Reason's new editor on politics, intern life and leading the magazine into its next 50 years
It's apt that libertarianism aims to uphold individual judgment since Katherine Mangu-Ward now has the freedom to run her own shop at Reason magazine.
She's the new editor in chief of a bastion of libertarian philosophy, which was founded in 1968 and is surviving in a wickedly competitive field convulsed by the digital age. She's ninth editor and third woman to hold the post, along with Virginia Postrel and Marty Zupan.
Reason is a vibrant minnow in a sea of giants. With its foundation parent's president and CFO headquartered in Los Angeles, the editorial staff is largely in Washington, D.C., and their handiwork generates 2.5 million monthly unique visitors.
"One of the great pleasures of Reason — as an editor and (I hope) as a reader — is listening in on five decades of freewheeling conversation about how to make the world more free, more fair and more fun," says Mangu-Ward, a self-described "Beltway baby" and "D.C. lifer" who's an Alexandria, Virginia native and lives in the capital.
She "embodies Reason's dedication to great journalism and developing talent," says David Nott, the president of Reason Foundation, the magazine's publisher. "Katherine's humor, smarts and strong work ethic have helped drive her rise from Reason intern to editor in chief. I'm thrilled that she'll now lead and shape the magazine's coverage and design with her original, provocative and witty vision for impactful journalism."
"Katherine isn't just the obvious choice to lead Reason magazine into its second 50 years but an inspired one," says Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv.
"After a baby boomer (me) and a Gen Xer (Matt Welch) at the helm, I'm especially psyched to see how a millennial transforms Reason and libertarianism in the century that belongs to her generation."
I had an exchange with the new boss soon after her appointment Wednesday, in part touching up today's different strains of conservatism and her plans for the publication.
First, a quick opener on Reason. How big are you guys now, circulation-wise and staff-wise? What will be your primary duties?
The magazine's circulation is 50,000 (print and digital), and Reason.com gets 2.5 million monthly unique visitors. Editorial staff is about 30, including the web and video operations. I'll be running the print magazine, as well as writing on all our platforms.
What do you have in mind as an editor, be it tinkering or any larger change with the publication?
High-quality, fascinating longreads backed by original research and reporting are the bloody, beating heart of a magazine like ours, and that's where I'm going to focus. Reason has always been really good at mixing culture and politics in part because we're cheering for culture to beat politics — for developments in commerce and technology and art to make the big, dumb, slow grind of government irrelevant — even as we keep a weather eye on Uncle Sam. We’ll be moving away from the standard politics-in-the-front, culture-in-the-back model to a format that hopefully showcases all the ways those two areas are eternally entangled.
We’re also going to be reworking the look of the magazine. Reason's early issues are incredibly stylish — weird and rough-edged and futuristic. I'm collaborating with our new art director, Joanna Andreasson, to recapture some of that energy while modernizing and updating the aesthetics. The goal is for Reason to be visually interesting and accessible whether readers are paging through the dead-tree edition or swiping on their phones.
Your "space" includes the likes of The Weekly Standard, National Review, among others, not to forget Fox News Channel. First, how is Reason different ideologically? Second, personally, would you describe yourself as a neocon or a libertarian?
I'd say our “space” is also Slate and New America and MSNBC. That's the glory of being a libertarian — you can make common ground on both sides (or, if you like, you can piss absolutely everyone off). Because we are a minority, we have to be coalition-minded if we want to get anything done, and we have to speak in a language that lefties and righties can understand if we want to be heard. Criminal justice reform, drug legalization, getting rid of crony capitalism, immigration — those are just some of the places where you see the left joining fights libertarians have long been on the correct side of, and those issues probably break the expectation that our space would be with those outlets on the right you mentioned.
I’m absolutely a libertarian. Even as a Weekly Standard reporter (and fact checker before that — the most thankless job in journalism, but a hell of a great experience to have under your belt as a writer and editor) I was the token libertarian. (Editor) Bill Kristol would wander by my desk and say stuff like "you really think we should legalize heroin?" and I'd say "yep," and he'd snort a little and meander off.
There's probably more libertarian sentiment than many might think among the neocon rank-and-file, but I was always a visitor to those shores. When it came time to do a profile of a young Paul Ryan, though, I had no problem being Fred Barnes' Gal Friday, and I learned a lot about how to cover Washington from those guys.
What's the battle plan, roughly, as for covering Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, the Libertarian presidential ticket? Johnson has risen to 10 percent in the latest national polls and seems to have caused a stir among independent voters. You've done a fair amount on him in recent days — are you naturally inclined to give them more coverage than Clinton and Trump?
Matt Welch, my sensei and Reason's EIC for the last eight years, will be moving into the role of editor at large, with a focus on the presidential campaign in general and the Libertarian Party in particular. We're absurdly lucky to have Matt — a rare libertarian who is also genuinely engaged in the nitty gritty of electoral politics — heading up that coverage this year.
With two unpopular authoritarians helming the major party tickets, there will be no shortage of coverage of Clinton and Trump by Matt and others. Reason, as usual, was at the Libertarian Party convention and will be attending the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions again (unless Trump reads the things we’ve written about him and adds us to the banned list). And Nick Gillespie will continue to roast the two major parties as only he can, making the case that we need more and better political choices.
It is fantastic that third-party candidates look like they'll get a much more serious look from the rest of the media this year. Reason has covered the L.P. since its founding. They're an interesting thing that's happening in our universe, so we want to cover it as a service to our readers, who tend to be thirsty for thorough, fair information and analysis. As a result, we certainly cover Johnson-Weld more than most outlets. But we're not and never will be a house organ of the L.P. We're small-l libertarians. It’s pretty common for supporters of Gary Johnson, Rand Paul, or others to be mad at various Reason writers on any given day because we’ve critiqued their favorite candidates on some policy issue.
One brainy, skeptical chum of mine wonders if there is really any reason behind libertarianism beyond turning selfishness into a political ideology?
Well, one variant of libertarianism, Objectivism, could fairly be summed up that way. Ayn Rand was very keen on selfishness — she thought it promoted the virtues of honesty, productiveness, and integrity. Reason has strong roots in that tradition, and I was an insufferable teenage Objectivist myself. But I, and the vast majority of modern libertarians, ultimately favor personal freedom, markets, civil liberties, criminal justice reform, limited government, and freer movement of people and goods across borders because we think those policies would make the world a better place, not just for ourselves but for everyone.
In the magazine's formal announcement, you were quoted thus: "Where else are you going to find a Burning Man regular, Congressional Budget Office report fanboys, a guy willing to publish his entire genome online, and a rabid horde of political junkies sharing a single table of contents?" Elaborate as to how that forms a cohesive core.
Reason is always on the lookout for ways to make the world more free, more fair and more fun. We're big tent; we're not in the gatekeeper business of saying who's in and who's out of the libertarian club. Instead, we want to keep tabs on politics and politicians, but we also want to chronicle all the cool, experimental stuff individuals are doing in the spaces that government leaves relatively free (or hasn’t gotten around to strangling yet).
Our cohesive core is actually more like a framework: We're interested political structures that maximize choice and make room for all kinds of experiments in living, and that includes everything from desert barter societies to close-knit religious communities to atomized urbanism to suburban sprawl.
Final question: You started at Reason as an intern (in 2000 while attending Yale University and before working at The Weekly Standard and The New York Times, before returning in 2006). You rose to being managing editor and, now, the editor. What's your career advice to all the many, mostly lousy-paid interns out there in the media world?
My most valuable advice to interns: Ramen is less depressing and more delicious if you poach an egg in the broth while the noodles are cooking.