Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin Magazine, a socialist magazine both online and in print. Concerning the political Left, Jacobin provides political commentary and cultural perspective giving strong voice to Socialist groups in America and beyond. See all of Bhaskar’s recommendations.
For those who’ve had their heads stuck in the sand the last few years and haven’t heard of Jacobin yet, what’s it’s history and what does it publish?
Jacobin is a socialist political magazine. We publish both in print and online. We put around 20 original articles every week online, publish a quarterly print magazine, and put out some books every year in conjunction with Verso Books, and we’re going to be expanding with a few new projects over the next year.
My main goal with Jacobin early on was to take a lot of ideas and debates that were being relegated to the political fringe, or seemed dated, and try to project these ideas for a much broader audience. So, in other words, we wanted to have a dialogue with mainstream liberalism and other forces in American political debates. We didn’t want this to be a purely academic exercise, so we have a network of reading groups all around the world and almost fifty in the United States alone, where people can come and talk about socialist politics in an environment that’s warm and welcoming and ask even the most basic questions as well as get involved in higher level debates.
As a whole we try to legitimise the socialist position as a part of the spectrum of political debate, in the hope of using some of the energy and audience of Jacobin to play a small part kickstarting the socialist movement here in the United States, but we do also publish a lot of material from abroad, so it’s not just here.
When did it launch?
We launched a little over four and a half years ago. Initially we launched as an online-only publication, then after around two or three months I decided to take it to print. It was too hard to differentiate ourselves as an online-only publication where so much competition pulls on other people’s attention, and it was a struggle to build a financing model through just an online-only publication.
The goal for going to print was that it gave us a revenue model from the beginning and also made us stand-out as one of the few projects that were launching into print.
Are there differences between what you publish in the print magazine and online? And if so, in what ways are they different?
To use a little bit of jargon, the online stuff is more conjunctural; the articles are more of a response to current events, while the print issues are completely themed and are often less pegged to those events.
As far as audience it’s a struggle because we are two things at once. We’re kind of ambassadors for a certain set of political traditions of a wider audience and that audience right now online is very high, it’s often 7 or 800,000 visitors every month. So on the one hand we’re holding up the flag for a certain type of politics and engaging with people for whom we’re their first engagement with socialist ideas. But at the same time Jacobin is a place where we can have more thorough debates and try to develop those ideas theoretically.
So Jacobin means something to people who are already committed socialists, our core audience, but it also means something to this much broader web audience. The challenge is to balance pieces and perspectives so that we can be both things to both audiences.
That accessibility of Jacobin shines through, and especially because many political magazines within this genre can be obscurist or academic in their overall tone. What was behind that decision?
If you have an idea, no matter how complex, you should be able to explain to your average, fairly precocious 9th grader, and if you can’t explain your ideas to them then chances are that you don’t actually understand the idea clearly yourself.
It’s telling that many younger leftists, or those just getting politicised, often fall back on jargon and specialist language. It’s hard to synthesise complex ideas and explain them clearly if you don’t have a firm grasp on them yourself. So, with Jacobin we try to avoid too much specialist language but also not go in the other extreme and dumb it down so that we’re condescending our readers, you want to make sure that there is room for people to read a piece as a starting point.
If you read The Economist or The Financial Times you don’t need to have read Adam Smith, and in the same way you don’t necessarily need to have read Karl Marx to understand Jacobin, though, of course, that’s something everyone should do.
America accounts for a population of roughly 330 million people so what does niche publishing mean with a population of that size?
You mention that Jacobin online tries to contribute to political debates in the here and now, are there examples of where you have responded to right or conservative viewpoints from other magazines?
Not so much. We don’t necessarily engage too much in debates and discourses going on in other magazines. To the extent that we’re vying for hegemony it’s often with critiquing aspects of American liberalism as opposed to conservative ones.
One of our theses is that in the US the political spectrum is so narrow people who are often self-described liberals are people who in other political contexts would be social democrats or even further left. So what we try to do is engage with them in a positive way and try to introduce them to a structural critique of capitalism and generally try to bolster that separation between the social base that is voting for centre-left or centrist parties but who are often themselves further left in their aspirations. So our engagement isn’t that geared towards the Right.
Can you give an example of a recent debate you’ve initiated or joined in on?
With a party like Syriza in Greece we’ve been fairly intimately involved with them since it was a small party, when it was polling only 3% or so. When they took power we became a platform for them to air out debates, Jacobin became a major venue for this in the Anglophone world.
In particular we published a lot of the viewpoints from the Left Platform of Syriza, which comprises around 35 MPs. Other examples of debates would be within the labour movement, on certain issues like the ILWU’s [International Longshore and Warehouse Union] latest contract agreements, things like that, or where the Left should stand on gay marriage, which we defended as a victory, but there are many far-left critiques on that position.
Sometimes our debates are more abstract where we put forward a vision of urbanism or a vision of technology that are at odds with other elements of the Left.
What about your editorial and support team, how has that grown over the years and how involved are you in the day-to-day running?
For the print issues, I still largely take the lead, with a few people helping on a rotating basis. And of course, Remeike Forbes doing the design work on them. With the online material we work in a small team, there’s four of us, including myself, and some of those are part-time positions, so we produce a lot given how small the staff is.
Out of my week, maybe I spend around 35-40 hours just editing, mostly online, and then I spend another 10-20 doing administrative, outreach, other things.
And it’s a full-time job for you now?
Yep, other than a small chunk of my time where I should be sleeping. I’ve only been working full time since the beginning of the year, and for our first three years I worked other odd jobs. We actually hired our first full-time staff in June 2014, and today in total we have six staff so it’s been a big expansion in the past year.
That’s amazing progress in that period of time. Has that developed due to the revenue you’ve brought in from subscriptions and advertising or have you managed to bring in additional external funding?
Our first large donation funded one position but all the other positions were funded through subscription revenue. Right now we have around 12,500 subscribers and we have a net gain every week on subscribers of around 100 subscribers per week. At this pace we’ll hit 20,000 by the end of 2016 or early 2017. My target has been to get to 25,000 by the end of 2017 but it’s hard to project that far into the future. The whole strategy seems clever to some but actually it’s just brute force, so in other words we’re publishing let’s say 17 to 20 pieces every week and we’ve got that net gain of 120 subscribers each week. Our traffic is so high that even not having a paywall we’re managing to convert a small percentage of those into subscribers. So yes we may be gaining 5,000 subscribers every year but we’re doing that because we’re releasing a 1,000 pieces every year. The strategy really is brute force, it’s nothing cleverer than that.
Do you think there is an upper limit on that subscription figure, particularly in an American context?
Yes and no. We’ve already exceeded the historic peaks that a lot of socialist publications in American history managed. I think we’re the highest circulation of any socialist or Marxist publication since Ramparts, which peaked much higher in the late 60s early 70s, but that was a very different era, with large newsstands draws that we don’t do.
America accounts for a population of roughly 330 million people so what does niche publishing mean with a population of that size? To me niche publishing could very well be reaching hundreds of thousands of people. So yes I think there is an upper most limit but I think that limit is in the hundreds of thousands. I’d be very happy if we have a stable base of 25,000, and if political conditions in the country changes then there would be further interest in these ideas and we’d be established enough to be a natural home for all those new people interested in these ideas.
We didn’t decide to spend all our time doing this just to sell a friggin’ t-shirt
And what sort of audience are you reaching? For example who do you meet at Jacobin’s reading groups?
We reach a very young audience, so it’s a lot of people who have just graduated from college, or are roughly college-aged, they’ve done some campus activism or maybe they’re involved in a few small campaigns, but they don’t particularly self-define themselves as socialist to begin with.
There are also those who are involved in NGOs and unions, and we see both these people at our reading groups who come to engage more in those ideas and meet people who are doing work at local levels, for example people who are housing rights activists. So both online and offline Jacobin facilitates the connection of these people who are doing that sort of work and serves a valuable role for activists in that way.
And of course there is a minority there in reading groups that are already committed socialists, they may not be a member of a socialist organisation but they have engaged deeply with socialist ideas. With those people what we try to do, as moderators and facilitators, is to try to get them on board with the project, which stands for a non-sectarian approach to engaging with people of other beliefs and not condemning those people for not having the right ideas.
And the design of Jacobin’s site seems to reflect that, it has a young and perhaps even a radical edginess to it. I wonder how much you were keeping in mind this young audience when you were going through the design process?
That’s a question I’d really have to defer to our designers, particularly Remeike Forbes, our creative director and Erin Schell our art editor. I would say one thing that Remeike tried very consciously to do was to avoid the old style of New Left courier new, typewriter-like fonts, black and white, and instead go for something fresh and vibrant. So we don’t actually see this as left-wing design, I don’t think there can be such a thing. I think there’s good design and bad design and we have people who can produce good design.
The site, and the design of the magazine are both built on the premise that there is a professional good way to do things, whether that’s to edit, to proofread or to design, and even though we have radical ideas we don’t want to say there’s anything radical or alternative about being really shitty at doing things.
There are some themes here which remind me of an interview we did recently with the editor of The Point, Jon Baskin, and he spoke of a circle of literary political magazines in America who he sometimes draws authors from, he was particularly referring to n+1, The New Inquiry, The American Reader. Do you find you too share authors with that group of publications?
Not particularly. Out of those publications you mention, n+1, is excellent, for example. It’s a very well edited and serious publication, but it’s a very different project than Jacobin. They come to politics through literature and other stuff, whereas our starting point is politics, Jacobin is nothing without politics. So when we do n+1-style cultural essays we are not at our best and often when they do directly political work I think they’re not at their best, so we have some overlap but not a ton. But we get on fraternally, and I think the success of that sphere of publications like n+1 is a great boon to creating a wider milieu. But I think we’re reaching different audiences, and yes there is some overlap between our writers but it’s not significant.
So who is the typical Jacobin author?
It really does vary. A lot of them are young, they’re maybe 23 or 24, they’re activists; that’s one batch of writers. Or maybe they’re a couple of years older and they’re third or fourth-year graduate students or young adjunct professors or people who have been doing movement activism for a few years and either are sending us reportage or have a contribution on tactics/strategy.
The thing is we publish so many authors every year now, perhaps 500 people per year so it’s hard to give a typical description. But I suppose broadly they’re 23-33 and they’re in this post-college flux. That said, we publish people that are quite prominent in world politics and we publish prominent academics too. It used to be hard to convince those sorts of people to write for Jacobin, but once we had convinced enough people and gained a large and specific audience then in effect we’ve become the best place to be published.
We try to be a venue that is very easy to break into; we greet every submission that comes in, we thoughtfully consider it, we generally don’t privilege who the person is and we mostly look at the ideas and the pitch. That’s allowed us to be the first venue for a lot of authors.
You mentioned briefly earlier about the successful monetisation of the magazine, you have lots of options to accumulate revenue; you have hierarchical donations, advertising, subscriptions for various different time periods. What’s been proving most successful and have you found certain models difficult?
Donations, we’ll see. We’ve always been a publication that has been driven around a subscription model, so it’s hard to get people to become donors who expect something back when they give money.
But we’re non-profit and because of the U.S. tax system people get certain benefits from donating to non-profits so we’ll see how it works out this fundraising season. Subscriptions are a constant steady stream of revenue. One thing we don’t do a lot of but we hope to do more, is merchandising. Largely because our branding is so strong we have a lot of possibilities there, but we didn’t decide to spend all our time doing this just to sell a friggin’ t-shirt, but there is more room there so we’ll probably do a little bit more in merchandising.
Advertising doesn’t bring in a lot, maybe we could pull in $10,000 a year, maybe a little more but it’s not a ton of money. So as whole Jacobin is largely subscription driven, I think maybe in the future donations will catch up. We’ve never received grants or anything like that but I imagine we may be able to get a grant in the future, but it’s a little bit difficult given how directly political we are.
Lastly, what was your background before you started the magazine?
I was an undergraduate at the time I launched Jacobin, I was in my Sophomore year so I was 21 years old. I had no real publishing background, I was just someone who was politically committed to the Left; I was a socialist and had fairly strong but untrained writing and editing skills. But I’ve always been pretty good at the business and administration side of things so creating a business plan came relatively easy, I’m probably stronger at that than the editorial work even.
It’s not often you find people who have those proclivities who are also anti-capitalist… I honestly think that a lot of this work is something that people can learn and develop if they’re fortunate enough to have the time to focus on it, I think talent plays a very little role. All the best editors I’ve worked with are just serious and hardworking and most importantly committed to something — whether it’s just their craft, or in the case of Jacobin, a set of politics, as well.
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