Progressive magazine celebrates 100 years

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Posted by on April 27, 2009 at 10:26:17:

Rebel with a cause: The Progressive magazine celebrates 100 years
Mike Ivey � TCT 4/27/2009 8:57 am

It's just past 3 p.m. on a sunny April afternoon, and Matt Rothschild, the editor of the Progressive magazine, is sitting in front of a microphone in the basement studio of Audio for the Arts.

Rothschild is about to launch into an interview with feminist author Jennifer Baumgardener, who created a T-shirt that reads "I was raped" as part of multimedia rape awareness project. The show will air later on some 40 radio stations nationwide.

"We'll do it all in one take," Rothschild tells his guest as he gets a cue from producer Steve Gotcher the tape is ready to roll.

Over the next 27 minutes, Rothschild smoothly guides Baumgardener through a discussion of her childhood in Fargo, N.D., her success as a writer in New York and the state of the women's movement today.

"I've met some incredible people through Matt," says Gotcher, as the interview continues behind sound-proof glass.

Gotcher ticks off the names of other guests over the years: Amy Goodman, Al Franken, Roger Ebert, Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, Laurie Anderson, Ani DiFranco, Christopher Hitchens.

"This kind of stuff is right up my alley," says Gotcher, who co-owns Audio for the Arts with Buzz Kemper and rates the Progressive among their best customers.

It's actually the second visit of the day to the sound studio for Rothschild. Fortunately for him, the studio is conveniently located at 7 S. Blair St., just two blocks from the Progressive offices at 409 E. Main St.

Each weekday at 10 a.m., Rothschild also cuts "The Progressive Point of View," a radio snippet that is broadcast on about 30 radio stations nationwide and is available as a podcast on the Progressive website.

"Some mornings I have about 15 minutes to decide what I'm going to talk about," says Rothschild, 50, a Harvard University graduate who joined the Progressive in 1983 two years out of college. A native of Highland Park, Ill., Rothschild and his wife, Jean, have three children.

Rothschild was named editor of the Progressive in 1995 following the sudden death of Erwin Knoll, adding his name to a storied list of editors that includes Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and his son, Robert Jr.; suffragette Belle Case La Follette; Capital Times founder William Evjue; and tireless Morris Rubin.

On May 1, the Madison-based publication with a nationwide reach will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a two-day conference here at Monona Terrace featuring Robert Redford, Jesse Jackson, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and others, along with regular magazine contributors including Howard Zinn, Jim Hightower and Barbara Ehrenreich.

And while the Progressive hasn't veered from its core issues -- the power of corporations; the concentration of the media; the plight of workers, consumers and small farmers; opposing war and empire building; a commitment to the environment -- the publication under Rothschild has taken on a less didactic tone. It's even added poetry and a fair dose of humor to its regular offerings, something often missing from the usual left-wing rant.

"We wanted to make things a bit more conversational," says Rothschild. "It had been too much like sitting in a lecture hall rather than going to a dinner party with interesting, intelligent people."

That the publication has survived for 100 years is a story in itself.

Founded in January 1909 by Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette, the publication was originally called "La Follette's Weekly" and later just "La Follette's." For the first dozen years it was largely a voice for the suffragist movement championed by his wife, Belle.

In 1929, four years after La Follette's death, the name was changed to the Progressive. The publication nearly folded in 1947 when editor Rubin announced it was out of money and he was out of energy. But devoted readers came to the rescue with donations of all sizes. The magazine resumed as a monthly beginning in 1948 and hasn't missed a month since.

But as Rothschild notes in his column in the 100th anniversary edition, the Progressive has always been about the mission as much as rewarding readers with biting commentary or hard-hitting investigative reporting.

Some of the best writing in the Progressive from 1909 to 2009 is included in a new book titled "Democracy in Print," published by the University of Wisconsin Press to coincide with the anniversary celebration.

The staff at the Progressive spent more than 1,000 hours poring over the leather-bound back issues to find appropriate material for the book. Excerpts in most cases were retyped by hand from the paper archives.

What's eerie, Rothschild observes, is that while a century has passed, the issues haven't really changed very much.

Indeed, on the first page of the first issue, La Follette defined the challenge for the progressive movement that remains valid today.

"In the course of every attempt to establish or develop free government, a struggle between special privilege and equal rights is inevitable," La Follette wrote. "Our great industrial organizations are in control of politics, government and natural resources. They manage conventions, make platforms, dictate legislation. They rule through the very men elected to represent them."

The endurance of the publication is a credit to its editors, says Victor Navasky, longtime editor and publisher of the Nation, which itself dates to 1865.

"It's an all-consuming task," he says. "You think about it 24 hours a day."

Navasky noted the death of once-great mass circulation magazines such as Look, Life and the Saturday Evening Post. At the same time, left-wing political journals such as the Nation, the Progressive and the New Republic have endured.

"That's because they are a cause as much as a business," says Navasky, professor emeritus of journalism at Columbia University.

In fact, the Progressive isn't really a business at all in terms of making a profit or rewarding shareholders. It's registered as a 501(c)3 charitable organization, which allows donors to deduct their contributions from income taxes but prevents the publication from making official political endorsements.

The magazine relies on paid subscriptions and donations, along with a small amount of advertising revenue. The 100th anniversary conference costs $300 per attendee or $50 for individual sessions.

But the lack of corporate advertising means the Progressive can take a stance without fear of biting the hand that feeds it, says Joan Claybrook, immediate past president of Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based group founded by Nader in 1971.

"Because they are beholden to no one, they are able to speak more boldly, and that encourages their readership," says Claybrook, who is quick to credit Rothschild for keeping the publication vital and guiding it into a new electronic era.

"Matt is absolutely relentless," she says.

Circulation of the printed magazine had slumped below 30,000 during the late 1980s but soared to a record 65,000 in 2004 amid the war in Iraq and outrage over the Bush presidency. It has since slipped back to 55,000, which Rothschild attributes to the slumping economy and the popularity of the website, where readers can get much of the same material without paying the $32 annual subscription rate.

The publication has a paid staff of 15 here, including political editor Ruth Conniff, a Yale graduate who served as Washington bureau chief before returning to her hometown of Madison in 2000 to raise a family with husband Mitch Cooper, a public defender.

Although in Madison, Conniff, 40, has maintained a high profile, making regular appearances on PBS' "To the Contrary." She also has appeared frequently on C-SPAN's Washington Journal and on NPR and Pacifica radio.

"People on the coasts may think of the Midwest as conservative, but there is a long and deep tradition of progressive thinking," she says.

Conniff adds that the Internet has made it less important where a publication is based as long as the content is vital.

"I think we've realized that when you're online it doesn't really matter where you're located," she says.

Being in Wisconsin actually helped propel the Progressive into the national spotlight in April 1954 when it published "McCarthy: A Documented Record," which went a long way toward discrediting the state's own red-baiting senator, Joseph McCarthy.

It made national news again in 1979, with editor Knoll fighting the U.S. government for the right to publish "The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It -- Why We're Telling It," which became a landmark First Amendment case.

Stories like that are what keep the fires burning for the alternative press, says Navasky.

"You feel very gratified when something you do gets quoted or picked up in a newspaper like the New York Times with a circulation of a million," he says. "But what's even more gratifying is when the Washington Post writes an editorial that doesn't credit you but you know it could not have been written unless one of your young writers had published something first."

Rothschild admits there have been times when the Progressive got it wrong. He squirmed while reading essays from 1939 opposing U.S. involvement in World War II, an editorial position that drove war backer Evjue from the magazine.

At the same time, Rothschild remains amazed at the courage the publication has shown over the years in allowing dissident voices. He also doesn't expect the Progressive to give the Obama administration a free pass even though it represents a break from nearly 30 years of largely conservative rule.

As La Follette himself once put it, Rothschild notes, "The real cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy."

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