It is still not clear what is happening at the American Prospect, the liberal magazine which on Wednesday announced that it was contemplating cutting its publication schedule from six issues each year to four and considering changes to its Web site as part of a quest for “a realistic budget.” Editor Kit Rachlis is also leaving for a new job in California. Whatever the nonprofit magazine’s board decides, it seems the Prospect will live, even if it shrinks its footprint.
But the concern that greeted the news speaks to the role that the Prospect has played in the journalism ecosystem. It has maintained a stable roster of contributors writing on liberal ideas and published major features while also developing and seeding writers, many of whom brought a sharp focus on policy and process, to a huge array of other publications.
The Prospect is not alone in this. But it certainly contributed to a recent and welcome sense that having a political perspective was no barrier to doing serious reporting or to moving to a mainstream, non-ideologically aligned publication.
Vox.com co-founders Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias may be among the most prominent Prospect alumni, but they are hardly alone. Former Prospect editor Ann Friedman (who gave me my start in culture criticism with an assignment about movie superheroines) is now a columnist for New York magazine. Education journalist Dana Goldstein, Alaska Public Media reporter Alexandra Gutierrez, MSNBC’s Adam Serwer, Slate writer Jamelle Bouie, UN Dispatch’s Mark Goldberg and the Huffington Post’s Kate Sheppard are just some of the many, many journalists who have done stints there.
As wonderful as that roster is, being an incubator publication is a difficult place to occupy in the journalism ecosystem. Unlike Silicon Valley incubators, which stake young developers for a share of their future profits, the Prospect does not get part of what its alumni earn in the future. An excellent reputation and ongoing goodwill do not necessarily translate into piles of cash.
Instead, being a journalism incubator means spending time and money developing writers who then take their readership to other publications, then starting to develop new voices, new beats and new audiences all over again. The Prospect has managed to do this with an impressive range of subjects and reporters, most recently with Monica Potts’s stunning reporting on poverty and its causes.
Sometimes, being a collective rather than a business has let incubators thrive without the pressure of putting out a print edition or earning a project. PostBourgie, the group blog (of which I am a friend) founded by Gene Demby, operates as a volunteer effort, but that has not stopped it from winning international recognition — Chimamanda Adichie name-checked the site in her hit novel “Americanah” — and supporting its alumni in their transitions to an astonishing array of publications.
PostBourgie was, to a certain extent, a feeder for the Prospect, publishing posts by Potts and Bouie, who is now at Slate, before they joined the magazine. Three PostBourgie bloggers are now at BuzzFeed, where Shani Hilton is the deputy editor in chief, Joel Anderson is the senior sports reporter and the writer and humorist Tracy Clayton ranges over a wide array of subjects. Nicole Collins Bronzan runs communications for journalism nonprofit ProPublica. Stacia Brown, who recently filled in for me here, writes regularly about culture and parenting for a wide variety of publications. Demby himself now runs NPR’s CodeSwitch.
Both kinds of publications are important. Places like PostBourgie can help new writers find audiences for the first time and give established writers with fairly focused beats an opportunity to play with new subject material and develop new muscles. Places like the Prospect can move emerging writers further up the chain, giving them at least some modest financial support for their writing and polished print clips that can help journalists get new assignments and jobs. If nothing else, the loss of two issues’ worth of opportunities for writers to get the sort of attention that magazine pieces still receive is a loss.
What makes an ecosystem thrive is the community that populates it. For the sake of journalism, we should hope that the Prospect, and publications like it, stay alive and capable of developing new writers and editors. We all stand to benefit.