JONATHAN COHN MAY 1, 2012
A member of the family is in trouble. On Monday, word began to circulate that the American Prospect is facing an immediate, potentially fatal financial shortfall. If the Prospect cannot raise $500,000 by May 31, plus additional pledges for the coming year, it may have to close its doors. How serious is the crisis? The Huffington Post first reported the funding crisis on Monday, after the magazine’s editors had informed staff. The Prospect has since published a letter and appeal for donations on its web page.
I happen to owe the Prospect a great deal. And if you like what you read in this space, you do too. The Prospect hired me straight out of college, for an entry-level position. I ended up staying for six years, eventually becoming executive editor. It’s where I learned most of what I know about policy journalism—about arguing with fact, not opinion; about acknowledging critics respectfully and answering them; about trying to be right rather than trying to be clever. And that includes what I know about health care. One of my mentors there was a guy named Paul Starr, who in additional to being the Prospect’s co-founder is also the author of The Social Transformation of American Medicine, generally considered the seminal history of medicine in America.
Today, my connection to the Prospect is largely spiritual: I am a contributing editor, which pays me nothing but gives me enormous pride. (I’m also a senior fellow at Demos, its sister institution, although there, too, my relationship involves no money.) And I’m hardly the only TNR byline that has ties to the magazine. Jonathan Chait, Jason Zengerle, and Richard Just all began their journalism careers there. John Judis has been a regular contributor from its founding. And that’s not to mention the many other well-known writers who share the lineage—among them, Nick Confessore, Phoebe Connelly, Tim Fernholz, Ann Friedman, Garrance Franke-Ruta, Dana Goldstein, Joshua Green, Ezra Klein, Josh Marshall, Adam Serwer, Kate Sheppard, and Matthew Yglesias. I'm confident that several current staffers are destined to join that list.
The Prospect’s impact on political discourse has been no less impressive: Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, and Starr established the magazine in 1990—just in time to publish articles by Stanley Greenberg and William Julius Wilson that created the intellectual framework for what would become the Clinton Administration (or its best parts, anyway). Years later, Robert Putnam would use the Prospect as a platform to introduce general audiences to his work on the civic underpinnings of democracy—and to test out the argument that became “bowling alone.” In 2006, then-editor Michael Tomasky wrote an article about the “common good” that helped reawaken Democratic Party ambitions in time for the 2008 presidential campaign. And that’s not to mention the countless times blog items from the likes of Ezra and Matt redefined Washington conversation.
It’s still producing great journalism, by the way, as anybody who read Gabriel Arana’s “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life” can attest. But producing great journalism and paying for it are two very different things. The Prospect may be insufficiently political for those who finance campaigns—and too engaged in political debate for those who finance non-political institutions. A world without the Prospect would be one in which progressive causes struggle more. Whether financiers on the left grasp that remains to be seen.