Editing the 'Staggers': 'That we are still here after 99 years speaks for itself'

Known affectionately as The Staggers, left-of-centre weekly the New Statesman has acquired a reputation for "staggering on" as is it were.

The last change of ownership came in April 2008, just before Jason Cowley's recruitment as editor. Mike Danson's Progressive Media bought out Geoffrey Robertson MP – a year before it would take over Press Gazette from Wilmington Media.

At the time the NS was losing circulation fast (down 12.7 per cent year on year)after some gains under previous editor John Kampfner. And former Granta and Observer Sport Monthly editor Cowley says it was a similar story online.

"Our web presence has been transformed over the past two years. We no longer consider ourselves to be just a magazine but a rolling daily operation and very actively involved in the political blogosphere."

The model he says he has tried to emulate on the NS is that of US monthly The Atlantic. While online competition has dealt a deathblow to many well-established political magazines – Atlantic Monthly has thrived in the online age thanks largely to the establishment of a lively news website underpinned by a network of blogs.

Cowley says: "The market we are looking at is not the newspapers: we don't have aspirations to compete with them. We are more like The Atlantic.

"It was losing huge amounts of money. They decided the way to rescue that great title was to invest in online journalism. They transformed themselves as a business.

"So we are more like the American model – a political magazine with news and comment – but also investing in longer reads, better written and better edited, and high quality cultural criticism. It's an area the newspapers are retreating from"

Cowley has also "broadened the political range" of the title to a "centre-left liberalism. The NS is now much more plural and sceptical and, I hope, less predictable.'

On print sales, ABC figures show the NS as stable – with some growth.

"When I arrived and then during my first year, circulation was in freefall… in 2011 we had the first paid-for circulation rise for many years – around 820 copies. Kindle subscriptions and digital sales bring paid-for circulation up to around 20,000, which is not as good as I would wish but which offers a platform on which to build."

Digital sales aren't counted in the official ABC which totals 23,909 – of which 4,948 are newsstand and 12,501 are paid-for print subscribers. In January 2012, the NS had an additional 2300 Kindle subscribers.

"We are not spending money on newsstand promotion …instead we have invested in the online operation," Cowley says.

According to data from Google Analytics – Newstatesman.com had 800,000 unique browsers in the first quarter of 2012, against 200,000 in the last quarter of 2009. And, in June 2012, the NS says it exceeded 1m unique users in one month for the first time. 'We were delighted,'Cowley says. 'That was quite a milestone, and the web team should be congratulated for their work.'

Cowley credits former deputy editor and web editor Jon Bernstein with helping to transform the NS's online performance. Last month he was promoted to digital director for Progressive Media International.

The main innovations have been the launch of The Staggers rolling political blog and the recruitment of a network of guest bloggers such as David Allen Green (AKA Jack of Kent), Laurie Penny and Steven Baxter.

The magazine has also made a splash with some headline-grabbing stories and, for the present, all content is available for free online – albeit in a staged release after it has first appeared in print.

These have included: Hugh Grant's undercover recording of former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan, the publication of a newly discovered poem by Ted Hughes, the Archbishop of Canterbury's attack on the Coalition Government, Christopher Hitchens' final interview (conducted by Richard Dawkins) and David Miliband's essay on "Reassurance" Labour.

Cowley says that the NS is happy with the free-to-air model for the present.

"While we are growing the website numbers as we are, I'm quite happy to keep the magazine content open, but at some point in the future when we feel the business model is right we might paywall some of it – particularly the longer reads and essays, which are popular in the US. Although I note The Atlantic don't do it."

On the business side, Cowley doesn't go into detail but says that overall the magazine is in much better shape today than it was four years ago."We are broadly breaking even now,'he says.

"The business was in poor shape when Mike Danson bought the NS [from the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson] – there had been a period of investment which had brought a transient uplift in the magazine's circulation but once the investment was withdrawn, everything went into freefall.

"We've controlled costs very carefully since then, we are a small team, and we've had some significant journalistic successes. Plus, the business of the business is improving. In the party conference season last year, we had 39 sponsored fringe events which brought in very good revenues. This year, we will have 45 events."

The editorial team comprises 18 full-time staff staff – including five dedicated online journalists.

While the NS shares The Guardian's free to air content policy, Cowley is critical of that title's business model.

"The Guardian is boasting about its traffic figures – but I could get 4 million users a day if we were losing £30m or £40m a year and had 650 journalists. I would have thought a publication such as The Guardian needs to find a sustainable model."

Unbothered by the "Staggers" nickname, Cowley notes that the NS has been known as that since at least 1931 to his knowledge, if not longer.

"That we are still here after 99 years when so many other weekly and monthly publications have closed speaks for itself."

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