Wilson Center may sell or fold its esteemed Wilson Quarterly, as readership declines

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is exploring selling or ceasing publication of the Wilson Quarterly, a wise, wonky and sometimes witty magazine that showcases the work of renowned intellectuals and policy experts but has struggled to find a footing in the digital world, according to sources.

The quarterly abruptly canceled its print edition last year, shifting its focus to digital platforms such as the Kindle and iPad, as well as its Web site. But readership has declined, and the cachet of a 37-year-old publication that once cultivated a loyal and elite audience drawn to its special brand of brainy, yet accessible, writing has slipped.

Preliminary contacts have been made with prospective buyers, according to sources, but no deal has been struck. Discussions about the uncertain future of the quarterly, which have not been publicly disclosed, coincide with increased financial pressures at the Wilson Center, a venerable institution that hosts scholars and foreign dignitaries, as well as housing numerous programs focused on world regions.

The center gets about a fourth of its budget from the federal government, but an annual spending bill being considered by the House Appropriations Committee would eliminate funding for the center. All or part of the $10 million funding request could be restored, but at a time when federal budget woes are consuming lawmakers, the threat of a cutoff of federal dollars can’t be taken lightly.

The bill prompted officials at the Wilson Center, which also publishes books and a weekly e-mail newsletter, to undertake a “rethinking of all our channels of communication,” Andrew Marshall, the center’s vice president for external communications, said in an e-mail. “We are reviewing several possibilities but we are a way off a decision. I don’t want to go through internal discussions, as it is quite early in our thinking.”

The quarterly is produced by a tiny staff — just three full-time employees and one half-time worker. Marshall declined to discuss the finances of the quarterly, which has been supported by online subscriptions and advertisements.

The center’s director, Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California, was not available for comment. Harman’s late husband, Sidney Harman, was the owner of Newsweek magazine.

In the past three and a half decades, the quarterly has published articles by an impressive array of thinkers, from the Mexican intellectuals Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, to leading American academics, such as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and Daniel Bell, the author who popularized the concept of the post-industrial society. Joseph Brodsky, the poet and Nobel laureate in literature, was briefly the magazine’s poetry editor. More recently, the magazine has featured the musings of George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen and Ethan Zuckerman, a well-known media scholar and Internet activist.

One of the magazine’s signatures is the article “cluster,” with editors assigning three or four writers to examine a topic from different points of view. So, for instance, an issue focused on immigration turns into a package of articles that look into myths about the Statue of Liberty, “the unexpected influx” of African migrants, “melange cities” and “Hispanics and Hasidism in rural Iowa.”

At its best, the magazine has balanced deadly seriousness — “India’s Path to Greatness,” “How Women Won the Vote,” “Tajikistan’s Dream”— with cheekiness: “Heck of a Job, Appointee” was a recent headline for its trademark, “In Essence” feature, which synopsizes scholarly research. Yet it has always seemed to aim at an audience that did its homework reading, rather than simply riffling through the Cliff’s Notes. Somehow, a wry and delightful article about the loopiness of online reviews on sites such as Yelp managed to work in references to Karl Marx, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Maoism.

All of which makes people who love the magazine a little sad right now.

“I’d hate to see the Wilson Quarterly fold,” said Daniel Akst, a longtime contributing editor, and author of “We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess.” “Few publications are as reliably (and pleasurably) non-hysterical, historically informed and pragmatic in outlook. WQ’s infrequent publication schedule has only made it more precious in this day of unlimited instantaneous blab.”

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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