The National Journal: Not just for wonks anymore

The National Journal's new owner, David Bradley, is spending lots of money, buying lots of talent, and apparently turning a moribund paper into Washington's hottest rag.

Published December 18, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

When Michael Kelly was fired as editor of the New Republic last September, a favorite parlor game in Washington media salons consisted of guessing where the unpredictable journalist would land. Within days of his highly publicized dismissal, precipitated by editorial differences with the New Republic's owner, Martin Peretz, Kelly received more than a dozen feelers from the nation's most prestigious media outlets. These included Time, Newsweek, PBS's "Frontline" and his former employers at the New York Times. New Yorker editor Tina Brown even offered to make Kelly, who once served as her Washington bureau chief, the magazine's roving foreign correspondent, based wherever he chose to live overseas.

In the end, however, Kelly surprised everyone by accepting a columnist position at the National Journal, the sober Washington weekly of politics and policy that has served as an indispensable guide for officials, lobbyists, lawyers and journalists for three decades. With the Journal's pre-punched holes for easy archiving, its think-tank writing and its circulation of only 7,000, many colleagues concluded that Kelly had opted to leave the profession altogether for a new career of wonkery.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Kelly is just one of several high-profile Washington journalists who have recently joined the National Journal's staff as the magazine, now under new ownership, attempts to enliven its earnest image. Former Legal Times writer Stuart Taylor, whose reports about Paula Jones gave new credence to her sexual misconduct suit against President Clinton, has signed on, along with William Powers, the New Republic's former media columnist. Other lights include Victoria Pope, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent and member of U.S. News & World Report's investigative team, and Charles Green, a highly respected former editor at Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau. And the hiring isn't over. There is talk that the magazine is now courting Jodie Allen, Washington editor of Slate, among others.

Why are so many journalistic stars breaking from their comfortable orbits to join the National Journal? The answer seems to lie in the appeal of its new owner, businessman David Bradley, and his energetic vision for the magazine. Bradley, the 43-year-old chairman of the Advisory Board, a hugely successful business consultancy that takes up several floors of Washington's Watergate complex, always has been an avid consumer of the National Journal's brand of detailed, blue-chip information. Now he wants to take it mainstream by making it more readable.

"I find it awfully earnest, even for my taste," the soft-spoken Bradley told Salon in an interview at his Watergate office. "But I love it. I love politics and policy, and I'm convinced we can improve the magazine without dumbing it down."

At a time when many newspapers and magazines are focusing on entertaining their readers to maintain circulation, Bradley's new hires, as well as the magazine's existing staff, find his quality-driven vision for National Journal enormously attractive. "If you want to, you can go and write politics for George, but that's a silly thing to do," Kelly told Salon. "It's People Magazine journalism tarted up as political writing. This magazine isn't like that. It's a magazine for grown-ups."

Bradley became interested in buying the National Journal last summer when he learned that its owners, the Times-Mirror Company, were going to put it up for auction. Editor Stephen Smith, concerned the magazine would get swallowed up by a large media company, convinced his bosses to permit a management-led buyout and entertain a private bid from Bradley. The negotiations moved quickly. By September, Bradley had acquired the magazine for an undisclosed sum. The exact amount will be published in the Times-Mirror's annual report.

Together with Smith and publisher John Fox Sullivan, Bradley then set out to recruit the new talent that would draw more attention to his magazine. Offering competitive salaries, as well as the freedom to write for others, they kept after Kelly and eventually snagged him after a weekend of intensive discussions. He continues to write a syndicated column for the Washington Post, identifying himself as senior writer for the National Journal and thereby advertising the magazine at the same time. Powers, who quit the New Republic in protest of Kelly's dismissal, soon followed.

Taylor then signed up, with the proviso that his columns continue to appear in the American Lawyer. In appreciation, Bradley gave Taylor two ponies for his daughters, who occasionally ride at a Chevy Chase, Md., stable that also happens to be owned by his new boss. Winning over Victoria Pope proved more difficult. She was reluctant to leave her job at U.S. News, but eventually agreed to a managing editor's slot at the National Journal after a series of lunches with Smith. "It was a very well-done courtship that started out at the Madison Hotel and ended at the Jefferson Hotel," she said, adding quickly, "but in the dining rooms in both cases."

Since the sale, the cover of the National Journal already has undergone a makeover, with the addition of art and tasteful graphics. Inside, Bradley envisions a new front section of columns, patterned after his other two favorite magazines, the Economist and the New Republic. "I want to create a 10-page front-of-the-book section made up of sharp writing that will be indispensable for anyone who follows Washington," he said. "What's so attractive about having writers like Kelly and Taylor in this section is that they are unpredictable. Their hallmark is writing that is neither right nor left, but writing that is exceptional for its thorough reporting, its lucid thinking and its sparkle. It will draw readers to the work of our existing staff, which is also top quality."

The gentlemanly Bradley insists his magazine will be neither "right nor left, but correct." And that, he says, goes for Kelly and Taylor as well. It's a good bet, however, that this pair will pepper the Journal's neutral pages with fiery, high-minded attitude. To the delight of Republicans and some left-wing Democrats, Kelly is one of the most intellectually nimble Clinton-bashers writing today. And Taylor, with his command of legal issues, isn't one to shy away from a controversy either.

Unlike other businessmen who buy media properties, Bradley says he will not be writing his own column. "He has none of the familiar press lord ticks," notes Smith. "He did not buy this magazine to advance a particular point of view or get himself known in Washington. In journalistic terms, he's a freak of nature."

Bradley is also defying another convention. Most magazine owners start with a business plan and then tailor their publications to fit it. But with his deep pockets, Bradley can afford to reverse that order. "We're starting out with an ideal, which is to make National Journal the very best magazine on government and politics in America," Smith says. "Our business plan will follow that, reflecting the kind of magazine we ultimately produce."

With its 7,000 dedicated subscribers paying $987 a year, the National Journal already turns a profit. There has been talk about lowering the subscription price to attract more readers, but Bradley says there has been no such decision. The issue isn't the price, which could go up, he says. "The issue is the standard. What we need to ask ourselves is: Are we producing a product that's worthy of the price? Are we serving our readers to the best of our abilities? People already buy the magazine for its high-quality information. My belief is that if we produce an even higher-quality magazine, more people will pay for it."

Smith says he plans to keep the National Journal focused largely on Washington, where the bulk of its readers live. But already the energy and the intellectual ferment that he and Bradley encourage is beginning to bubble, auguring possible changes down the road. Kelly talks of thoughtful pieces from outside the Beltway that would examine the way state governors and big-city mayors have tackled issues like crime, welfare and schooling and whether such policies could serve as national models. Bradley speaks of provocative pieces with a foreign focus that will give Washington's insular foreign policy establishment something to think about.

It's still far too early to judge the Journal's success under Bradley's ownership. Kelly only recently began writing his column for the front section, a two-page review of the week in Washington. After the New Year, Powers will cover the Washington media, while Taylor will examine legal issues. Kelly says it will take one or two years, minimum, before the results of Bradley's vision can be fully assessed.

Meanwhile, perhaps the best indicator of the impact David Bradley has had so far is the buzz that his magazine has created among Washington's infamously bitchy press corps. In this capital of Schadenfreude, where no good deed goes unpunished, the hiring of talents like Kelly, Taylor and Powers has plenty of journalists watching the magazine with undisguised envy. "I was sitting with some old friends from the Post the other day and they were asking about it, " Powers remarked. "Things like 'So, everybody's over there at the National Journal now, huh?' and 'So you really are happy and excited?' I tell them the truth. I tell them we're just getting started, that we're still on the runway. But that it feels very, very good.

"That just makes them crazy."

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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