An Interview with Katherine Mangu-Ward, Editor-in-Chief of Reason
Since 2016, Katherine Mangu-Ward has been Editor-in-Chief of the libertarian magazine Reason. She has also worked for The Weekly Standard and The New York Times and is a Future Tense Fellow at New America. Mangu-Ward graduated from Yale in 2002 with a B.A. in philosophy and political science.
The Politic: What, in your words, is Reason magazine?
Katherine Mangu-Ward: Reason magazine is a libertarian publication, and our slogan is, “Free Minds and Free Markets.” Most of our coverage flows from that motto and we aim to provide a balanced coverage of issues central to the values libertarianism. So regardless if an author might take a left or right leaning stance in his commentary, as Reason we focus on making sure issues concerning personal liberty and the extent of government influence are brought to light. Equally, this means that we are able to foster comprehensive debate on these issues, given that our content spreads all across the spectrum.
TP: In this sense, would it be fair to say that libertarianism is what the current media landscape needs? The drive towards a balanced debate in media in the face of an increasingly polarized political landscape seems far too slow for the majority of readers to have an informed worldview…
KMW: I think it is a persistent myth in the perception of journalism that there was a golden age of objective coverage, like when Walter Cronkite would tell it exactly as it is and the public could use one outlet and be confident in the completeness of their understanding. Every publication and every journalist has some opinionation, a bias that makes it impossible to construct objectivity. Instead, I think the libertarian underpinning of Reason allows us to identify issues that are equally close to Democrats as they may be to Republicans and allow both sides to provide a reasoned argument. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the reader to respect both sides of an argument and benefit his own knowledge through consensus rather than myopic bias.
TP: So certainly, while Reason gives its’ writers a framework within which they can freely demonstrate their analysis and can equally expect it to be critiqued by an opposing viewpoint, a customary feature of particularly larger newspapers is the maintenance of a coherent policy line and having staff convey news in line with the ideology. Would you say Reason, therefore, plays a more developmental role with its journalists, in that it provides a platform for writers to develop their voice, unlike the larger outlets where a developed, and fitting voice is expected?
KMW: Newspapers play a hugely formative role for journalists and certainly at Reason we try and give our writers the best field for growth possible. I don’t think that it is something exclusive to us, and any of the well-respected major outlets will be adding some value its staff journalists, journalism is a process everywhere, and therefore I rarely hire people straight from [journalism] school. Regarding newspapers holding a predetermined policy line and choosing writers who fit it, I can see that being the case in the opinion sections of some outlets, to a certain extent, but overall publications work to improve the quality of their reporting, and their staff isn’t meant to fit a particular worldview.
TP: Also on the topic of the relation between publication and writer, is there any particular way in which Reason or maybe even the media as a whole have adjusted the work of their journalists to the recent election that broke many precedents in both media and politics?
KMW: The reaction was overblown, and although I did not vote for Trump nor support Trump, I don’t feel like the media should be or are in some crisis mode, and that we are playing more of a political role than before. Just like in the case of every previous administration, news outlets serve an important role in evaluating and verifying what goes on in Washington. If anything, the tabloidization of online media has latched on to Trump’s election and resulted in unnecessary peril and shallow commentary. Really, we should be looking for a foundation for genuine discussion in Trump’s actions, for example looking more closely into the realities of immigration, like we did on Reason just recently.
TP: Just looking at your website, I can tell that the online content, is well, dense and lengthy in the article size itself. At the same time, you maintain a heavy focus on a printed magazine as well. How has Reason managed to adapt and evolve with the trend of digitalization?
KMW: Well I think our print and digital products are complimentary, so they will keep growing together. In terms of the print, there was no other option than to truthfully adapt to that environment, you know, when we’re like putting together a monthly magazine we no longer even try to make it comprehensive about the news because we just assume our readers have multiple other sources that they are hitting up, and that wouldn’t have been true when we thought about what goes in an issue of a magazine even as recently as ten or fifteen years ago. We also have had a big shift in our web readers. About five years ago the vast majority of people came to our web page to see what Reason had to say, now something like 60-65% of our readers come through social [media], so they’re getting articles that were shared by their friends and family, that comes up in their Twitter feeds and that’s a different kind of reader. So now we think a lot about writing for people who walked into our party and who don’t exactly know the host is but want to see what’s going on.
TP: Right, and I guess, what is the difference in structure or journalistic style in the face of media trying to maintain a level of analysis and a certain brand identity or maybe ideological focus but nevertheless want to make the outlet accessible and open to anyone like a reader who say, clicks a Facebook link unconsciously.
KMW: Right, one thing about Reason is that we have a fairly distinctive aesthetic which has developed over many decades. We’re kind of “sex, drugs, and robots” and we’ve got a little bit of “wink and nudge” that goes with our media coverage. We are not in the business of sounding like voice of God, gravitas, lead-in, “Serious Journalists” with a capital S and a capital J. Of course we want to serious analysis, but we think that our heft derives from the fact that we have consistent philosophical principles and we’re looking at the world through that lense, and that means that we can look through that lense at the popularity of “My Little Ponies” among men in their twenties, or advances that we’ve had in 3D printing. It doesn’t just have to be, “What did Congress do today?” for us to get across what we think is a robust and interesting worldview.
TP: And for journalists out of college, would you say that the modern adaptability that outlets adopted in the face of the wider readership is a benefit for us in that we can write freely with our own style? Or is that something that is unique to Reason and a select few of other publications with a much freer approach to how we convey the brand?
KMW: Well, we almost never actually hire 22-year olds because we love their style, I will say that. We are looking for writers who can write with a voice but we are looking much more closely at people who are informed in some subject matter, we are looking for people who have a history of publication which shows that they know how to work with editors and with colleagues to produce good content. Yeah, there is more room for voice and it is more present outside of opinion sections, but at the same time, I would tell young writers that developing their own quirky voice is as much likely to be a liability as it is going to be a benefit and so you are much better memorizing AP style.
TP: Is there a particular policy or grand strategy that Reason pursues regarding online content and print content? Is there a big divergence between these media in journalism as a whole?
KMW: Our products work together, and that is standard across the industry. A reader of Reason.com will not open Reason magazine and be shocked to find anything that they see in there, but we do try and offer people who subscribe to the print magazine the kind of longer form journalism that people sometimes lament the lack of online. You know, we try to say that: “here’s a piece where we’ve invested some resources, and took a deep dive to really become experts on something.” We look for that really meaty, substantive content and put it in the print magazine because it doesn’t get lost in the online noise.
At the same time we also do consider the monthly covers we produce over the course of the year. We like to think about looking back at the last twelve months and seeing whether those covers adequately capture what libertarians and people interested in libertarianism have been thinking about for the past year. We don’t make covers just based on what will get the most clicks, but we do actually try to do a bit of an agenda-setting mission.
TP: You talked about the “getting clicks” journalism. What is in your opinion the most responsible way of actually building a name for a publication without resorting to a deterioration in quality due to a focus on the sensationalism of quantity? How can, in the modern media deluge, publications both public and on-campus, establish themselves as respectable and widely read?
KMW: So when I was starting out, senior journalists were telling other people and me: “You gotta go work for a local paper and cover fires and cats getting caught in trees and council meetings, and then once you’ve made your bones you can go write about larger issues and national politics.” That’s terrible advice now, not least because the journalistic economy is driven by traffic. Luckily, what we have found at Reason is that our editorial mission and the thing that get clicks dovetail quite nicely, which is fresh reporting. People want information about the issues that preoccupy them, and there is generally a vacuum out there. Particularly about stuff that are our hobby horses, that are otherwise undercovered, so we can really hit hard on stuff like immigration and show how difficult this issue is, even for people who line up for papers legally. This is something that among the shouting of “#MuslimBan” can have its nitty-gritty get lost, and it is something on which we can competently report all the while getting traffic. It is an example of something people seek us out for and link to us when they want to share the issue with their friends.
So you know, we don’t put together of the “10 Most Adorable Puppies” because it is outside of our mission. There are certainly many publications that do puppy slideshows to pay for more serious work, and that is the work of old-school newspapers. You know, comic strip pays for a reporter sitting for six months in the Supreme Court and finally get news. But we have been able to draw the line a little bit north of wet t-shirt contests and still be a viable concern.
TP: So as a segue from this and a final question, a classic; what would you recommend to Politic writers and all the writers on campus for them to transform this writing into an actual career after they graduate?
KMW: Two pieces of advice. One, don’t take any journalism classes. Doing deep think about journalism is not super useful for actually being a journalist. Take classes about how the world works that you can later use to inspire your writing framework.
The other piece of advice is, if you want to write, then write. When I am hiring people, and they say, “I love writing, I want to be a journalist,” but all they have is something from the campus literary magazine from two years ago, I don’t believe them. There are lots of outlets that are hungry for campus reporting; campus free speech issues are super hot right now. There is no reason why, if you want to be a journalist, you have not been published in a mainstream outlet or at least ideological magazine by the time you graduate. If you haven’t maybe you just don’t want it enough.