Common Cause, Washington Monthly Explore a Common Future

The Washington Monthly, founded by Charles Peters, above, has employed many up-and-coming writers.
The Washington Monthly, founded by Charles Peters, above, has employed many up-and-coming writers. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Two of the capital's most venerable institutions -- the lobby group Common Cause and the scrappy magazine Washington Monthly -- are in serious talks about merging.

A decision could come in May, when the Common Cause board plans to discuss the combination.

Officials of both groups said they have not decided how closely they might tie themselves together. It could be a partnership of some kind, or the Monthly could be folded into Common Cause.

What is certain is that conversations have been going on for months and that each side thinks there are good reasons to blend their efforts.

"We all like each other," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. "We are now doing our due diligence."

Common Cause has been working to revive itself after several years of flagging finances and effectiveness, and sees adding a magazine as a good way to bolster its reputation. The Washington Monthly, while influential among an elite audience, has long searched for a financially stable partner, especially one with lots of members (and potential subscribers) such as Common Cause.

But how, you might ask, can a lobby group and a magazine merge? It sounds pretty strange.

In fact, Common Cause has a distinguished history in publishing. From 1980 to 1996, it housed a well-regarded magazine called, appropriately enough, Common Cause magazine. It was a deeply researched, finger-in-your-eye sort of periodical that often did investigations about such matters as campaign finance and military contracting.

The magazine won more than two dozen journalism awards, including five from Investigative Reporters and Editors, as well as a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Its stories prompted more than a few congressional investigations.

The Washington Monthly is one of the city's most cherished magazines, especially among those on the political left (even though it has taken pride over the years in challenging liberal orthodoxy). It was founded in 1969 by Charles Peters, a former Peace Corps official whose uncompromising Tilting at Windmills column is legendary in journalistic circles.

A training ground for young scribes, the magazine has had on its roster some of the country's best-known journalists and authors, including Jon Meacham, Amy Sullivan, Michael Kinsley, James Fallows, Jonathan Alter, Joe Nocera, Taylor Branch, Nicholas Lemann , Mickey Kaus, Katherine Boo, Gregg Easterbrook, James Bennet, David Ignatius and Jason DeParle.

Common Cause was founded in 1970, a year after Washington Monthly, by John Gardner, a secretary of health, education and welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was intended, Gardner wrote, to be a "citizens' lobby -- a lobby concerned not with the advancement of special interests but with the well-being of the nation."

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