Prospect eyes 50,000 sales as Goodhart moves on

This feature appears in the July edition of Press Gazette magazine, and is republished here as an example of the sort of content which is availale to those who subscribe to Press Gazette

Upmarket current affairs magazine Prospect is at at the same time an example of why serious print journalism does have a great future, and why perhaps it doesn’t.

Since launching 15 years ago as a UK home for the sort of high-brow, longform journalism you find in the New York Review of Books, it has steadily grown print circulation while other titles have faltered. But while it has found an audience it has yet to make any money.

Magazine publishing is a tough business, made harder for Prospect because as a standalone publication it cannot share publishing costs with a stable of other titles.

That it has survived so long is a big achievement. That it has steadily grown in circulation to the current total of around 28,500 (albeit just over 20,000 of which are fully paid-for) is a bigger one.

According to launch editor David Goodhart, who is preparing to move on to an ‘editor at-large’role, the ambition is for the magazine to move up to 45,000 to 50,000 sales; have a ‘a breakthrough on the advertising front’and get into a ‘virtuous circle’where it will ‘at the very least break even if not make some money”.

Prospect’s publishers are currently advertising for a new editor. Few journalists are as closely identified with the publication they edit as Goodhart. I recall attending a lunch hosted by Spectator publisher Andrew Neil two years ago when he boasted that his employer Press Holdings would love to buy Prospect, but only on condition that Goodhart was tied in to the deal.

Goodhart says it was his idea to move on after he brought in new heavyweight investors: venture capitalist Peter Hall, insurance entrepreneur Clive Cowdery and hedge-fund founder George Robinson. Together, over the past two years they have bought out the 50 per cent stake of former Conservative MP Derek Coombs and invested well over £1m, giving them more than 70 per cent of the business.

Running the commercial side is former Economist publisher David Hanger, who came out of retirement to run Prospect around the same time the new investors came on board.

Goodhart says: ‘To put it in slogan terms we’ve evolved it from a journal to a proper grown-up magazine. It needs another push in that direction and it needs somebody with slightly more mainstream skills, someone who respects the magazine as it is but can push it a little bit further in a more commercial direction. There are more than 50,000 people out there that I think want to read a magazine like Prospect if we can bring it their attention.”

He adds: ‘I would like to write more, get out more, be less tied to a computer, and I think the magazine itself could do with a fresh head.”

In the early days, Goodhart says the magazine was ‘much more of a one-man show”, but with a current editorial staff (including intern) of eight, he says: “It’s become much less so in the past few years, so I think I will be prepared [to move on]. It was too dependent on me. I’m not the most well-organised person and too much of it was in my head. We never used to have any meetings. We have a few now.”

Prospect was founded partly as a result of German re-unification, a story which Goodhart covered as a senior correspondent for the Financial Times in the early Nineties.

‘That had quite a big influence on me in a way; covering a world-historic event like that makes you less keen on going back and spending the next 10 years becoming features editor or whatever I might have been. I was in contact with a lot of really good writers and journalists in that period – British, American and Continental European.

“I’d always thought there was a gap in the market here for a more essay-based, highish-brow monthly mag that provided a platform for all those brilliant writers, many of them British, who were developing the essay form in magazines such as the New York Review of Books. We had this great writing talent but didn’t really have a decent outlet here. There was both a cultural and a commercial gap in the market here if you could get it right.”

Although Prospect was identified in its early days with the new political thinking associated with Tony Blair and New Labour, Goodhart says it also brought something new politically, which wasn’t being provided by existing titles such as the Economist, New Statesman and Spectator.

“Although we were vaguely left of centre, we were genuinely independent. I could get whoever I wanted to write whatever I wanted. We didn’t even have the tyranny of our own history, as it were, because we were new. We developed a reputation for liberal contraryism. Being on the liberal side of the argument but taking issue with our own side.”

Goodhart got Prospect off the ground by taking a year’s leave of absence from the FT at the end of 1994 and joining forces with first publisher Charles Seaford, ‘who had just done a course at the London Business School so knew how to produce a business plan for investors”.

Saved from the risk of complete destitution by the fact that wife Lucy Kellaway was, and is, a staff journalist with the FT – he set about raising launch funds by approaching ‘moneyed people’he had met through the FT and ‘friends who had money”.

An initial early investor was Bob Gavron, printing entrepreneur and Labour party donor: ‘I knew him slightly through the FT, writing about his business. He thought it was a crazy idea and didn’t given it much of a chance but he did say ‘here’s £10,000, best of luck’.

‘I was then able to tell people Bob Gavron is one of our important early investors, who runs this huge printing company, so he ought to know.”

At launch in October 1995 Prospect had £350,000 behind it, much of which was provided by Coombs who initially took a 20 per cent stake. ‘We ran out of that after about six months. We were complete amateurs. I’d never edited anything in my life, Charles had never run anything,’says Goodhart.

After a launch sale of 12,000 it dropped back to four or five thousand copies a month, but has steadily grown ever since.

Prospect launched at the same time as news digest magazine The Week, prompting sceptical comment from some media pundits that two such novel and diametrically opposed approaches to magazine publishing could both be right. Fifteen years on The Week now has a weekly circulation of more than 150,000 and goes from strength to strength.

‘One is based on the idea that people need snippets to catch up and the other that people want a really good long read. Actually they are very complementary; we do very well out of their lists on subscription marketing and I think they do pretty well out of ours.

‘People, perhaps particularly older people, drop the daily newspaper or Sunday newspaper and go for the weekly overview of The Week and the slightly deeper stuff in Prospect once a month.”

Goodhart says that Prospect ‘could easily have gone under in the first few years’and that it was kept afloat byCoombs and the other investors. But two or three years ago, with a circulation of around 20,000, Goodhart says ‘we were more or less breaking even”.

But the new investors are more concerned with growth than immediate profits. ‘They’re very ambitious to make the thing bigger and better, to really make an impact and to push the circulation up to 45,000 or 50,000…The main goal is to create a really good magazine that can stand on its own two feet and can improve the quality of the national conversation in this country,’says Goodhart.

Among the stand-out pieces Goodhart mentions from the past 15 years is Too Diverse?, a feature he wrote in 2004 challenging the prevailing liberal wisdom on the benefits of diversity and which was republished word for word in The Guardian. It caused a big stir at the time and since then has been cited at least 142 times in academic papers (according to the Google Scholar database).

Another piece which Goodhart picks out is Shiv Malik’s investigation headlined ‘My brother the bomber”, from 2007, for which Malik spent months in Leeds winning the trust of the brother of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the eldest of the four suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London in 2005.

‘Good writing about the things that matter’is the slogan that appears above the Prospect masthead. For Goodhart, this means ‘something that makes you want to read because it’s stylishly written and is informing you about things”.

Summing up what he believes Prospect is trying to achieve, Goodhart harks back to his original inspiration – the New York Review of Books.

‘You’d read a piece by someone you’d never read before on a subject you didn’t know you were interested in – medieval European cathedrals or something. You’d find it was so stylishly written you’d have this almost sensual enjoyment of reading that causes you to forget yourself for 25 minutes.

‘You also come away knowing something about the world that you didn’t know before. At our best we can do that.”

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