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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In These Times—35 and healthier than it's been for a while

Posted By on 11.16.11 at 10:00 AM

Joel Bleifuss
  • Joel Bleifuss
In These Times, says its editor and publisher, Joel Bleifuss, “is doing as well as it’s done in the past 20 years.” That’s good news that would be better news if the past 20 years hadn’t set so low a bar. “Our circulation has more than doubled in the past year,” says Bleifuss—from about 10,000 copies to more than 22,000. But in 1988 circulation of Chicago’s foremost voice of the left stood in the low 40 thousands. Reagan was in the White House; covert wars were afoot; Jesse Jackson was running for president; the left had a lot on its mind.

So let’s put it this way: on Tuesday In These Times reached its 35th birthday, a big accomplishment, and Bleifuss can actually enjoy worrying that circulation might increase too rapidly for his magazine to keep up. Subscriptions don’t pay the freight at In These Times, and advertising certainly doesn’t. The magazine survives, Bleifuss says, because of a “loyal community of supporters who pay above and beyond the cost of their subscriptions.” That’s why, “if we suddenly had 40,000 readers, we’d probably go broke.” There’d be no money to pay the extra printing costs.

Bleifuss credits others for the fact In These Times is alive to worry about such things. Others credit Bleifuss. “We hit bottom,” says Nancy Myers, president of the board, which in 2008 Bleifuss overhauled from top to bottom. “He’s really been a rock,” says Ron Dorman, another of Bleifuss’s additions to the board—“He hung in there and assembled the people and resources to put it back together.” Myers adds, “We said, ‘Gosh, if he has this faith and hope and dream of reviving In These Times and making a go of it, we’ve got to support this.’”

Two years ago In These Times teetered at the edge of the abyss, a place Bleifuss can describe with his eyes closed. “As you recall, in 2008 the economy collapsed,” he says. “Donations fell drastically. We laid off half the staff. I don’t know if traumatic’s the word, but it was very difficult for me.” Contributing enormously to the rescue of ITT was a recent grant from the Puffin Foundation that allowed the magazine to hire a communications director, a development director and assistant, and a part-time blogger. This grant made possible the direct-mail campaign responsible for the rise in circulation—“We know we can sell the magazine if we introduce people to it,” says Bleifuss.

The old board was exhausted and moribund, and Bleifuss had encouraged its members to resign. The new board picked up the pace. “I don’t think the magazine would be here if it wasn’t for the board,” says Bleifuss, and he singles out Susan Levine, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Chicago, for her efforts in getting the Puffin grant. But the crucial difference she made seems to come as news to Levine.

“Actually, I think Joel gets all the credit for it,” she says. “He has a long relationship with the foundation. He set it up. He’d cultivated it for quite a while.” But she must have done something! “My recollection was he set up a meeting with what’s-his-name, the head of the foundation, and I was going to be in New York anyway, and we went out and met him,” says Levine. Then she must have really charmed him, no? “I guess I did,” says Levine.

Bleifuss joined In These Times the day it turned ten years old. So he’s been there a quarter century, the moderately wrought constant around whom more overwrought personalities swirled. Its purpose being to "identify and clarify the struggles against corporate power now multiplying in American society," In These Times was founded in 1976 by James Weinstein, an ex-Communist of means who never tired of complaining that his creation was driving him to the poorhouse. “We’ve had paychecks bouncing going back to 1977. That’s just been our way of life,” he told me when his magazine was 15 years old. That was the year ITT did its progressive duty and signed a contract with the National Writers Union, which then came after the magazine for back wages. Weinstein didn’t pretend they weren’t owed. “The writers are the only people you can screw without getting the paper shut down,” he explained.

Ten years later, another anniversary found In These Times in bizarre circumstances. The year before, preposterous good fortune had come to the magazine, something along the lines of Little Orphan Annie getting adopted by Daddy Warbucks. Bob Burnett, a multimillionaire cofounder of Cisco Systems, decided In These Times was a national resource, a voice of the progressive movement more Americans needed to hear. So he had Weinstein name him publisher and he threw some of his own money at the magazine, raising staff salaries by 10 to 15 percent, upgrading the computer system, and talking up a “Secret Plan X” crafted to connect ITT with “hundreds of thousands” of new readers.

Physically, Burnett never left California. He stayed out there and became president of a new software start-up, and with that on his plate and the dot-com bubble bursting and his millions of dollars in Cisco stock dropping from $60 a share to $20, he thought twice about his Chicago commitment and in 2001, after a year at ITT's helm, he resigned. "When he left," said Weinstein of Burnett, "he left us stronger in some ways but also weaker in others. He did a lot of stuff that was good as long as he was paying for it.” Secret Plan X—which was to market ITT as an insert in the nation’s leading alternative weeklies (the Reader, and company)—never got off the ground.

A few years before Burnett there’d been the Paul Obis era. Obis, the founder of Vegetarian Times, was looking for new worlds to conquer in 1997, when Weinstein hired him to take over as publisher. “He’s not better than I had hoped for,” Weinstein told me, “but he’s better than I expected to find.” Obis lasted 18 months, and the highlight of his tour was rooting out the business manager who over the past two years had embezzled more than $100,000 from the magazine. Aside from being a thief, the embezzler was an earnest employee who told the Reader’s Tori Marlan In These Times had been a wonderful place to work at. "A one-of-a-kind place,” he said. “There are good people there—very interesting people. Jim Weinstein is one of the best people you'd ever meet."

Obis wouldn’t have agreed. Weinstein soon made him resign, complaining he’d fallen short as a hat passer. "He did some very good things," said Weinstein, "but he was unable to do the development work, and that's a large part of operating a not-for-profit. When I gave up the publisher's job I said it was because it's hard to be a beggar instead of an editor. I'm back to being a beggar again."

Whenever Weinstein talked the talk of financial desperation—which was pretty much every time we had a conversation—a part of him always sounded amused by his own voice, as if self-inflicted lefty poverty tickled his sense of irony. Hiring an assistant publisher in 1994, he said to her, "We weren't going to hire you, but the person we were going to hire wouldn't do the job for what we were willing to pay.”

Bleifuss joined In These Times as an editor and writer, was named managing editor (a title that no longer exists) in 1998, and editor a year later. He was acting publisher between Burnett and Jeff Epton (Bernie Epton’s son) in the early 2000s, and again between Epton and Tracy Van Slyke, and he’s held the job since Van Slyke left in 2007. Meanwhile, Weinstein died in 2005, throwing his magazine entirely on its own resources.

The editorial side of In These Times now consists of two paid editors—Bleifuss (doubling as publisher) and associate editor/web editor Jeremy Gantz. There are seven staff writers, not all full-time and five of the seven paid through grants. Various interns and volunteers help out. The website is lively and looks good, slick, and healthy. So does the magazine, which began as a biweekly and is now a monthly. “”Judging from the circulation figures, readers like the magazine,” says Bleifuss. “But the future is on the web.”

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that the Puffin Foundation grant paid for a development director.

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