01 Dec 2005
A Matter of OpinionTopics:
Victor Navasky of The Nation magazine has spent his life taking on the Establishment. So what did he hope to accomplish at Harvard Business School?
Call it what you will — the conventional wisdom, the status quo, the official line — and chances are you’ll find Victor Navasky (OPM 25, 1997) manning the barricades against it. Navasky, who stepped down last month as publisher of The Nation magazine, is an unapologetic gadfly and afflicter of the comfortable. But that doesn’t mean he’s obnoxious or cranky. Indeed, this genial, self-deprecating, lifelong progressive puts the lie to one piece of right-wing cant: Liberals are humorless drones. Truth be told, Navasky is more mensch than menace, an old-school crusader for social and economic justice who can’t bring himself to say anything mean about anybody. That includes those benighted souls at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Those people, Navasky says, “just see things differently than I do.”
Today, the growing list of subscribers to The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine, suggests that more and more of the republic is seeing things Navasky’s way. Munching on a lunchtime sandwich at the magazine’s Manhattan headquarters, Navasky quips, “If it’s bad for the country, it’s good for The Nation.” And so it seems to be: In late 2005, with nearly 70 percent of citizens saying the country is going in the wrong direction, The Nation, his beloved “journal of opinion,” has never been stronger.
Victor S. Navasky was born in 1932 in New York City, where his father ran a small clothing-manufacturing business in the Garment District. After attending progressive city schools, Navasky graduated from Swarthmore College in 1954 with Phi Beta Kappa honors in the social sciences. Next came Army service in Alaska, where he dabbled in military journalism (as much a misnomer, Navasky says, as military music), after which he enrolled at Yale Law School. At Yale, he cofounded and spent much of his time working on Monocle, a magazine of political satire that achieved something approaching cult status among East Coast lefties. Eventually, journalism would trump the law entirely: Navasky received his law degree in 1959, married in 1966 (he and his wife, Anne, have three children), and went to work for the New York Times, from 1970 to 1974. He then taught journalism at Princeton before becoming editor of The Nation in 1978.
Founded in 1865, with roots in the abolitionist movement, The Nation has, ironically, enjoyed fairly constant support from wealthy benefactors. This despite its anti-establishment posture, although the magazine’s politics, Navasky contends, actually have “sometimes zigged and sometimes zagged” over the years. To Nation contributor Calvin Trillin, who claims Navasky originally hired him for a salary in the “high two figures,” The Nation is “a pinko sheet on cheap paper.” (Trillin adds that it’s the only magazine whose pages look better xeroxed than in the original.) Former star columnist Christopher Hitchens, a surprising Iraq war advocate, quit in a huff in 2002, accusing the magazine of being soft on Saddam. Firebrand columnist Alexander Cockburn remains on board, but derides The Nation as only “slightly left of center…there was a period when it had crackle.” So it goes at The Nation.
After sixteen years at the editorial helm, Navasky became the magazine’s owner in 1994 thanks to a $1 million transaction largely funded by supporters including Paul Newman and E.L. Doctorow. As The Nation’s publisher, he then turned to a fellow Swarthmore College board member, HBS professor Samuel Hayes, for advice on how “to think like a businessman.” Hayes encouraged Navasky to consider the Owner/President Management Program (OPM), an HBS Executive Education offering for family- and small-business executives.
Navasky was an unlikely candidate for HBS. After all, this is a man who claims muckraker Lincoln Steffens as a personal hero and who confesses that his heart still quickens when he hears the songs of the International Brigade. At OPM, Navasky wrote later, “My Nation self still tended to regard the profit motive as avaricious indifference to social consequences.” But the experience opened his eyes to the fact that “many different reasons bring people to the School, not just the lure of making money. One of my more conservative classmates said the purpose of business is to give people value for their money, put out a decent product, make a fair profit, and improve the lives of one’s employees. That’s pretty good!”
That classmate, David Karam, who operates 135 Wendy’s restaurant franchises in five states, says of Navasky, “Vic really ventured into the lion’s den at OPM — we were a pretty conservative bunch. But he’s such a wonderful guy, full of warmth and genuine respect for others, that despite being a bit outnumbered by the rest of us, he never lost his grace or dignity.”
Navasky describes his time at the School as “my own delicate balancing act — the attempt to absorb HBS know-how without succumbing to HBS values.” After OPM, he did return to The Nation with a much stronger grasp of business fundamentals, such as how to read a balance sheet, apply price-earnings and other ratios, and be an effective manager generally. One insight he gained was that a Nation reader was really a potential “customer” for life, with “value” far exceeding a year’s subscription rate. Another was classic HBS: His venerable product was much more than just a magazine. As his classmates and professors assured him, The Nation was a “brand.”
“We’re now a $10 million operation that’s been profitable the last two years,” Navasky says. “Three-quarters of our revenues come from our readers. We had 20,000 subscribers when I started as editor, and we now have 185,000, which puts us ahead of the New Republic and National Review.”
Navasky believes that The Nation and other journals of opinion, because of the quality and intensity of their readership, have influence beyond their numbers and play an increasingly important role in public discourse. “According to one definitive study,” Navasky says, “in the 1980s, fifty corporations dominated more than half the information/entertainment/knowledge companies. Today, it’s down to about six corporations. The more homogenized the dominant culture becomes, the more our perspective is limited.”
As for business, Navasky thinks it too has a conventional wisdom that holds, for example, that all taxes, regulation, and labor unions are always bad. “Those kinds of assumptions,” he asserts, “can be counterproductive to achieving larger business goals. And it’s surprising how accepting business is of dangerous elements of the status quo, such as the extent to which our economy is dependent upon foreigners. I do think HBS professors, for their part, have absorbed conventional business wisdom and rejected it or put it in context, which is invaluable for HBS students and for people outside the School.”
In addition to his Nation duties, Navasky has been teaching at the Columbia School of Journalism and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Marketplace. His occasional pieces for the magazine in recent years have added to a distinguished writing career that includes decades of articles and several books: Naming Names, a 1982 National Book Award–winner about the McCarthy era and the Hollywood blacklist; Kennedy Justice, on Robert Kennedy’s years as U.S. attorney general; The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation (with Christopher Cerf), whose title is self-explanatory; and, in 2005, A Matter of Opinion, an account of Navasky’s life and times in publishing and beyond.
Going forward, Navasky sees a secure future for print journalism. “Last year, we had 28,000 new subscribers come to us through our Web site,” he says. “In the way that paperbacks turned out to be an extension of the market for hardcover books, I think the Internet is an extension of the print audience rather than a replacement.” As for his own future, Navasky remains a major shareholder of The Nation and a member of its editorial board. He will now spend more time at Columbia, including overseeing the Columbia Journalism Review. “I’ve turned over day-to-day editing to The Nation’s current editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and in November, financial and legal responsibility went to her as well.”
While formulating that passing of the torch at the magazine, Navasky acknowledges that he experienced a pang of capitalist conscience: “In thinking about that succession process, the HBS voice in me said, ‘Hey, hold on there, Victor…you can’t just give away something that’s worth big money in the marketplace!’ For a moment, I felt that if I didn’t milk it for all it was worth, I’d be letting down my OPM classmates.”
Class of OPM 25