Reflections on 20 Years of Editing the Washington Monthly

Pay low rent. Find great talent. How a small magazine can change the country.

One morning 20 years ago, while my wife Kukula and I were getting our kids ready for school, I got a call from a colleague at the Washington Monthly saying that our offices were violently shaking, as if hit by an earthquake. I jumped in the car and sped down Massachusetts Avenue, listening to the radio. There was no news of any seismic activity in the area.

I had taken over as the magazine’s editor in chief from founder Charlie Peters a couple of weeks before. The Washington Monthly was still producing great journalism and attracting world-class talent, but its finances, never good, were in the red zone. I knew that my most important job was to find a way to keep the doors open. I had not figured that this would also mean keeping the walls from collapsing.

I arrived at the old row office building north of Dupont Circle and, skipping the elevator (a tiny, unreliable contraption with one of those collapsible manual doors), climbed the stairs to the Monthly office—a warren of mismatched desks separated by rickety partitions with a single internet connection, shared with the environmental NGO upstairs, coming in through the window. The bohemian working conditions had descended into outright
squalor thanks to a landlord who, eager to drive out the tenants in order to upgrade the building, had reduced trash pickup from weekly to monthly. This had greatly increased the population of roaches.

Upon arrival, our fresh-out-of-college associate publisher, Christina Larson (now an award-winning science writer and foreign correspondent), walked me through the damage. Chunks of plaster had fallen from the ceiling. Hairline cracks were spreading on the walls, fast enough to watch. The front-door frame was now so off-kilter that the door itself had to remain open (one problem solved!). We soon discovered the source of the trouble: A construction team had mistakenly removed a load-bearing wall beneath us.

We needed to get out of those offices immediately but didn’t have the spare funds to move. So I contacted the landlord, met him on the sidewalk in front of the building, and, at the suggestion of editor Stephanie Mencimer (now an investigative reporter at Mother Jones), offered not to call the city building inspectors if he would buy out the remaining months of our lease. There was a noticeable quaver in my voice—the guy had six inches and 75 pounds on me—but after angrily waving his finger in my face, he agreed.

The money he shelled out was enough to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent on a new office space and to hire a cut-rate moving company that editor Nick Thompson (now CEO of The Atlantic) had discovered from a handbill stapled to a nearby telephone pole. The movers turned out to be recently released inmates from the Lorton Correctional Facility. One of them had an angry meltdown and had to be summarily dismissed by the foreman, but the rest were very nice. After they finished hauling our furniture to the new offices, we paid them, then set off a couple of cans of insect fogger, locked the doors, and went home for the weekend. We came back on Monday, swept out the roach carcasses, and wiped down the furniture.

Our new digs were on the 10th floor of the Woodward Building at H and 15th. Though located only two blocks from the White House, where I had been working months before as a speechwriter for President Clinton, the building was famous in D.C. for its low rents. On the ground floor was a Croatian barber, a Christian bookstore, not one but two boutiques mysteriously selling only bikinis (we suspected they were recruiting offices for an es- cort service), and a liquor store—the only place within a mile of the White House where you could buy a cold 16-ounce Colt 45 to go. The offices above, with their dark wood doors, transoms, and frosted glass, had a Guy Noir vibe—the tenants in fact included a private eye along with a variety of lefty nonprofits.

Charlie had handed me control of the magazine on the condition that I would transform it into a nonprofit, the better to attract tax-deductible donations. I spent much of the following months reaching out to scores of Monthly investors and trying to convince them to donate their shares to the new 501(c)3 that my brother Bill, a private equity investor, and his lawyer were setting up for us pro bono. Business manager Claire Iseli and I had to do some detective-like sleuthing to track down the heirs of those who had died. Thankfully, the vast majority of the inves- tors generously cooperated, especially once I explained that their shares were effectively worthless. One of them, the famed investor Warren Buffett, sent Charlie a cheeky letter noting that the magazine had, in effect, “always been a nonprofit.”

Though a lousy business, small magazines can be a great way to influence the world. That’s the case I made to Markos Kounalakis, a foreign correspondent turned tech executive whom I knew through Greek American political circles. Markos heartily agreed, and for the next six years he served as the magazine’s publisher, president, chief financial benefactor, and my intellectual partner. With his support I was able to recruit a string of brilliant young journalists—Josh Green, Nick Confessore, Josh Marshall, Amy Sullivan, and Ben Wallace-Wells—and set them loose on George W. Bush’s Washington.

During Bush’s first term, and especially after 9/11 when his popularity soared, the mainstream press was slow to grasp some of the new and alarming ways the administration was wielding power—and establishment Democrats seemed to have no idea how to fight back. That gave the Monthly the opportunity to publish a series of investigative and analytical scoops about the administration’s antiscientific and incompetent policymaking on everything from terrorism to stem cells; its strategy of overwhelming Americans and the press corps with sweeping, impos- sible to verify, and yet clearly false statements; and its transformation of K Street into a new kind of political machine. We were aided in this effort by a series of insightful bloggers we hired, like Kevin Drum, Steve Benen, and Ed Kilgore, who brought this critical approach to day-to-day debates in the news (a tradition carried on in later years by D. R. Tucker, Kathleen Geier, Daniel Luzer, Joshua Alvarez, Martin Longman, Nancy LeTourneau, and David Atkins).

Journalists and Democrats had begun to wise up to the GOP’s game by Bush’s second term. So the Monthly began to pivot to wonkier subjects we felt were of major importance but that the press and political class weren’t focused on or sometimes even aware of. These included the growing consolidation of the U.S. economy, the increasingly inegalitarian nature of American higher education, the hollowing out of expertise in Congress and federal agencies, and electoral reforms like vote by mail that held out the promise of reinvigorating democracy. These stories didn’t necessarily get us attention in outlets like The New York Times. But they found influential audiences in government, think tanks, and academia. They also attracted much-needed funding from forward-thinking foundations such as Lumina, Hewlett, Gates, Kauffman, and Arnold Ventures. And, over time, they pushed the issues we were writing about onto the front pages and into law.

The work of producing these policy stories was done by a constant flow of up-and-coming journalists who signed on for tough two-year stints as Monthly writer/editors before moving on to better-paying gigs at bigger enterprises—people like Charles Homans, Rachel Morris, Zach Roth, T. A. Frank, Mariah Blake, John Gravois, Haley Sweetland Edwards, Anne Kim, Gilad Edelman, Saahil Desai, Ryan Cooper, and Matt Connolly. The most enjoyable part of my job has been getting to work with these gifted young people. The most bittersweet has been watching them leave. I’ve long marveled at the insanity of the Washington Monthly business model: hire great people, train them in Monthly ways, and then hand them to your competitors.

In a way, the Monthly is a sort of uncredentialed grad school for policy journalism, and my role is thesis adviser. Fortunately, it’s not a job I have to do alone. There’s a whole brain trust of veteran journalists and academics associated with the magazine, many of whom I’ve worked with for decades, who both write for us and provide intellectual guidance to the editors and me. They include Phil Longman, Garrett Epps, Kevin Carey, Robert Kelchen, Shannon Brownlee, Phil Keisling, Tim Noah, Tom Toch, Keith Humphreys, Steve Teles, Barry Lynn, and J. J. Gould. Charlie Peters remains an inspiring presence—at 94, his health’s not great, but his mind still is. Contributing editors from Charlie’s era are also a constant source of support; three of them, Nick Lemann, Michelle Cottle, and Steve Waldman, serve on our board. Matt Cooper, with whom Steve and I worked as young editors under Charlie in the 1980s, is now our executive digital editor. He’s recruited an all-star cast of online writers like Bill Scher, Chris Matthews, Jodie Kirshner, Margaret Carlson, and Jennifer Taub. And a seasoned group of colleagues on the business side, now led by our deputy director, Alice Gallin-Dwyer, continues to keep our doors open.

Doing so is not easy. Journalism is under immense stress from tech platforms that have monopolized our advertising dollars and from a Trump-controlled Republican Party that has trained nearly half the country not to believe the facts we present. Like you, I’m worried about the survival of our democracy.

But I’m luckier than most, because I have a job that gives me leverage to fight back. And I get to do so from pretty nice digs. After the Woodward Building went condo in 2005, we decamped to another affordable space, then another, and finally landed at our current location in a lovely old building south of Dupont Circle owned by a benevolent family that offers reasonable rents to nonprofits that don’t throw loud parties. The family even paid to have the whole office beautifully refurbished in 2019 in return for us signing a 10-year lease. Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve hardly set foot in the place over the past year. But we’re looking forward to returning soon. I have no plans to leave my post before the lease runs out.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He is writing a book on America's involvement in the Greek War of Independence.