Seeing Double

With publication suspended indefinitely and writers threatening to sue over missed paychecks, it took a visit from Bruce Springsteen to save a Harvard professor's beleaguered magazine.

When DoubleTake Magazine was first published in the summer of 1995, it confronted readers with an indictment of the media’s capricious coverage of current trends and set forth an almost impossibly noble mission. “These days,” the editors wrote, “much of what we know about each other, and much of what we learn—from television, newspapers, and journals—reinforces our separateness and confirms our distrust. We pray that this magazine will help to bind us, one to the other, by trying to understand the distances between us, by recognizing that which we hold in common, and that which we might share.”

Last month, Bruce Springsteen played two sold-out benefit concerts for the magazine, saving it from near-certain financial ruin. In the intervening years, DoubleTake had won numerous awards, moved its headquarters from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies to Somerville, Mass., and withstood public complaints and legal threats from contributors who waited years before being paid.

“To be blunt about it, we needed dough,” explains the magazine’s founder, Dr. Robert Coles ’50, Agee Professor of Social Ethics. “We desperately needed to pay people who had written for us and whose pictures we’d used.” The situation, he says, “had put us in a moral bind.”

This explanation is particularly apt. The mission DoubleTake set forth in its first issue was a profoundly moral one—and in their determination to fulfill it, the editors had assumed an almost messianic stance regarding the sanctity of their message. But even non-profit enterprises are eventually called to account for their financial solvency, and DoubleTake’s provisional approach to the issue has more than once jeopardized the medium of their message.

Life History

DoubleTake is clearly a labor of love. After reading the 128 pages following the editors’ note in its premiere issue—which contain personalized narratives ranging from a poem by Seamus Heaney to a photoessay of life in the Chicago barrio to impressionistic short stories—even the most skeptical reader would be moved to appreciate its social conscience. In its variety, consistency and precision of editorial expression, DoubleTake is unique. No word goes unillustrated, and no picture unexplained.

New publications rarely achieve such a unified articulation of their publishing philosophy, not only because they usually cede some editorial authority to sales and marketing departments, but also because they have not yet had time to think through the implications of their tacit intentions. On both points, DoubleTake drew on the advantages of its situation. Its funding came from the Lyndhurst Foundation, and its mission had been percolating in Coles’ mind throughout the four decades of his career.

In a recent interview, Coles referred frequently to the connection between “everyday life” and “the kinds of personal responsibilities we have…toward one another in a community, toward the nation, the world.”

But one could just as easily find this message in the syllabus to his course General Education 105, “The Literature of Social Reflection,” which reads, “we will try to compare various modes of social observation; and at the same time explore the ethical issues that confront… those ordinary people caught in a particular social crisis, and not least, those who try to make sense of what others initiate politically, struggle with psychologically, endure socially.”

Because DoubleTake reflects Coles’ personal and professional history so closely, it is difficult to locate its moment of inception. Coles traces it to his days as a Harvard undergraduate, and to a paper he wrote on William Carlos Williams. His tutor suggested that he send the poet a copy of his essay, and the two became friends.

“He had dreamed of getting a magazine going,” Coles says, “not only in poetry but to deal with some of the other issues he felt were important…Those were his words: Words and pictures. He knew, of course, of Life and Look, which at that time were very much part of the American scene. But look: Life and Look are gone, and there are no magazines that offer a visual aspect of life.”

Another mentor who emphasized the importance of visual expression, and another member of DoubleTake’s “spiritual board of directors,” was novelist Walker Percy. Coles wrote a two-part profile of Percy for The New Yorker, and the two became close friends. “He’s the one who first thought the idea of the magazine up,” Coles says. “He encouraged me to try to put in a magazine the kinds of literary and visual values that he thought were important in a nation that is used to watching television and going to the movies, and is therefore visually oriented.”

Coles drew directly on Percy’s vision as he developed DoubleTake “in the sense that people were to look at the magazine and be informed and read, in what he considered to be a way neither patronizing nor didactic… [He said,] ‘Let the magazine be a voice, not only for the intelligentsia, and not only to give voice to the intelligentsia…[but] for the ordinary people of the country. The people who work, who go to offices, who work in factories, who are going about their ordinary lives.’”

Percy also said that “a good magazine can be a good schoolroom,” and Coles took these words to heart as well. When he started teaching General Education 105, he crafted a syllabus that captured Percy’s values not only in its intentions, but also in its substance. Beginning with James Agee and Walker Evans’ photographic social history “Let us Now Praise Famous Men,” the reading list included works by Percy, Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and an encyclopedia of other socially-conscious observers.

In a sense, it was this course that eventually became DoubleTake. The documentary productions of the Progressive Era are the tradition in which the magazine operates, Coles explains. “What the magazine does is it offers that classroom for the reading and viewing public…And that course carries on, I hope and pray, in what we do with the magazine.”

Mission Accomplished?

By almost any measure, DoubleTake has been a success. Its subscription base rose to 75,000, and at one point its readership was estimated at 200,000. It has also become an important resource in countless classrooms across the country. Coles attributes these achievements in part to the efforts of his design editor, Betsy Brandes. “To watch her work, connecting subject matter with the visual side, with the literary or the story-telling side—it’s an extraordinary privelege,” Coles says.

The magazine’s contributors also say they appreciate its attention to these issues. Bill Bamberger, a contributing photographer, says he “appreciated their soliticing my input in terms of layout and design…There are few publications out there today that are willing to feature photography in the way that photographers like to see their work represented: substantive essays, layouts where the image drives the layout.”

More important than its universally positive reception, Coles says, is the special issue DoubleTake published following the terrorist attacks in 2001, which represented the culmination of its mission. After its publication, Coles received a letter from a group of students in Tulsa, Oklahoma that “just made us feel that somehow that magazine had a purpose for a lot of people—not that we didn’t know that from earlier correspondance, but somehow, from far, distant Oklahoma, as Americans responding to an injury that really happened to the whole country…the response gave us a sense that here we are, and this is what we’re about.”

Indeed, in contrast with many media productions during that period—at first graced by the networks’ decision not to run ads, then vulgarized by their slick “Attack on America” graphics—DoubleTake was an ideal setting for personal accounts and photoessays that were, in Walker Percy’s terms, neither patronizing nor didactic.

But regarding its stated goal of reaching an audience beyond the intelligentsia, DoubleTake’s achievements are harder to quantify. Coles bases his claims in this area in part on the magazine’s location since 1999 in Davis Square, Somerville—a neighborhood that is, at least geographically, as close to Cambridge as it can be without actually being in Cambridge. He says the location is important because “people come from Somerville to our offices. They know that the magazine exists, and they tell us that their son or daughter has been reading it in school.

“When the news was in the papers about our financial trouble—boy, I’ll never forget it—a Somerville mother came into the office and gave us fifteen dollars in cash. I was overwhelmed. I just thought, ‘Whatever this magazine was about was that moment. Whatever it was about.’”

This local involvement is not limited to casual encounters. Once a week, Coles and Randy Testa, his former teaching fellow and a DoubleTake editor, hold a two-hour seminar for teachers and principals from public schools in the Boston area. Here, too, they stick to their message, teaching a reworked version of Coles’ Graduate School of Education course “Writers in the Classroom.” Much of the material also comes from Gen Ed 105. Testa explains, “I think the title of the overall corporation, DoubleTake Community Service Corporation, has for us a kind of goal in its title: We would like to be out there more and more within the community.”

To this end, the program will likely be extended to University of Massachusetts Boston in the coming months.

Mission, Interrupted

For DoubleTake to be a success, its editors would have to have achieved their goal of exposing people to its brand of journalism, thus “stirring them to think about others and to think about the world we live in.” In short, they needed not only to produce the right kind of content—which they clearly did—but also to establish a viable means for disseminating it. Not surprisingly, given their documentary, journalistic and academic credentials, the latter task has been a greater challenge.

Early in its history, DoubleTake had seemingly limitless financial backing from the Lyndhurst Foundation, on whose board Coles sat at the time. This backing later became a $10 million endowment situated at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

Coles explains that in 1999 the Center decided to exercise its prerogative to terminate DoubleTake’s access to the money. “We were spending the capital down, in order to get the magazine available to people, to have a circulation drive, to reach out,” Coles says. “They said, if you’re going to spend the capital down, then you’re going to have to close the magazine.”

Coles’ subsequent decision to relocate the magazine inaugurated a period of piecemeal efforts to sustain the its viability. DoubleTake was saved first by federal legislation that granted eligible non-profit institutions some proceeds from the Department of Treasury’s coin sales, then by a series of smaller contributions and grants. Although publication continued until the summer of 2002, the subscription base by that time had dropped to 25,000, and some contributors had waited for over a year without receiving compensation. Their grievances began appearing in public fora, and the outcry reached a point where Coles and his colleagues were contributing their own money to cover the magazine’s debts. “We’re not exactly floating in dough as individuals,” he says, “but that’s what we were doing.”

Both of the DoubleTake contributors contacted for this story say they were paid for their work, though photographer Miriam Sushman says “it took a long time” and Bamberger says that he absorbed part of his fee. He would have donated his work if he could have, he says, because he could see that the magazine was struggling to cut costs. “The kind of documentary efforts that we all undertake are expensive and time-consuming, so of course particularly those people who aren’t salaried by a magazine or a university need those stipends to survive,” Bamberger says.

Calling in the Boss

After DoubleTake ceased publication, Testa says, its producers “never gave up on the magazine... [They tried] every idea in the book, every idea you could think of for fundraising, affiliation possibilities—you name it.” Eventually, yet another of Coles’ long-time friends stepped in: Bruce Springsteen.

“When he heard we were in some financial jeopardy, he offered to come up and sing for us,” Coles says. Characteristically, the two benefit concerts scheduled for late February ran into hurdles. At one point, Springsteen cancelled over a dispute about ticket prices and DoubleTake’s premature announcement of the events. When the issues were resolved, though, the concerts were a musical and financial success.

“It raised a huge amount of money for us,” Coles says, “and as a result of that event, we’ve paid off all our debts. The magazine was saved by those concerts, and by the enormous response of people who didn’t even go to the concert but who admired both what Springsteen was doing and the magazine.” There is not yet a final tally of the event’s proceeds, but the Boston Globe estimates them at between $800,000 and $900,000.

Coles says that Springsteen’s generosity grew out of a kinship he feels with DoubleTake’s mission. “If you listen to his songs and read his words,” he says, “that’s what he’s struggling with. To sing, equals to say, about the country, the troubled parts of it, the ordinary working people.”

Take Two

Springsteen’s intervention on behalf of DoubleTake speaks to a larger problem on the magazine’s horizon: Without a larger subscription base, the magazine may not be sustainable; and without a careful assessment of their philosophical priorities—which include the goal of reaching a broad audience—the editors risk losing the magazine itself. There is no reason why DoubleTake must necessarily pursue a mass audience, but it has included this mission among its stated aims.

Asked about the magazine’s success in projecting its lessons, Coles says, “I would leave that for our readers to decide. We hope and try to live up to that vision, and that example…If I start answering that for you, I’m undermining the very philosophical and moral purpose of the magazine.”

If the magazine disappears from readers’ newsstands and mailboxes, though, the question of whether their horizons have been suitably broadened becomes moot. As such, Coles’ and Testa’s refusal to speculate about the magazine’s popular appeal, its potential for growth, or any other aspect of the publication process beyond their philosophical mission, may be a liability.

Coles says the editors are “brought together by a shared sense of what we’re trying to do… Observation, and then rendering the observed for others through words and pictures… There’s the creative side, the narrative side, presentation—but the publishing side has to be a division of labor.” This refusal to compromise the editorial mission for commercial concerns is understandable; but a complete divorce of the two efforts necessary to fulfill that mission has not helped the magazine’s cause.

On this point, Testa’s response to a question about how DoubleTake might extend its reach beyond the intelligentsia is telling: “We do pieces that are more about regular people living their lives,” he says. The magazine will reach a broader audience, Testa argues, through an ongoing effort to “maintain the quality of the magazine, and to try to expand the readership…through the sorts of pieces that we run. We’ve won every major award that a magazine can win in a short period of time.”

These awards, distributed by groups that represent the narrowest possible definition of intelligentsia, have very little to do with the process of reaching “regular people.” And Testa’s statement that DoubleTake’s location within the overall media landscape isn’t an editorial concern because “we do what we do out of a conviction” does not inspire much hope for its eventual triumph over financial insecurity.

None of this is to discount the efforts of the magazine’s publisher and Board of Directors, without which it would never have lasted as long as it has.

But Springsteen has succeeded in disseminating his art—not just because he works within a more commercial medium, but because he has made the compromises that a popular music career inevitably entails.

DoubleTake’s editors are, admirably, prepared to pursue their abstract dream no matter what the costs. But if they continue to depend on the borrowed popularity of another artist—even one whose philosophy intersects so closely with their own—the ultimate expression of Dr. Coles’ worthy mission may cease to make its mark.

—Staff writer Dan Wagner can be reached at dwagner@fas.harvard.edu.