National Journal President, Publisher and part-owner John Fox Sullivan sounds as hopeful about his magazine as the hero of "Field of Dreams" was about his corn field: "If you create it," says Sullivan, "they will come."
The "it" is the new National Journal, a redesigned and rejuvenated reincarnation of its former wonky self. "They" are the new readers — inside and outside the Beltway — that he, along with his fellow new noncorporate owners, hopes to snag.
Having finalized their purchase of National Journal, or "NJ" as its fans call it, from Times Mirror in mid-September, a management group including Sullivan, Editor Stephen G. Smith, Senior Vice President Steve Hull, Timothy B. Clark (editor of the National Journal-published Government Executive magazine) and David G. Bradley, chairman of The Advisory Board, a research and publishing company in Washington, D.C., have an unconventional approach to pumping up readership.
They boast no big marketing plan, no subscription deals, no advertising push. They simply aspire to mold the 6,500-circulation NJ into the best magazine on politics and government possible. Then, they hope, readers will follow.
"Fundamentally, we're trying to dramatically upgrade National Journal editorially and dramatically expand its readership," says Sullivan. "And we are looking to not only serve the needs of Con-gress and the White House, the media and our traditional core audience, but also to see if we can broaden it out a little bit with what we've done so well in the past."
What they've done well, he says, is provide nonpartisan, nonideological reporting about all things political. That hasn't changed in the past year. But along with the magazine's ownership, its staff and its look have.
Soon after joining NJ from Civilization magazine in January, Smith began working with a design consultant to revamp the weekly. Editorial sprucing began during the spring to smooth the transition to more user-friendly content.
To attract a wider audience, National Journal now has more timely items and short stories "so readers can wade into the magazine without a major commitment of time," says Smith.
The slickened magazine got even slicker in late September. Its trademark maroon covers were replaced with an attention-grabbing white background. Then star hires were announced: former New Republic Editor Michael Kelly and Stuart Taylor of Legal Times and the American Lawyer. Also, former TNR senior editor William Powers, who quit Martin Peretz's fiefdom when Kelly was ousted, is new to NJ's roster.
Kelly, who is also writing a column for the Washington Post, and Taylor, who also signed on as a contributing editor of Newsweek, joined National Journal as senior writers; Powers will serve as media critic. "They'll make us a must read in Washington," Smith says.
"We've always been known as fair, authoritative, comprehensive and reliable. Now we're hoping to be a bit more provocative and interesting," says Smith. "We're a serious magazine, and we intend to stay that way. But we want people to pick up each issue with a sense of excitement, not a sense of duty."
To keep National Journal's fiercely loyal readers (its renewal rate is 85 percent, despite a $987 subscription price tag) the changes are gradual. "We're not leaving our inside-the-Beltway focus," says Sullivan. "We treasure our subscribers, but we think we can attract other folks. Many magazines and newspapers pull away from covering politics and government. We think there's a decent number of people who have a high intensity interest in that subject."
So far readers, and the staff, seem to be giving the changes the thumbs-up, according to Sullivan and Smith. "Reporters now get a byline on the cover — what's not to like?" quips staff writer Paul Staro-bin. There's at least one new subscription: The New York Times signed up for an extra copy each week.
"There's an audience out there," says Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes. "It's the same one we're trying to tap into," he adds, pointing to New York Times and Wall Street Journal readers, as well as C-SPAN and CNN junkies and their ilk. "There's a huge public affairs audience, maybe five to 10 million."
Bradley, whose company conducts studies on business strategy, has little journalism experience. Still, his love for magazines, he says, sparked his interest in National Journal. Potentially interested in buying more publications, Bradley says he invested in NJ "largely to apprentice under this strong editorial staff."
What will his role be at NJ? Bradley says he plans to set a "north star," something that the magazine can follow, "so right for the work that it sets our compass for a long time." That "north star," he says, is to print great, clear writing about government.
Taylor's betting that National Journal's audience will grow. "The group is committed not to be seen as liberal, conservative, libertarian — any ideology — but as honest people trying to sort out what makes the most sense," says Taylor.
The new regime is banking upon this reputation. Smith touts NJ's nonideological coverage as tough to find in Washington. Barnes agrees, saying National Journal is "really different from the New Republic and the Weekly Standard."
But what about the business side? Striving to improve the bottom line — by promoting the magazine and evaluating the changes — will come at some point. But not immediately.
"We're beginning with quality, trying to make as good a magazine as we can and letting the business plan follow quality," Smith says. "We're going to make sure by the time we want to promote it that we have a product that we're really proud of and readers who have seen it in the past will recognize as remarkably better."
Despite the pumped up competition, Barnes says he wishes National Journal luck. "When people see the newsmagazines becoming lifestyle magazines, they leave behind a news vacuum," he says. "It's one National Journal can help fill."