had upon learning that NJ’s annual vote ratings in 2004 and 2008 had determined that John Kerry and Barack Obama, respectively, had racked up the most liberal voting records of any senators. With Kerry and Obama on their way to winning the Democratic presidential nominations, I knew the designations would generate a lot of controversy—and mischaracterizations. I was right.
• My gratitude for the years when ad pages were plentiful and newsroom budgets were large; my admiration for the perseverance of colleagues in the years when ad pages dwindled, as they did in virtually every print publication.
• Owner David Bradley’s support, generosity, and commitment to excellence.
• The joy of working with a staff of bright, dedicated people devoted to National Journal and its mission.
One final note: I had a ritual when I worked at National Journal. Every Friday night, I came home and slowly flipped through the magazine, page by page. I didn’t do it to read the magazine; by then, I had already seen everything in the issue in one form or another, sometimes many times over. I did it because I was proud of what we had accomplished and wanted to savor that week’s product one last time.
As the products offered by National Journal evolve in the coming years, I hope its staffers have the opportunity to experience the same sort of pride in their work, whether they’re seeing it on a smartphone, tablet, computer, or a newfangled device we can’t even fathom. Distinctive journalism was the key to NJ’s success. Not paper.
WE COULD PURSUE PROJECTS THAT TOOK TIME
By Marilyn Werber Serafini
In the late 1990s, I found on my desk a handwritten note from Mike Kelly, a great among many exceptional National Journal editors. Attached to my health care story that week—a five-page feature analyzing a missed statutory deadline for lawmakers to address the privacy of medical records—he had scrawled, “The patients’ privacy story was NJ at its best—smart, original, available not elsewhere.”
When I learned that NJ would be publishing its final issue, I set off on a mad search to find that note, because Kelly, in a few words, had put his finger on exactly what gave NJ an important role among Washington media.
The magazine “provided the most thorough, well-researched articles available in Washington,” Margie Kriz Hobson, NJ’s masterful energy and environment correspondent for more than two decades, told me recently. NJ, she noted, introduced the “behind-the-scenes puppet masters, how they operated, and why the changes were emerging at the time, in that place.”
Those behind-the-scenes players were willing to talk to us because our articles had impact. Early in her tenure at NJ, Kriz Hobson covered communications policy and was invited to interview media mogul Barry Diller, who was then lobbying for less stringent cable TV laws. She met Diller for breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton near Embassy Row. “Pulling apart a dry piece of toast, Diller said that initially he had no idea why I was even on his agenda,” she recalled. So why did Diller meet with her? “The day before, he’d been in a congressman’s office, and there on the desk was a copy of my article on cable-industry legislation. Diller asserted that the only reason the congressman knew anything about cable policy was because he’d read my article.”
Once at NJ, journalists stayed for years—often for decades—because we enjoyed something that did not exist at most other news outlets: We could pursue projects that took time. Before each presidential election, for example, I was lucky enough to work with one of Washington’s best political reporters, Jim Barnes, to create a fair and meaningful way to assess the health-reform proposals and positions of the top-tier presidential candidates. We spent weeks developing a set of criteria to rate the plans’ probable impact on the uninsured, on government spending, on consumer costs, on employer-based insurance, and on the quality of care. We then provided information on the proposals to a balanced group of 10 judges, who spanned the ideological spectrum. And we breathed a sigh of relief when such ideological opposites as former Clinton administration official Len Nichols and then–National Center for Policy Analysis President John Goodman scored the plans similarly.
In 1999, I took nearly half a year to write a story about the growing trend—and dangers—of importing drugs from other countries. I could have simply quantified the trend and explained how Washington regulators might respond. With the luxury of time, however, I tracked down a South African pharmacy that was willing to sell me some very dangerous medications without a valid prescription. The drugs arrived in brown paper wrapping with a false customs declaration that it contained echinacea, a dietary supplement that can be purchased over
But while in-depth, time-consuming reporting was the specialty of the magazine, NJ was more than a magazine. And amid the justified celebration of the magazine’s legacy, it shouldn’t be forgotten just how innovative its other products were.
There was American Health Line, one of the original aggregators of health care news; political platforms like Hotline and The Almanac of American Politics; a publication called Technology Daily, which began in 1998 and, according to one of its reporters, Bara Vaida, “became a must-read for leaders at Apple, eBay, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Oracle, etc. because we were the only ones publishing daily, in-depth stories about what was happening on technology issues.”
Then there was CongressDaily, launched in 1991. (It’s now called National Journal Daily.) Louis Peck was CongressDaily’s first editor, and I was part of its initial staff of full-time reporters, along with Bud Newman, Steve Kay, and Brooks Boliek. CongressDaily was delivered by then-cutting-edge fax technology at exactly 3:00 each afternoon to the closest of Congress watchers, including, of course, those working on Capitol Hill.
The day of the first edition, Jim Jaffe, the long-time press secretary for the House Ways and Means Committee Democrats, balked about this “trash” clogging up his fax machine, and predicted it wouldn’t last more than a few weeks. What could reporters tell insiders that they didn’t already know?
As it turned out, Hill insiders hungered for CongressDaily. Congressional offices complained if it rolled off the fax even a few minutes late. That’s why, during a power outage, our tiny staff of four reporters hand delivered hard copies to every congressional office. It didn’t take long for Jaffe to come around, and for other publications to follow our lead.
“I envisioned CongressDaily as the smoke signals or tom-toms, if you will, of the electronic age,” Peck told me. “The idea was to enable the three legs of the inside-the-Beltway iron triangle—Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the K Street lobbying community—to send messages to each other. In the process, a lot of interesting stories would fall into our laps—many of which would be too inside even for publications such as The Washington Post but nonetheless of immediate significance to the denizens of a few square miles of downtown D.C.”
Two years later, CongressDaily began publishing twice a day. In 1997, The New York Times cited CongressDaily in a story about “a new breed of correspondents” and a “growing number of news outlets offering almost instantaneous updates to and about Congress.” In the years that followed, as more and more publications began to specialize in up-to-the-minute, inside-D.C. reporting, it became clear that CongressDaily was ahead of its time.
To my great pleasure, CongressDaily lives on, no matter the name. And while the retirement of National Journal magazine leaves a hole in the Washington media community, its presence remains vibrant in the alumni who are shining at numerous other outlets.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the name of American Health Line as HeathLine.
OH, THEY WERE READING IT ALL RIGHT
By Stuart Taylor Jr.
When National Journal editor Steve Smith and owner David Bradley offered me a position as a columnist 18 years ago, I was excited to be joining a very special group of journalists.
Week in and week out, they were producing at least as much serious, fact-driven, nonideological, in-depth analysis of national policy and politics as any other publication.
Indeed, just a few months before, I had devoted one of my columns for American Lawyer Media entirely to explaining and extolling a National Journal cover story by Jonathan Rauch on campaign finance.
My employer, Steve Brill, kidded me about going to a magazine that he described as pre-punched with binder holes to enable subscribers to file it without reading it. But I learned how good a calling card National Journal was for getting phone calls returned. And any concern that subscribers might be filing it without reading it was soon dispelled.
Oh, were they reading it. And carefully enough to make themselves heard when they thought National Journal had gone astray. Many of them reacted adversely to a development that none of us had imagined. It came in the wake of the January 1998 revelation, in my first week at National Journal, that President Clinton was under criminal investigation for lying in a civil deposition about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The unexpected development was that both of National Journal’s new columnists—my brilliant colleague Michael Kelly and I—were arguing week after week that the president had indeed lied, first in his deposition and then to the nation.
This put Mike and me in the unaccustomed position of persistently taking the same side as the president’s most bitter political adversaries. It also obliged Steve, David, and John Fox Sullivan, our widely esteemed publisher, to explain to more than a few upset subscribers, officials, and others that National Journal remained as nonpartisan and nonideological as ever, notwithstanding the two new columnists’ controversial views on one big issue.
Those must have been trying times for the magazine’s leaders, as I came to realize. But none ever put any pressure on me to back off. That took fortitude. I have always been grateful for it and for the patience of other colleagues who had their doubts about my views but remained personally and professionally supportive.
Months later, after Steve had been hired away by U.S. News and World Report and Mike had succeeded him as editor of National Journal, I got another memorable window into the magazine’s quality and integrity. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort to publish the first special issue in National Journal’s history, on the occasion of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s massive report urging
the House of Representatives to consider impeaching the president. Clinton’s alleged crimes centered on lying about Lewinsky to a criminal grand jury as well as to everyone else. The special issue’s many articles were to include one commentary making the case for impeachment and another making the case against. I wrote the first and my friend Kirk Victor wrote the second.
We worked feverishly all day in our side-by-side cubicles to produce our drafts, while much of the rest of the country was tittering about the Starr report’s more salacious passages. When the edited copy came back, each of us had to confess to the other that his draft had been dramatically improved in record time by our editor. That was the same Mike Kelly who had been pounding on the president with unequaled eloquence week after week in his own column. Now he was adding his special verve to the commentary arguing against impeachment as well as the one arguing for.
We lost Mike in April 2003, in the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A passionate believer in ending Saddam Hussein’s brutal and bloody tyranny, Mike had contrived to get himself embedded with U.S. forces near the tip of the spear. He was killed under fire in a Humvee accident at the age of 46. It was a great tragedy for all of us at National Journal and at The Atlantic, of which Mike had become editor in 2000, as well as for his wonderful family, his legion of friends, and his many more admirers. Many of us have wondered how he would feel, had he lived the long life he deserved, about the way it all turned out.
Mike had handed off the editorship of National Journal in 1999 to a worthy successor, Charlie Green, whose great skills, sure judgment, ceaseless work, and calm disposition won him wide admiration both inside and outside the magazine. I enjoyed seven more fulfilling years under Charlie’s leadership. By 2010, economic trends had made my column a luxury that National Journal could no longer afford. Now it can no longer afford to put out a print magazine. But I fervently hope that National Journal will live long on the Web.
I left with only one regret. After accepting Charlie’s gracious offer of an office with a spectacular view of the Potomac, I spent far too much time at my desk, down the hall from the buzz of the newsroom, burrowing through emails, newspapers, magazines, and other stuff, and far too little time enjoying the company, and learning from the insights, of my extraordinarily talented colleagues. Fortunately, through the mutually supportive “post-NJ” network, I continue to follow their work and enjoy their company when possible, and they remain what they have always been: practitioners of journalism at its very best.
“FEROCIOUSLY NONPARTISAN” WAS THE MANTRA
By John Fox Sullivan
The magazine’s founders in 1969 were surely ambitious: create a new magazine, covering the federal government, that would fill a perceived editorial void not filled by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Star, trade newsletters, or weekly news magazines. Folks with too much to read already would still find the time for more. National Journal would provide in-depth, nonpartisan coverage of the issues being debated, lobbied, and decided upon by the inside-the-Beltway political and policy professionals. With an editorial staff of more than 75, fancy new offices, and a subscription price tag of more than $1,000, National Journal would feed the insatiable desire of policymakers to read about themselves and the making of legislative sausage. An audacious notion.
The magazine eventually would cover, and be read by, professionals in the executive branch, Congress, the courts, the media, think tanks, and lobbying shops. The editorial mission was to cover the issues being debated in great detail, as well as the players in the high stakes Washington “game” of making policy. Core to National Journal’s issue coverage was balance, fairness, and most of all having no ideology as to what the outcome should be. “Ferociously nonpartisan” was the mantra, and we lived it sufficiently that our readers found our work credible and trusted us. Over time, we found a substantial subscriber base willing to pay prices not normally associated with magazines. National Journal won several prestigious National Magazine Awards, was profiled by Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times among others, and found its niche.
The key to our success was, of course, our reporters and editors, several of whom share their observations in this issue. After some early turnover, the magazine was superbly edited by a sequence of talented individuals, each of whom had his own distinctive touch yet shared a devotion to, and passion for, dogged reporting, intellectual honesty, fairness, and respect for the intelligence of the readers. The sophistication of the audience demanded reporters and editors who themselves had a sophisticated understanding of how policy is actually made in Washington.
Of course, there was the ongoing commercial challenge common to all small magazines. In 1983, National Journal began carrying issue and advocacy advertising directed toward its target audience of policymakers. We were the first to develop this market, which exploded over the next decades, helping to finance not only National Journal, but also Roll Call, The Hill, Congressional Quarterly, and more recently Politico.
During the 1980s, National Journal expanded dramatically to include The Almanac of American Politics, the “political Bible” created by the uniquely talented Michael Barone; Government Executive, which became the premier magazine covering the executive branch and career civil servants; and CongressDaily, which covered legislative activity on the Hill and became a morning and afternoon must-read. We were the first to publish newspapers every four years devoted solely to coverage of the national political conventions. And in the 1990s, Hotline, the creation of political genius Doug Bailey, became part of National Journal.
During the last decade, National Journal has moved into the digital world, with its more timely delivery, and it has added custom products and live events for our audience. The competitive landscape has exploded exponentially, yet National Journal has emerged as a major digital publisher, continuing to serve the needs of its readers and the Washington community. However, with this issue, it is time to say farewell to the weekly print magazine called National Journal, a media form more of the 20th century than the 21st. To even describe the delivery of news and analysis as “weekly” seems so quaint in this day and age.
As one involved in the enterprise for nearly 40 years, thanks to all of our talented staff who put so much of their intellect, energy, and commitment into it. Thanks to the advertising community who supported it. And, most of all, thanks to all of our readers. It was, after all, meant for you.
It’s been a great ride. No regrets. Lots of pride.