I don’t think the bunch of young and desperately inexperienced people who, against all conventional advice, launched a consumer magazine on ‘Third World development’ in 1973, could have dreamed that it would still be published 50 years later. I doubt their initial backers, Oxfam and Christian Aid, thought so either.
But here it is and here we are. New Internationalist was already a strapping teenager by the time I joined, so I missed out on its earliest trials, traumas, tantrums and tribulations, which have a quite mythical quality about them.
As the world changed, so did New Internationalist – expanding its concerns, exploring and contributing to revolutions in feminism, environmentalism, personal and identity politics, global and climate justice. All the while it retained its core commitment to tackling social and economic inequality in a way that is both radical and accessible.
The company’s business model changed too: expanding from being just a print magazine to producing press kits for UN agencies, making films, and, more lastingly, getting into publishing books and calendars and selling fair trade goods.
And the structure of the organization went through some radical changes. In the 1980s it became a non-hierarchical, equal-pay workers’ co-op, and these principles have guided it to this day. In the early 1990s the founders of the magazine, Peter and Lesley Adamson, generously transferred the business, which technically they still owned, to a specially created trust made up of employee and advisory trustees.
Fast-forward to the 2000s, and all media were beginning to feel the impact, good and bad, of the digital revolution. While it had suddenly become much easier to launch new publications, thereby increasing the diversity of the landscape, it also became much harder to keep them going. Journalism is costly to produce, but audiences became accustomed to getting it for free – while the monopolistic tech platforms had found an ingenious and durable way of siphoning off advertising revenue, away from the news producers.
Almost everyone had to find a new way of surviving, and that problem has persisted. Even some well-capitalized relative newcomers have fallen by the wayside of late – BuzzFeed’s news operations, for instance, and VICE’s platforms for investigations and serious commentary.
New Internationalist responded to the crisis by expanding it co-operative ethos to become a co-op co-owned by its readers and supporters, raising investment via crowdfunding.
New Internationalist’s latest initiative is its Solidarity Fund, which combines raising money via small, regular, monthly donations and getting the magazine out for free to schools, campaign groups, activists, who might not otherwise be able to afford it. It’s a perfect combination of solidarity, education, and getting radical ideas into the mainstream. And it recognizes the pressures caused by today’s cost-of-living crisis – both for independent media and its audiences.
In recent times, today’s new crop of very talented co-editors have produced thoughtful issues of the magazine on hot-button topics: Palestine, Surveillance of protest, the Cost-of-living crisis. There have been fresh and radical perspectives too on some perennial issues, such as land rights and rivers. And there have been some surprises in the mix. I’m not sure that New Internationalist has ever done an issue on loneliness or trains before, but never has either seemed more timely – which is probably more than more than can be said for the trains themselves.
Meanwhile, this year’s continuing theme of decolonization has brought us full circle to a subject that was very resonant in the early days of New Internationalist. Our magazine was founded, after all, as some newly independent African states were trying to forge a distinctive way ahead, while others were still struggling under the colonial yoke. This year’s special focus has shown just how incomplete the process has been, especially in terms of reparations. How much is still to be done.
Who would have thought that there would still be so much to say on such core issues after 50 years? The work of New Internationalist is not done yet. The need for this publication prevails.
But with the current crew in change of its journalism, its Ethical Shop, its business, and with the support, solidarity and commitment of its co-owners, I have no doubt that it stands a damn good chance of rising to the challenge and continuing that task started by those young realist idealists half a century ago.
This is an edited version of a speech given by Vanessa Baird at New Internationalist’s 50th anniversary event. Sign up to support our Solidarity Fund at newint.org/give