New Statesman & Society, 20 May 1994
This week sees the launch of Red Pepper, a new radical left magazine. Paul Anderson wonders whether it will buck the recent trend of left periodical publishing failure
The past decade has not been kind to the left press in Britain – to put it mildly. Most years have seen one or more magazine closure or near-terminal financial crisis. In case you've forgotten, here's a rundown of the main disasters:
June 1987: Less than two months after its launch, News on Sunday, the attempt to create a national left-wing Sunday newspaper for "the lager-drinking lad from Newcastle" (in the words of one of its marketing team), ends up in the hands of a receiver after losing more than £6 million, much of it raised from the trade unions and local authority pension schemes. The paper is given a temporary reprieve by millionaire Owen Oyston but expires later in the year.
October 1987: The Labour Party decides to close its two paid-for periodicals, New Socialist and Labour Weekly, as part of an economy drive to cut a £2 million overdraft. Labour Weekly succumbs to the executioner's axe with barely a whimper of protest; the decision to close New Socialist is reversed after the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation agrees to pick up the tab for production costs for a less frequent magazine controlled by the party leadership. Circulation continues to slide, and New Socialist finally breathes its last in November 1990 after a brief period of being run jointly by Walworth Road and the Fabian Society.
January 1988: "Don't let this be the last issue of Tribune" screams the front page of the Labour left weekly's 22 January issue. Starved of capital, Tribune has seen its circulation sink slowly from its 1940s high of 40,000 a week to a meagre 5,000, and advertising revenue has slumped in the 1980s. An emergency appeal raises £10,000 in a week and another £25,000 in the next six weeks, seeing off the grim reaper, and the trade unions agree to stump up extra subsidies for a five-year expansion plan – but the paper is on its uppers again within a couple of years.
September 1990: The left-wing weekly London listings and culture magazine City Limits, set up in 1981 as a workers' cooperative by striking Time Out journalists, is forced by near-bankruptcy to sell out to television entrepreneur Bernard Clark, less than five years after appearing to have bucked the trend of left publishing failure by reaching a circulation of 31,000 and modest profitability. Clark abandons CL's cooperative structure, ditches its politics and cuts costs to the bone, but the magazine fails to recover. The title is sold again and then again, ending up in the hands of another entrepreneur who tries to relaunch it as a London women's magazine. It finally bites the dust in 1992.
March 1991: The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's monthly magazine, Sanity, closes with a bumper double number. Although it is selling 13,000 copies an issue (more than Marxism Today) and is sold by the big newsagent chains, it is losing £40,000 a year – and CND faces a cash crisis.
December 1991: Marxism Today, the Communist Party monthly edited by Martin Jacques, closes, with the intention of an eventual relaunch as an independent magazine with a different title. Selling 12,000 copies an issue by the end (down from a peak of 15,000), MT relies on a £45,000-a-year subsidy from the party – and Jacques and his colleagues are unable to find alternative backers to pick up the tab, despite initially promising noises from the Guardian.
June 1992: socialist, the newspaper launched as a fortnightly in 1991 by the Bennite Socialist Movement to occupy what it saw as the space between Tribune and the papers produced by the Trotskyist sects, closes after just 14 issues, having lost some £66,000. One issue of a successor magazine, Red, Green and Radical, appears before a decision is made to cease publication until more capital has been raised for a proper launch.
January 1993: New Statesman & Society, turning in a modest profit since a swingeing austerity drive in 1991, is hit with a £250,000 bill after it is sued for libel by John Major and Clare Latimer. Readers raise some £150,000 for a defence fund, but the title's future is secured only in November when Philip and Geraldine Jeffrey invest £400,000 in the magazine.
February 1993: Feminist monthly Spare Rib closes after a drawn out illness, in which it ran long pieces singing the praises of Muammar al Gaddaffi and Malcolm X.
Altogether, it is a pretty miserable record. But it is not entirely the fault of the left. Some left periodicals undoubtedly went under because they were too dull for anyone but the hardiest hack to read (Labour Weekly, New Socialist in its final incarnations). Others (News on Sunday, Spare Rib at the end of its life) were of such low quality that it is amazing they lasted as long as they did. Still others suffered from almost incredible managerial incompetence – City Limits threw away its success, and News on Sunday was legendary in its chaos.
Yet there is a strong argument that the failure of the left press in recent years owes a lot to the hostility of the environment in which it has had to operate. Distributors are hostile, advertisers lukewarm. The left's best ideas, and journalists, are quickly snapped up by the mainstream press and by television. Most important of all, left publications are constantly caught in the vicious circle of undercapitalisation: there isn't any money around to spend on promoting sales and subscriptions, which means that circulation slips, which means that there's even less cash to spend on promotions – and so on ad nauseam. It's all too easy to end up living hand to mouth.
Of course, it's by no means all gloom. In Northern Ireland, Fortnight magazine sells more per head of population than the New Statesman did in Britain as a whole at its height. The West Highlands Free Press, one of the last survivors of the 1970s wave of community newspapers, regularly turns in a profit. Little magazines of a left bent pop up with more regularity and vitality than ever since desktop publishing became available to all. And there's much more left-leaning journalism today in mainstream newspapers, music and women's magazines than ever before.
But, perhaps because people don't feel the need to buy a specialist left publication to get their fix of left politics, only NSS, Everywoman and New Left Review of the surviving nationally available publications that sell themselves as explicitly left-wing are financially secure without a subsidy. Tribune has to raise £40,000 a year to break even and the unions are less and less able to fill the gap. "It's a constant effort to keep afloat," says editor Mark Seddon. The Morning Star, selling only 4,000 a day since the collapse of its sales in the communist countries, is even more reliant on the heroic fundraising efforts of its readers – and even closer to the edge: journalists have on occasion been "paid" in lOUs for weeks at a time. The papers and magazines produced by Trotskyist sects – Militant, Socialist Worker, Newsline, Living Marxism and the rest – simply could not exist without massive subsidies from party funds; and most of the remaining small left periodicals, from Briefing through Revolutionary History to Casablanca, are essentially expensive hobbies for those who produce them.
In the circumstances, it might not seem a particularly bright idea to launch a new left magazine. Yet this week sees the appearance of Red Pepper, an "internationalist, socialist, feminist and green" monthly, and its founders are insistent that they can make it a success – even though they've had their fingers burnt before, most recently with socialist, of which Red Pepper is a direct descendant. Like socialist, Red Pepper is the brainchild of the Socialist Movement, is edited by former Guardian stringer Denise Searle and is reliant on the enthusiasm of Hilary Wainwright, the new magazine's political editor, who raised much of its £135,000 launch capital after the demise of socialist and Red, Green and Radical.
"We're quietly confident," says Wainwright. "We've got the organisational base, the political framework and the writers. We'll be providing readers with a service they won't get anywhere else. There's definitely a niche for us."
According to Red Pepper's business plan, that niche is rather large. It estimates on the basis of opinion polls that some 2.4 million people in Britain see themselves as to the left of the Labour leadership, including 105,000 ordinary Labour members. "Other indicators of the scope of the radical left include: 400,000 registered supporters of Greenpeace; 350,000 trade union shop stewards; 230,000 contacts for Friends of the Earth; 60,000 members of CND; over 50,000 people who have been members of far-left parties over the past decade; 50,000 recent past members of other radical left groups; 45,000 readers of New Internationalist; 30,000 members of Charter 88."
All of which makes the magazine's target of breaking even at a circulation of 12,000 by 1997 seem almost absurdly unambitious – particularly as there are already several thousand subscribers in the bag, including 500-odd supporting subscribers giving an extra £5 a month to subsidise cheap offers to students and the unemployed.
The problem, however, is that not everyone on the radical left reads magazines and it is notoriously difficult to reach those that do – as socialist found to its cost. It worked on much the same assumptions about the vast number of would-be readers just waiting for a left paper more radical than Tribune or the New Statesman, but not the organ of a Leninist party. It got large bundles into branches of John Menzies and W H Smith across the country for its first few issues. Unfortunately, however, most of the copies remained unsold. The paper was surprised by the level of returns: within a couple of months its finances were in chaos, and after its distributor went bust owing it thousands, the end was merely a matter of time.
Wainwright insists that it will all be different this time. For a start, she says, Red Pepper is being launched with a reasonable amount of capital: socialist simply didn't have the cash to promote itself properly. Then there is the difference that socialist was launched primarily as a title on sale at newsagents: Red Pepper is, concentrating its efforts on marketing subscriptions. And, finally, socialist was fortnightly and a newspaper: Red Pepper is monthly and a magazine.
Not everyone on the left publishing scene shares her optimism. Mark Perryman, former circulation manager of Marxism Today, says that Red Pepper's target of 11,000 subscriptions seems a tad ambitious. "Even at its height, when it was selling 15,000, MT only managed 6,000 subs," he says. "We reckoned our break-even was 18,000 circulation – and that was with free offices from the Communist Party and around £9,000 an issue advertising. Red Pepper's £135,000 launch capital is the sort of sum it ought to be spending on promotions alone."
Inevitably, Red Pepper chief executive Tony Cook, a veteran of the News on Sunday fiasco, disagrees. "It's a very realistic business plan. We know what we can expect and what we can't expect," he says. "We're on target for 6,000 subs for issue one, and we're expecting to sell 3,500 through the retail trade."
Perhaps surprisingly given the venom with which the left conducts its rivalries, the general view among journalists on other left magazines and newspapers is that it would be a good thing for Red Pepper to succeed: a left press success will do everyone in the business a favour. Its first issue, tightly edited with a clean design and some stimulating polemic and analysis, is a promising start. But launches are extremely difficult to get right. If there's a consensus that Red Pepper deserves to be wished the best, there's also a feeling that it's going to need all the luck it can get.