The US left-wing mags are thriving, but don't go on their cruises

Media

To arrive at a San Francisco conference knowing that half a day later you must be on your way back to the airport is to see what it is like to be Ivana Trump, let loose with an estranged husband's credit card, due to expire at midnight, on a Sunday in Germany, when all the shops are closed. By the time I'd conferred and eaten, there was time only to head for the best newsagent in town, to grab a gro-bag of political magazines. The bill came to $79.29.

For the most part, trips to America are not a thrill, journalistically speaking. Television news is all weather, homeliness and smiles to camera, and the absence of a satisfying national newspaper - USA Today hardly fits the bill - means that you must race to the magazine rack, where the contents are profuse precisely because factual broadcasting and newspapers are so arid.

Of the three political weeklies, it was pleasing to find the left-wing Nation, at 78 pages, plumper than either the New Republic (50) or the Standard (40). Both these last two have plied a politically erratic course in the Clinton era and neither looks in good shape. The Nation, warhorse of the American left, is still printed on the kind of paper they used on Ribble buses when I was a child, which has a charm just a little more antique than the sulphurations of Christopher Hitchens on Clinton's "mock- compassionate and pseudo-humanitarian bilge".

One of the Nation's recent commercial wheezes has been to hire the MV Nation, a cruise ship, to transport loyal readers around the Caribbean in the company of Hitchens and the gang. But in left-wing politics no pleasure is ever that simple. Mother Jones, a 22-year-old radical paper on the west coast, has taken some delight in examining the pay rates of sailors aboard the vessel.

Alas, Mother Jones is herself going through something of a mid-life crisis. The magazine's editor-in-chief for the past six years, Jeffrey Klein, has just quit, at the exact point of a glossy relaunch aimed at shoring up its 140,000 circulation with (where I have heard this before?) younger readers. Apparently, the average Mother Jones reader is now 49 years old and prosperous. In Britain, 140,000 sales to prosperous 49 year olds, half men, half women, would look like the map to a goldmine, not a corporate crisis, but it seems that Adam Hochschild, heir to the Amex Mining Corporation fortune, is tiring of the magazine's costs. Perhaps he will get some help from his fellow board-member, Anita Roddick.

Klein's farewell letter to his readers says the corruption of American political fund-raising has been the primary theme of his editorship. And his final issue carries the magazine's top 400 list of political donors. One of the "investigative reporters" who compiled this list, Jenna Ziman, contributes a perfect Primary Colors inside account of her dalliance with President Clinton at a Democratic Party fund-raiser - she was there because her father's real-estate company ranks 164th in the top 400. "At dinner," she writes, "my father took pride in introducing me as from Mother Jones." If that's not the new left, I don't know what is.

These days, the real rivet-spitter on the block is the Alternative Press Review ("your guide beyond the mainstream") which apologises in its current issue for its failure to appear in recent months, due to a little local bankruptcy. This anarchistic magazine's chief concerns are sex, other media and the CIA, in any combination. Its essential policy is to hate all corporations and all other publications, including Britain's Big Issue, which is blasted as "corporate-sponsored astroturf" for its attempt to muscle into the American market for papers distributed by homeless people.

The market Alternative Press Review aims at is dominated by the Utne Reader, which still subtitles itself "the best of the alternative media", but which has in recent times redesigned itself in a neat, glamorous format and stirred more home-written material into its blend of pieces borrowed from other magazines and books. Its current editorial strategy is to tap into downshifter's America, attacking the excesses of stressful work cultures, consumerism and the mass media, and exploring the comforts of religion, space and relationships. The New Statesman carried an essay by Utne Reader's former editor, Jay Walljasper, last year, which caught the mood. It was entitled: "Slow down."

Utne Reader, too, is just about to lose its editor, Hugh Delehanty, who is heading back to New York "to pursue several new opportunities". His editorial mantra, he says, has been to focus on "not what's breaking down in society, but on what's trying to break through" - all part of the American left's search for constructive purpose, increasingly acted out in home education, community collaborations and environmental action, rather than in mainstream Washington politics. Delehanty says the best cover-line of his regime proclaimed: "Hi-tech may rule today, but tomorrow belongs to the human spirit." This, presumably, is what one ungrateful reader's letter in the current issue calls "self-congratulatory boomer narcissism".

But in the same issue, the singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant describes television as "a failed experiment" and tells a story of how, having read a book on Haiti, she was able to converse with New York's many Haitian taxi drivers. "They were shocked," she says, "that I knew anything more than what was in the headlines."

One thing that's striking about the left magazine press is that it not only treats politics, culture and lifestyle as a continuum, but that it also brackets books into its "media" coverage, alongside the press, radio, television and the Internet - or at least, that's what Mother Jones, Utne Reader and Alternative Press Review do. For a certain sort of quiet American, it's a way of living beyond the headlines and the TV zapper. It could catch on.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie