Bullish Ideas in a Bear Market

Metamorphosis at the Harvard Political Review

If you've thumbed through the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review recently and kept alert for the appurtenances of Harvard that pop up all over society, you've probably seen a Harvard Political Review advertisement. And if you read the HPR, you've seen the Columbia Journalism ads there. It's all part of a package deal put together two years ago by some HPR editors in an attempt to break into the national market for political journals. Their attempt failed miserably. In the process, however, they almost implemented a cultural revolution at the Review and left the magazine graphically improved but lacking a sense of identity as well as a financial base.

Labor Pains

The marketeering and promotion gimmicks that typified the HPR in 1974-75 were a far cry from the student activism which spawned the Review in the late 60's. The first issues of the Review, beginning in April 1969, carried cover photographs of students demonstrating against the Vietnam War and against ROTC. The prevailing message of the magazine was anti-war, but a lot of space was also devoted to campus politics.

When the group of editors who ran the Review during this period graduated, the magazine fell into decline, publishing articles almost exclusively from experts in various fields of public policy. That original group of editors had ties to and financial support from the Institute of Politics at Harvard; when the Review was rejuvenated in 1972-73, it was under the editorship of Simeon Kriesberg '73, chairman of the Institute's Student Advisory Council (SAC).

Under Kriesberg, the magazine was completely revised to include many student contributions, staff articles, and outside submissions from freshmen congressmen and Institute Fellows among others. Kriesberg and Gary Meisel '74, SAC members, served terms as editors, and the Student Advisory Committee provided most of the Review's income. But changes were in the wind.


Hot to Trot in a Cultural Revolution

Two years ago were the golden days between Nixon's 1971-72 "garden variety" recession and the unheralded advent of the '74-75 abject slump. Rick Mendelson '75, whom everyone describes as "a very bright and high-powered guy," had just become editor of the Harvard Political Review, bringing with him the seeds of a cultural revolution. Mendelson's predilictions were towards graphics, promotion, and marketing, as were those of his associate editor, Tim Bliss '75. They thought that with a slicker-looking product the Review could appeal to a much wider audience than just the Harvard wastebaskets where it had languished so long.

After one issue in the old style, Mendelson and Bliss approached the Student Advisory Committee, which published the Review, with a package of proposals for wholesale design revamping, trading advertisements with other periodicals, and extended fund-raising. Mendelson asked the SAC for an increased subsidy, anticipating a one- or two-year stimulus which would set the Review firmly on the road to self-sufficiency and entry into the national periodical market. Like a parent putting out those last few thousands of dollars for college, hoping that the degree insures the kid's future, the SAC went along.

First results were positive. Graphically, the magazine shed its basement-mimeograph image. According to Mark J. Saylor '76, who succeeded Mendelson as editor, "Rick had an abiding faith in professionals--that first issue was designed by a student at the Design School (Scott Reid and Associates)--and the cover was drawn by a professional artist in Los Angeles who still does our cover." There were three times as many photographs and illustrations as in the previous issue, and a sharp new logo took its place on a stiff-paper color-coded cover.

Mandelson's fund-raising schemes for '74-75 looked just as promising. With the advice of professionals at the Harvard Development Office and various Institute of Politics contacts, the Review staff came up with a list of 61 potential "very large donors." The plan was to send information packets out to these individuals and to follow up the packets with personal communication. Mendelson expected to raise $10,000 or more a year from this list, enough to cover the Review's total budget, and to begin amassing funds for an extensive subscription drive.

On the marketing and promotion side, ads for such periodicals as the Columbia Journalism Review, The New Republic, The Nation, and Washington Monthly began to appear in the HPR, in exchange for free space in those publications for HPR ads. The number of subscriptions rose from only 20 under the old format to over 200 by February 1976. The staff sent out the large donor packets and waited.

Swamped By the High Seas of Recession

1975 was by no means the best year for an expansion-minded periodical. By January the Nixon/Ford/Arthur Burns recession had burst out full-blown and was still hanging around with lots of its old vigor in December. Even such a sound, conservative, well-connected publication as National Review ran in the red in 1975. The only successful new entrant in the periodical market was the glossy, gossipy, photo-filled People magazine, backed by Time, Inc. Money was tight in 1975.

Of the 61 people on the Harvard Political Review's large donor list, only 24 expressed any further interest after receiving the packet. Of these, three eventually contributed to the Review, for a total of $52,000. As Saylor later wrote in his report on this failure, "Our rate of return was only 5 per cent on a list that cannot possibly be matched for selectivity," and those returns "appear likely to be one-time contributions rather than a continuing commitment."

There was one bright spot on the fundraising scene. After consultation with Marty Peretz of The New Republic and other fundraising wizards, the Review staff set up after Christmas 1974 a "Friends of the Harvard Political Review" program, consisting of mailed issues of the HPR (with letters asking for regular fifteen-to-twenty dollar contributions) to former Fellows of the Institute and people affiliated with the Kennedy School of Government. According to Saylor, "There's been a good response to our first mailings--it looks promising." But even an optimistic estimate of Friends' support amounts to less than 15 per cent of the Review's yearly expenses.

Recommended Articles