How a small magazine responded to its White House-shattering scoop

August 21, 2017

Amy Lambrecht, publisher of The American Prospect, faces a tough challenge every day: How can she make her magazine stand out in a wickedly competitive media universe where being interesting and provocative may be a higher priority than being smart?

But that task got way easier last week when the co-founder of the intellectual and scholarly quarterly picked up a phone and heard the preternaturally inflammatory Steve Bannon at the other end.

Bannon’s outreach last week to co-founder and co-editor Robert Kuttner was a more highbrow version of Anthony Scaramucci’s self-immolation in contacting The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. But the resulting unrelated comments on a variety of topics and West Wing colleagues provided a similar impact and, soon, the White House chief strategist was gone, just like The Mooch, and in Bannon’s case he was quickly back at his old proselytizing perch at Breitbart News.

Amy Lambrecht. (Photo courtesy The American Prospect)

Amy Lambrecht. (Photo courtesy The American Prospect)

So what about The American Prospect?

Its self-description is one of “liberal intelligence,” a phrase that runs on its cover. It seeks to advance “liberal and progressive goals through reporting, analysis and debate about today’s realities and tomorrow’s possibilities.”

It was founded in 1990 by Kuttner, Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton University sociologist Paul Starr and Robert Reich, the economist-turned-Clinton-era Labor Secretary who’s now at the University of California, Berkeley. Kuttner, a journalist-author who teaches at Brandeis University, and Starr are co-editors. Lambrecht oversees the whole operation, which now faces the opportunity to exploit unexpected and significant publicity. Below is a Q-and-A with Lambrecht about how the landmark interview with Bannon has affected the magazine.

For those who may have essentially been introduced to American Prospect last week, tell them just a bit about yourself: Your origin, editorial bent, readership and staffing.

The American Prospect was established in 1990 by Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, and Paul Starr. Our mission is to improve the national dialogue about the day’s most important issues, inform and engage the public, and inspire effective public policy based on principles of broadened democracy, social justice, and expanded inclusion. We print four times per year, and we post daily longform and short-form content on www.Prospect.org.

As a publisher, once Bob told you about his call, what was your reaction?

I was electrified. A story like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a publisher of a small independent media outlet, really for anyone whose life goal is to change the world. I was thrilled that The American Prospect would have the opportunity to truly have national impact in a way that very few other publications of any size have ever had.

As you mulled how to smartly exploit an obvious blockbuster national story, with whom did you discuss tactics and what have you chosen to do? I think I saw a fundraising email that included news of the piece.

Our senior editorial team has a terrific breadth of experience. In addition, we have a very strong board of directors. As Bob was writing the story, the entire team was working together to identify the best strategy for releasing it and sharing it. The article went up on www.Prospect.org first, then it was emailed out to our e-subscribers.

It was also sent quickly to key media outlets with larger reach, both traditional and online, and we promoted it using social media. We took advantage of all of the external coverage offered in order to maximize our impact. And clearly our efforts paid off: Bannon was out of the White House within 48 hours of this story hitting the street.

On the business side, we immediately shared the story with our donors, and we kept our supporters up to date as events unfolded hour by hour. The response was very positive. In the coming days, we will continue to capitalize off of our success with prospective funders, advertisers, and subscribers.

How has the reaction been so far, both from a readership and fundraising perspective?

The reach of this story has been phenomenal. It was picked up by every outlet imaginable, from all sides of the political spectrum. Bob has been a guest on television and radio, and the story continues to have legs many days on. Our fellow journalists have shown great respect for Bob Kuttner and for The American Prospect, and our readership numbers have exploded. Not surprisingly, fundraising revenues have also increased, although of course I would always like to see those numbers go up even more.

It’s a competitive world out there, and not just for smaller publications with modest budgets. What are any early lessons from these past few days? Obviously, you can’t expect a story like this every week, or even every month.

The American Prospect has been publishing for 27 years. We have had incredibly talented writers on our team, and they have produced important and insightful content that has been widely read and disseminated.

But a story like this is so rare, and impact like this is so uncommon; I don’t think any small publication can ever truly be ready for the rush. I think the entire team at The American Prospect handled themselves with incredible grace and agility, and that is the best advice I would give any other publication facing such a wonderful deluge: always be professional, try new strategies, be willing to listen, don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet, and enjoy the ride.