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From AJR,   March 1997  issue

The Little Magazine That Could   


By Debra Puchalla
Debra Puchalla is AJR's associate editor and deputy editor of Martha Stewart Living.      

For some, the January 10 party marking Vicki Kemper's departure from Common Cause Magazine was more than an editor's farewell. It was a bittersweet benchmark in the corruption-exposing political journal's 16-year history. "I regarded Vicki Kemper's going away party as a wake for the magazine," says Jacqueline Sharkey, a University of Arizona journalism professor and a contributor to the magazine throughout the '80s.

The future of the little magazine that could, founded in 1980 to give people outside the Beltway an inside look at government and politics, is in flux. Despite the magazine's more than two dozen journalism awards including five from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the National Magazine Award for General Excellence as well as a handful of congressional investigations to its credit, Common Cause is reconsidering whether the magazine is the best way to communicate with its 250,000 members.

In December, the nonpartisan watchdog organization put the magazine on hold as part of a sweeping communications review, according to Executive Vice President Donald Simon. "We're deciding whether to restructure or reform our communications and whether to continue or change or drop the magazine," says Simon.

Some doubt that the magazine as it existed, with a focus on investigative journalism, will resurface. "With my leaving, things have reached such a point that, in purely practical and logistical terms, it would be easier for Common Cause to kill the magazine," says Kemper, who had been with the publication since 1990.

"Common Cause is looking at how to communicate in the new world of modern communications technology," says former Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer, an ardent supporter of the magazine during his tenure, "while keeping in mind that it is an advocacy group, not a magazine publisher."

A disconnect surfaced in recent years between the organization's agenda and the editors' goals of maintaining the magazine's commitment to investigative journalism. "It had been more than two years since the organization had been willing to invest any resources in the magazine," says Kemper, who left to join the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau as an editor.

But, Kemper says, "it was to Common Cause's credit that it ever devoted the resources and the energy to doing investigative political reporting... The commitment was there in part because leaders of the organization understood the role of investigative reporting in government reform, which is the organization's primary focus."

It was precisely that notion that founding editor Florence George Graves seized upon when she launched the magazine in 1980. "I could see an enormous opportunity for a magazine to be able to break major articles that were not being broken and followed up on in the major media," says Graves. "I wanted people to feel like they had a front row seat in the theater of Washington."

So Graves created a magazine to keep members posted on what politicians were doing in the halls of Congress. "It reinforced the organization's larger role of government watchdog and helped citizens feel they had a stake in government," Graves says.

The magazine became known for complex, detailed investigations of subjects the mainstream press wasn't covering. A pioneer in reporting on the link between money and politics, it also published investigations on such diverse topics as U.S. policies in Central America, the questionable FDA approval process, and defense contractors who improperly charged hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying and PR expenses to taxpayers.

"I'm sure there were members of the Common Cause staff who got tired of all our horn-tooting and the constant stream of journalism awards we went after," says Deborah Baldwin, a Paris-based writer who worked for the magazine from 1982 to 1994, the last six years as editor. "But outside recognition was key."

But, just like other publications, the magazine was hurt by economic realities. "The mid-'80s were not only the magazine's heyday, but also the organization's," says Baldwin. "But when the recession hit in the late '80s, all kinds of simmering doubts about expenditures came to a full boil."

Those doubts boiled over in 1991, when Common Cause canceled the year's remaining issues and made the magazine a quarterly instead of a bimonthly. Since 1992, Common Cause has sent members the first magazine each year, but readers have had to request subsequent issues. Between 1991 and late 1994, the magazine's staff shrank from seven writers and editors to Kemper and one writer.

Many journalists recognize the unique contribution of the magazine. "Maybe they weren't doing the huge investigations they've done in the past," says Margaret Engel, executive director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. "But even the short six-paragraph news breaks exposed conditions that hadn't been brought to anyone else's attention. They really had fresh information; they took good looks at subcommittees and bills that no one else focused on."

Veteran investigative reporter and CNN correspondent Brooks Jackson, who has called the magazine "truly one of the premier muckraking magazines of our time," says it would be a loss if it didn't continue to publish. But he believes that, on the campaign finance beat, others have picked up where the magazine will leave off.

But plenty of juicy political tales await a gumshoe's discovery. "There are numerous stories and investigative articles that are not being followed up on in the media," says Graves. "Despite the fact that we have more media and more reporters covering Congress, there's not enough un covering of what's going on."