Friday, August 21, 2009

Let The Progressive Die Gracefully

Apparently The Progressive magazine out of Madison is in the midst of some epic financial troubles and may be forced to close shop. The magazine has a rich history in Wisconsin and has published an impressive series of writers over the years, including an essay by Leo Tolstoy just before he died. Normally these elements would strike a chord of deep homerism in The Chief; but in this case it's time to put The Progressive to bed.

The Progressive has been rudderless since the end of Vietnam. Its articles are too short to discuss anything in depth, too shrill to be taken seriously, and are usually unsatisfying exercises in myopia. The monthly content is utterly predictable and repetitious (The U.S. is responsible for every bad thing that's ever happened in Latin America -- we get it already!). And even for as much as we like Russ Feingold, the flagrant shilling that The Progressive does for Wisconsin's junior Senator is enough to make anyone uncomfortable (seriously, should Feingold be the next Supreme Court Justice or merely Attorney General?).

It has exchanged smugness and self-righteousness for any hope of insight or profundity. A perfect example of just how futile this editorial strategy is can be seen in the way The Progressive squandered its opportunity to become a strong voice of opposition when other left-leaning opinion magazines like the New Republic endorsed the war in Iraq. Instead of laying a calculated case against the war, the magazine engaged in the type of knee-jerk pacifism that can be found on the placards of most anti-war demonstrations. That's not what opinion magazines are for.

Ever since Molly Ivins passed away The Progressive has lacked a regular featured author worth reading. It's current stable of contributors is nothing like the crop of authors it could once claim. Think about it: when was the last an article in The Progressive added to the national debate? The answer was in 1979 when the magazine devoted an entire issue to describing how a hydrogen bomb works. There's been 30 years of not much since. In that time The Progressive hasn't been in the business of promoting progressivism, it's been in the business of preaching to an aging and dwindling choir.

The single most damning piece of evidence that The Progressive is not equipped for the future of opinion journalism is the magazine's embarrassingly awful website. While other opinion publications like The Atlantic and National Review are basically content sweat shops that churn out over 100 blog posts a day, a busy day at The Progressive never is more than three posts -- and usually it's just one post. And some of those posts are absolutely hideous. Making matters worse is the fact that nearly all of the content available in the print version is behind a firewall online. So it should come as no surprise that The Progressive is barely linked to by other bloggers (seriously, the mag's Technorati links are a fraction of the New Republic's, a magazine with a comparable circulation, but more dedicated web presence). It no longer has any influence as a driver of public opinion, even among the left.

Worst of all is that it's hopelessly mired in the past. Instead of looking to the future by proposing innovative solutions to the ills of mankind, The Progressive seems committed to nothing more than assigning blame for those ills. This shtick gets very old, very quickly and does nothing for the ideas the magazine espouses.

Daniel Stout (via WisOpinion) makes a good point when he asks "I’m wondering if The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, The Daily Kos and others have been part of the problem." The answer is clearly Yes, but it's not just because those platforms exist online whereas The Progressive still lives on in print -- it's because those sites are so much better at what they do than The Progressive that they render the magazine obsolete.

If The Progressive had an ambitious plans for the future that involved expanding its stable of bloggers, bringing in young writers willing to forgo the big (or any) paycheck just to get some publishing experience and make a concerted effort to aspire to being more than merely the bathroom reading of Dennis Kucinich voters, then I would say would say it would be worth saving. But there are no signs that the magazine has plans to evolve with the times. Oddly enough, these are all more "democratic," "people-powered" ways of improving the product -- one would imagine that for all of the editorializing The Progressive does on the nature of "true" democracy that they would have incorporated these very principles into their business model.

Of course Wisconsin will lose something when the The Progressive finally shuts its doors -- and it will be sad for many people when that happens, but it won't be any more awful than watching the magazine decline into utter obsolescence.

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