New Labour might be falling out of favour, but incoming New Statesman editor Jason Cowley believes this could be an opportunity to build sales, because the left-leaning weekly has, in the past, done better when Labour is in opposition.
Currently editor of literary quarterly Granta, Cowley will take up his new post in September, filling the shoes of John Kampfner, who stepped down the day before ABC results in February revealed a sales drop of 12.7 per cent year on year to 26,208.
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‘I think the New Statesman is always its most successful when it’s in opposition,’Cowley says. ‘If you look at the circulation figures, they weren’t riding particularly high when Labour was winning landslides. There’s an opportunity.”
Cowley says that over the past 10 years, the left has expended too much energy attacking itself. ‘Many arguments have been taking place within the party over Iraq and other matters, with many leading left-wing commentators being denounced as neo-Conservatives. Maybe it’s time for left-leaning journalists to concentrate their fire on Cameron and his Eton Rifles.”
Booker Prize judge Cowley says he can see ways to improve the New Statesman immediately, and promises a ‘redesign and rethink’of the title.
‘I’ll invest in the quality of the writing and bolster the political coverage and give it more authority. I’ve got four months to take my time and think about it,’he says.
‘It’s a time for renewal for the magazine – it’s got a new joint owner who’s investing in it.”
Cowley is referring to the millionaire businessman Mike Danson, who bought half of the New Statesman in April this year and who, according to a Guardian report last week, plans to take full control of the title from co-owner Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson within three years.
Cowley says there will be further investment in the website, which will allow it to react more quickly to news in combination with the print offering, but he believes printed current affairs magazines still have a strong future.
‘As newspapers lose confidence in the long form and, in some ways, in words on paper, as they become more about online newsgathering and instantaneous reaction, there is an important place for somewhere you can have a more leisurely approach to current affairs, where you’re able to reflect and report and analyse,’he says.
Cowley says he does not feel under pressure, despite the recent dip in the title’s circulation, and says his CV shows he has always moved around in his career and taken risks. He left a staff writer’s job at The Times in 1998 after two years to pursue a freelance career, which included the part-time post of literary editor at the New Statesman.
‘Everyone asked: How can you leave?’he says. ‘I’ve always moved. I take risks and I like new challenges. If I was daunted by it I wouldn’t take up the challenge.
‘If the magazine was a best-seller they wouldn’t need a new editor. I’m aware it’s a risky position, and I’m leaving a very safe position here.”
Cowley joined Granta in September last year with the task of redesigning and relaunching the magazine and building a new website, all of which he says he has achieved, with a workload that he describes as ‘utterly relentless”.
Before joining Granta, Cowley edited The Observer Sport Monthly, where he won a number of awards for the title including a Press Gazette Magazine Design and Journalism Award. He redesigned the title twice, injecting more creative use of photography
Although he says he loved The Observer job, he felt that four years was enough. ‘I did an Olympics, a football World Cup and a rugby World Cup and I saw it repeating,’he says.
Cowley is currently injecting his enthusiasm for sport into his second book, out next year, called The Last Game: Love, Death, Football and the End of the Eighties, which looks at how the Hillsborough disaster changed football.
While some editors of sports magazines have resorted to allowing copy approval in order to secure interviews with big-name stars, Cowley says this was something he refused ‘point blank’during his time at OSM.
‘That enhanced the credibility of the magazine. It’s tiring dealing with agents – with demands for copy approval and product placements – none of which I agreed to.”
He adds: ‘It’s like interviewing a Hollywood actress”, revealing that since an entourage-heavy interview with actress Jennifer Aniston while working at The Times he has avoided interviewing Hollywood stars.
Cowley, 41, held his first journalism job on weekly publishing trade magazine The Bookseller from 1992 to 1996, and throughout his career has remained involved in the literary world, from judging the Booker Prize to helping set up the Caine Prize for African Writing. He believes this experience will be an asset when he takes up his new job.
‘As well as being a political magazine, it’s a cultural magazine,’he says. ‘It was famous for its literary coverage, and will be again.”