As the June 19 issue about ''Making Work Pay'' illustrates, The American Prospect can still lapse into what executive editor Scott Stossel calls ''some classically wonky stuff.''
However noble, the 58-page, 11-article special section on life in the American workforce was gray, dense, and not exactly reader friendly. The cover art - a shadowy depiction of several people gathered around a computer screen doing nothing in particular - was similarly uninviting.
Without referring to ''Making Work Pay'' as a throwback to the bad old days, cofounder and coeditor (and Brookline resident and Boston Globe editorial page columnist) Robert Kuttner says of the Boston-based American Prospect: ''I think it's only in the last two or three issues that it really feels like a magazine rather than a recovering journal.''
Founded in 1989 to be what Stossel says is ''a real serious vehicle for policy ideas'' to counter the intellectual momentum of the conservative movement, the resolutely liberal American Prospect was brimming with ideas but often had the sizzle of a plumber's training manual. The premier spring 1990 issue, for example, offered a cover featuring such yawn-inspiring headlines as: ''The Future of Constitutional Politics,'' ''AIDS and the Moral Economy of Insurance,'' and ''Escaping the Fiscal Trap.''
Last winter, the magazine moved to change that thanks to a $5.5 million grant from Bill Moyers's Schumann Foundation. It underwent a dramatic redesign and changed its publication schedule from bimonthly to biweekly. Most significantly, it began to reinvent itself as a feistier, newsier political journal that, stylistically, more closely resembles The New Republic than Plato's Republic.
''The whole point here is to reach a wider audience, to publish more frequently so that we can be more on the news, to be on the national radar screen,'' says Kuttner, admitting that the old version was just ''too much work'' for many potential readers.
Today's American Prospect features stylish graphics, short and timely political pieces, cartoons from Jules Feiffer, a ''Political Puzzler,'' a ''Below the Beltway'' Washington column, and most notably, a revamped ''back of the book'' section with smart cultural commentary. (Scott Heller reviews the remake of ''Shaft.'' Bill Shoemaker discusses CD box sets from sax greats John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. And Joshua Gamson writes on the NBC-TV show that pays homage to the psychic world, ''The Others.'')
In acknowledging the publication's transformation from ''journal'' to ''magazine,'' Stossel says ''it's been more of a gradual continuum, more like going around a curve than turning a corner.'' But he cites the April 24 cover story on Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli as a symbol of its rebirth.
Headlined ''The Amazing Adventures of Money Man,'' the story was accompanied by an eye-catching illustration of Torricelli stripping off his clothing to reveal a dollar sign emblazoned underneath. The story itself is a sharp-elbowed, anecdote-laden tale of a pol who may save the Democratic Party with his ability to raise cash and may ruin it with his political amorality. ''It was the sort of piece we wouldn't have run before,'' says Stossel.
Kuttner is quick to point out, however, that the magazine hasn't abandoned its core journalistic or political principles.
''I think it's a balancing act,'' he says. ''It's a better mix of short and long. It's a full-service magazine for liberals without giving up the policy.''
It certainly hasn't given up the full-throated, left-of-the-Democratic-Leadership-Council ideology. The current issue repeatedly attacks Al Gore from the left, contending that he and President Clinton went soft on big business. The upcoming issue, focusing on the perils of a ''leaky economy,'' doesn't exactly dovetail with Gore's ''progress and prosperity'' theme. And the July 17 issue includes a piece arguing that every American is entitled to an $80,000 stake as a ''birthright of citizenship,'' a classic redistribute-the-wealth proposal that makes LBJ's Great Society look like Reaganomics.
According to Kuttner, the magazine's circulation is up from a pre-relaunch high of 17,000-18,000 to about 26,000 with the ultimate goal of joining The Nation and New Republic in the 95,000-100,000 category. With the ramped-up publication schedule, he estimates that ad revenues are running about 21/2 times higher than last year with the magazine carrying about eight ad pages per issue.
These numbers don't exactly replicate People magazine-type success at the box office, but the Schumann Foundation's initial grant for the first two years of the relaunch is renewable for the next three years. And Kuttner hopes to get the deficit under $1 million in five years.
''I don't think you quite get to break even, but you get within spitting distance of breaking even,'' he says. ''You become part of the landscape.''
There's evidence that's already happening. Asked if he'd noticed changes in The American Prospect, Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the conservative National Review, says, ''I see it a heck of a lot more often now, and it's a little less daunting in its presentation.''
Faint praise from an ideological foe. But grudging recognition that the ''recovering journal'' is starting to adapt to its new life as a magazine.
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