issue 200 - October 1989
Birth of the NI
The New Internationalist has changed a lot over the years.
And so has the team that produces it. But Dexter Tiranti was
there at the naive and idealistic beginning - and is still here
in the careworn (but still idealistic) present.
The marketing executive pushed back his chair, revolving slowly to face the sales graphs on the wall. 'Look, son, if it's not about sex, how to convert your loft into a spare bedroom or a diet guaranteed to lose ten pounds in two weeks, then this new magazine of yours won't sell. Anyway, where's the advertising potential? What's the profile of your proposed readers? Is it ABC1 with high disposable income?'
We only caught about half of what was coming across. And even that did not make for encouraging listening. Somewhere off Fleet Street, dressed in unaccustomed collars and ties, we were hearing the current publishing wisdom from one of the professionals. It was back in 1972 and we were testing the waters, talking about this magazine we wanted to launch which would campaign for an end to world poverty.
Wet behind the ears, we were. And the outlook was bleak. A monthly on the Third World from a big publishing stable had just had the plug pulled on it after only the sixth issue. And the Robert Maxwell empire was just about to launch a new magazine called World Development. Collapse and competition: the omens were not good. But Oxfam and Christian Aid - our backers - were in too deep now.
They had been persuaded by the energy, enthusiasm and idealism of Peter and Lesley Adamson, both scarcely three years out of university. Launch capital of £100,000 had been committed, with the idea that the publication would be self-supporting within a few years. Seven other staff members, including Troth Wells and myself, had been taken on.
Our combined experience of running and selling a monthly magazine was not large. It was not small either. It was non-existent. But then we had the 1960s behind us. We were the children of Marcuse, Marx and Mao. We had brought down the President of France. And hadn't we got rid of the American troops from Vietnam? With a little help from the Vietcong perhaps. The brief now was modest by comparison: launch a magazine which would help change public opinion about the causes of world poverty. The widening gap between rich and poor was a stain on our civilization.
Oxfam and Christian Aid had recently had a chastening experience. The British Government had cut the overseas aid budget by more money than the two charities had raised in their entire histories - and neither the media nor the general public had produced a murmur of protest. Spending some money on development education at home could, they thought, be cost-effective in the long run. Backing the talent of the Adamsons by funding this new magazine could be a vital way of influencing public opinion.
The two organizations were worried nonetheless, A lot of money was going into this untried publishing project. So the agencies appointed a board of directors composed of their senior staff to supervise their funds. Once a month we reported to them on the editorial, marketing and financial developments of the magazine.The treks to London; looking through reports and papers on the train; the uncomfortable suits; worried, tense questioning and pressure, pressure, pressure. Seven-day working weeks seemed to merge into one another. Those are my memories of the early years.
After one year, with inflation at 28 per cent and mail costs arbitrarily doubled, the two founder agencies said 'enough'. They could not foot the increased deficit. So we sent out letters to other potential funders saying the New Internationalist would close in two months' time. unless. Positive replies came back. The cheques were not only from trusts and churches in Britain but from agencies in Australia and Canada too. These sums of money were vital. But equally important was the proof - measured not in words but hard cash - to Oxfam and Christian Aid that the magazine was valued by others, not just at home but, astonishingly, five or ten thousand miles away as well. Perhaps we were doing something right after all. The gesture of international support stiffened backbones. Funding was to continue. The frazzled NI team took heart.
By 1980 the money was no longer needed. Our circulation had risen to 30,000, enough for economies of scale in printing to become effective. The magazine in the UK was self-supporting. And by now close relationships had developed with aid agencies in Canada, Australia, Aotearoa(NZ) and the US. These alliances have been invaluable to the NI: the key card up our sleeve which no other publication could produce and which the hard-boiled marketing executive could not have understood.
How could you quantify, in sales and revenue graphs, the work in Australia of the Community Aid Abroad volunteers in Carlton? Every month for four years they met in Melbourne to stuff the magazines into envelopes for Australian subscribers. They did it free because they thought the information and arguments within the 32 pages were worth spreading. And their enthusiasm and commitment established the magazine in Australia.
What price Oxfam Canada's support to this day with rent-free office space for the NI's Canadian team? How do you measure the contribution of organizations like the Anglican Church, the United Church and the Sisters of St Joseph, which have consistently supported the magazine in Canada over the years? Or their help in our advertising campaigns?
These agencies helped not just with marketing but with information. They work in partnership with small co-operatives, consumer groups, churches, clinics and nurseries throughout the Third World. And the experience they gathered could be channelled to us, keeping the New Internationalist in touch with the experience of peasants and ordinary working people.
Yet despite the heartening experiences of the last 199 issues of the magazine, can we really say that we have affected public opinion? With the marketing of baby-foods, yes. Here was a clear example of Western corporations using hard-sell marketing techniques on vulnerable mothers who couldn't afford the product. Infant formula was not only expensive and inferior to breastmilk but was downright dangerous when fed to babies unsterilized and mixed with inevitably polluted water. This story was first exposed in the August 1973 issue of the New Internationalist. And it was so appalling that it had a genuine effect on public opinion. The saga still continues but there has been a severe clampdown on the activities of babyfood companies, and undoubtedly millions of Third World babies' lives have been saved. But examples like this are few and far between.
In the meantime, the 1980s have become Thatcher's decade. Her success both nationally and internationally, has reflected a what's-in-it-for-me? attitude. We find ourselves swimming against the tide. We know that magazines like this don't change public opinion by themselves. But they can help.
People's ideas need intellectual support; they are not engraved on stone. The self-centred and materialistic climate of the decade corrodes ideals and concerns about social justice, narrowing perspectives to the point where conversations comprise little more than house prices or retiling the bathroom. If the NI can do something to focus eyes on a more distant horizon, it has a valuable role.
To some extent this means preaching to the converted. And there is a financial logic to this too. It doesn't make sense to promote to audiences which are not in some way sympathetic. You will never see the NI advertised in the gutter press, in popular newspapers with racist and sexist presumptions. This is for no better reason than that few readers of such newspapers would respond and we would get a very low return on our advertising investment. Instead we appeal to those with some concern about the state of the world and we get a warm response.
Still, we are not slow to evangelize. Our policy is always to debate with the middle ground, extending the metaphorical hand to people who may not agree. But profound changes in attitude scarcely ever come through reading. They occur far more through personal experience and the give-and-take of discussion with friends, neighbours, drinking companions and colleagues. Nothing is as powerful as a two-way dialogue, the proposition countered by the 'Yes, but...' which in turn can be satisfactorily answered by the proposer. C Wright Mills without a trace of elitism referred to the 'backyard opinion-makers', those articulate people who can remember the facts to substantiate their point of view. It might be that they lead the opinions of a group of three people, ten people or thirty, but those opinion-makers are the key. And they are you, the New lnternationalist readers.
You turn up in unexpected places. I remember landing at Christchurch airport in Aotearoa (NZ) ten years ago. There was a friendly country-town atmosphere in the airport hangar we passengers walked into. Collecting my bags I noted one channel for Australians and New Zealanders, another for all others. I found myself the only 'other'. Walking past the tall, bulky, uniformed customs officer there was that familiar feeling of trepidation inspired by the sight of a uniform. Deliberately avoiding eye contact and slightly quickening my pace were not enough to get me by.
'Good afternoon.' He seemed surprised to see me.
'Hmmmph?' Decidedly non-committal.
'Have you anything to declare'?' waving a clipboard with everything from narcotics to firearms printed on it.
(Inward groan, this is going to take time.) 'No. just a small present for the people I'm visiting.'
'What are you here for?'
'Oh yes, what business?'
'Publishing.' (Sounds vague and respectable enough.)
'Can you be more specific?'
'Well, I work with a publication called the New Internationalist.'
'Oh really'?' With inward dismay I noted his eyes glint with interest. 'That issue a couple of months ago was far too soft on transnational corporations' involvement with the Latin American military.'
'Well,' I stammered, 'we gave some useful facts.'
'The trouble with you lot,' he said, swinging his uniformed arms, clipboard and all, 'is you're too liberal. The whole National Security ideology of Latin America is a cloak for gross torture and death-squad activity. And who does all this violence benefit? It's the North American companies. Sucking that continent dry, that's what those parasites are doing.
'Yes, I've been a subscriber for a couple of years now. Did you hear your office in Christchurch was fire-bombed yesterday?'
Me, weakly. 'Oh. really?'
'Mind you, it's probably not the New Internationalist those racists were after. It's the Stop the All Blacks Tour (of South Africa). You just share the same offices.'
A quiet town, I had thought. Customs officers? The same the world over, I had thought. Surprising where you, the opinion-makers, turn up.