Labor & Letters
The Mission and the Movement
Irving Howe founded Dissent in 1954 — a bleak time for the left. Howe and his cofounders thought the magazine would put out a few issues and then “go bankrupt,” having made a “heroic effort.” The historian Stanley Plastrik and his wife Simone offered their home on the Upper West Side as the “office.” A founding legend is that all the subscriber records were kept in a shoebox shoved in a closet at the end of the workday.
Everyone had a day job. Everyone could have a day job. This was the postwar era, after all, and though a bad time for the left, a good time for the US economy. Dissent was for love, not money. It was only as the relentless cycle of finding authors willing to write for free and then editing, proofing, and laying out the magazine took increasing time, even as their own careers took off, that the editors sought professional help.
I came on the scene in 1985, first as a proofreader, then, after a year, as managing editor. At the time the magazine had some paid, part-time staff and was gradually picking up more. Thirty years in, the magazine was shifting from its all-volunteer ethos as the founders died off.
“You’ll have to work at home,” Simone Plastrik, who had become the business manager for the magazine after the death of her husband, told me. “We don’t have room here.” She pointed to the dining room, where part-timers and volunteers edited, proofed, and managed subscription lists. No problem. I had just spent seven and a half years at a satisfying but precarious job with a left-wing political organization that had asked for all my time and was not always able to pay its staff. Now I was 38 years old, a new mother, and ready for a quasi-movement job that would allow me to have a home life but still stay connected to the cause.
The “office” (against the rules in the Plastriks’ co-op building) was open two days a week, from 10 AM to 4 PM. At noon, everyone would gather around an oak table in Simone’s living room for an hour-long lunch, during which we would talk politics. Occasionally Manny Geltman, one of the founding editors, would come by while we were working, drop off some manuscripts he’d edited, and stay to tell stories about the old days and offer advice. When I became managing editor he gave me a gift he assured me would make my life easier — a supply of glue-backed stickers for marking queries in a manuscript. I stared at them. Did he really not know about Post-its? The generational transfer had begun.
Every few months, Irving Howe would travel across town to take us all out to lunch and talk politics and themes and lament the state of writing today (a recurring theme of all editors). Most of my contact with Howe was by mail, as manuscripts went back and forth.
The steady rhythm, the camaraderie, the intellectual stimulation, the respect for my family time (no obligation to attend Saturday board meetings), made for a very pleasant work environment. The only problem was the pay, which, while in line with other movement jobs and even New York’s low-paying publishing industry, wasn’t sufficient, even then.
Nobody at Dissent got health benefits (unless you counted Medicare), and everyone was underpaid. When, after a year or so of working there, I raised the question of asking for more money or health benefits, I was met with incredulity. After all, we were privileged to be working flexible hours and doing enjoyable work, and besides, the magazine didn’t have any money.
I took a one-session assertiveness-training workshop run by a colleague from a previous, nonmovement job. We role-played, but imagination and nerve failed me, so instead of asking for a face-to-face meeting, I wrote Howe a letter detailing all the reasons I should be paid more. Back came one of his famously terse postcards with the word “YES!” Later, when I found that modest raise still insufficient (had my husband and I really not thought about what adding one and then two more mouths meant to a couple living in a one-bedroom apartment?), a coworker told me that if I didn’t like the pay, I should just leave or stop complaining within earshot of other staff.
I thought back to what it had been like to work in a similar job for a national social-welfare organization and make decent money in a pleasant work environment putting Band-Aids on social ills rather than bringing about systemic change, so I shut up and took on some freelance work to supplement my salary from Dissent.
The irony of working for a socialist magazine that defended the rights of labor across the world while we had low pay and no benefits was not lost on us. But we, like the founders, believed that no left enterprise could ever pay its own way. We, too, cooperated in watching pennies and subsidizing expenses. When I asked Simone for a fax machine (they cost $700 at the time), I had to write up a rationale. She decided that I, being off-site, did need one to communicate with authors and the staff located in her place. Everyone else could go down several flights in her building, walk the two long blocks to Broadway, and use a commercial fax or copier as needed.
One year, an intern announced that he would use a small inheritance to donate his work to us for the next year. We told him to save the money for his future, but he refused. And his offer was accepted. There was a shared ethos, as Michael Walzer later said, of “commitment, sacrifice, work.” After all, how many people in this country got to do what they loved when they went into their workplaces?
I wrote Howe a letter detailing all the reasons I should be paid more. Back came one of his famously terse postcards with the word “YES!”Tweet
The fact that we were doing what we loved for very little while the unpaid editors pulled the salaries of tenured professors didn’t mean the editors were hypocrites. It was more that this was how they had spent their youth. As far as I could tell, Howe put his own money into the magazine for the entire time he served as editor, and this was true of several of the other editors. It is true of the current nonpaid editors. The founders, who sacrificed so much, found it natural that the people who came after them would sacrifice also.
The magazine’s second political phase began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but for the wage laborers at the magazine the major changes came with Howe’s death, in 1993. The political philosopher and coeditor Michael Walzer stepped into the very big space that Howe’s death created, and his first actions were to banish all 9-point type from the magazine (a device Howe had used to cram more articles into each issue at less cost) and to provide health benefits to everyone who needed them. He said something to the effect that he was too old to read 9-point type and that it was unconscionable for a socialist magazine not to pay for its employees’ health insurance. It made sense. Increasing the font size was good for everyone’s vision (as well as the egos of authors who had been relegated to nine points). Providing insurance was good for our health and morale, but we knew that it started the magazine’s slide toward ever-larger deficits.
Simone Plastrik died in 1999 (in the bedroom next to the extra room where we worked; years before, Stanley Plastrik had died at the oak table where we ate our lunches), and we had to find a new space for the office. It turned out that throughout all those years of parsimony Simone had squirreled away small bequests in anticipation of this day, so that we could afford to rent space on the open market. By then, we were too big an operation for a spare bedroom, and real estate being what it was, nobody had a spare bedroom. Thanks to Simone and the founding generation, which had provided for us in their wills following a letter from Howe asking them to do so, we were able to sublet a small studio apartment on Riverside Drive. The co-op board looked the other way, even though businesses were not allowed, because, as the managing agent said, “Dissent has a certain cachet on the Upper West Side.” The apartment’s owner even lowered the rent when she found out who her subtenants would be.
At the same time that we lost so much free and subsidized labor and space, the internet brought increased costs and opportunities. No longer did we get by with two electric typewriters shoved into Simone’s closet at night. (I managed with a computer generously provided at Christmastime by my mother-in-law.) We all needed computers. We needed a designer for the website. We needed a business manager, who, not being old enough for Medicare, needed health insurance.
The office was now open four days a week. Somehow, though, the work seemed to slide into Friday, while the money stopped on Thursday.
The hour-long communal lunch disappeared, but the oak table remained, and we would gather round it for weekly staff meetings, attended now by both Walzer and coeditor Mitchell Cohen. We outsourced subscription fulfillment rather than pay salary and health benefits to someone in-house. We advertised for two-day-a-week interns to whom we paid a modest stipend close to minimum wage. Still, the atmosphere was collegial, respectful, and intellectually stimulating, and everyone who came through appreciated it. We heard stories of cubicalized work, of internships from hell, and we were determined to keep our workplace connected to our values.
Young people who did not have crippling student debt still wanted to work with us. One person hand-delivered his intern application and explained that he was working five days a week elsewhere for low wages, but would work weekends in order to be with us for two days a week. Later, another young person offered to work at Starbucks if necessary if we would let him do what he envisioned for our website.
In both cases, we took the person on at intern or hourly wages for several months until conscience required an offer of full-time work. Their salaries may have been low, but we couldn’t justify exploiting them at part-time wages indefinitely. Interns and full-time staff met as equals around the oak table for discussion. Walzer prided himself on making coffee for everyone (although his ulterior motive may have been that only he made it strong enough), and occasionally we’d stop working for an hour, turn on some music, and clean the office. (We had thought about hiring a cleaning service once a month and decided we couldn’t afford it.)
The workweek extended into Friday, and salaries expanded somewhat. I told my friends that I only worked part-time, because I couldn’t bear to think that decades of work had left me with a salary similar to that of recent college grads in the social services.
But I never thought seriously about leaving. It was too fulfilling, too much fun, too flexible, too challenging, and, key point, I wasn’t the main support of the household. He who was the main support has a philosophy that can be summarized as “If I’m going to stay in social-change work for my whole life I have to get paid well enough to have a life.” I categorized his paycheck and his parents’ earlier day-care subsidies as grants that allowed me to do what I loved, even as other full-time staffers cycled out of Dissent every two years, almost all on to grad school and hopes of better-paid work.
Health-care costs kept rising. Our deficit almost equaled our budget. Simone’s set-asides, sequestered in high-interest treasury bills or conservative investments that had done well in the years of booming markets, were dangerously low. The costs of gaining new subscribers through direct mail, the best method known, were unsustainable. At the same time that media mavens bemoaned the passing of print, there were now many small magazines produced on a shoestring and run by bright young people willing to write and edit for nothing. They, too, would pass through the same phases as we, but we were ahead of them, too old to act like a left-wing start-up.
The work seemed to slide into Friday, while the money stopped on Thursday.Tweet
In the past, we had paid professional writers 10 cents a word if they had to be paid. Now we expanded the category of those who would be paid to include the underemployed, who turned out to be a lot of academics who might in another era have had tenure. After a decade, the pay rose to 20 cents a word.
Then came the crash of 2008. Our modest portfolio lost a third of its value. Health-insurance premiums increased. Rent increased. The abyss yawned.
The moment of truth came at an executive-committee meeting in late 2008, when we stared at the budget figures, really seeing them for the first time instead of moving on to the more interesting political discussion. The health-care costs were staggering, subs were going down, web costs kept rising, and more and more authors needed to be paid. More money was going out than coming in; three more years of this and we’d be broke. Would we close shop with one or two special issues or decide to make our own “heroic effort” to sustain the project?
Fifteen years before, I’d watched Christianity and Crisis die for some of the same reasons now facing Dissent. I had consoled myself then that some younger people would come along to fill the gap. It hadn’t happened, and each time Sojourners or the Christian Century arrived in the mail, I missed the voice of C&C. Dissent, too, had a voice that could not be replaced easily.
The parallel with C&C hovered in my mind. Had it stayed afloat another six months, it might have reconfigured itself, taken advantage of the burgeoning internet, or found other sources of funding. It might also have folded with no resources to pay severance to staff or meet its debts. Its board decided to cease publication while there was still money in the bank in order to be fair to staff. If Dissent kept operating in deficit mode, we’d all be out of work with no severance.
Warned that we couldn’t guarantee his job for another year, one staffer immediately applied to grad school. We upgraded an intern to hourly work to fill the gap. We made painful cuts and hired contingent workers to avoid paying health care. It was not easy, and it went against the way we had been operating.
Most important, we put out feelers for a publisher, and Penn Press gambled on us. It took on business functions we didn’t do well and figured out some additional revenue streams, freeing us to do fund-raising. And fund-raise we did. Before, we had relied on a (very) occasional grant, some generous left-leaning friends, and an every-other-year appeal to readers. Now, we became more creative and systematic, to the dismay of our editorial board, which had never expected fund-raising to be part of its duties.
After all, we were, in effect, publishing two magazines. One had great reach. That would be the free one.Tweet
We stopped paying the intern stipend, telling ourselves that they were still getting credit for school, and we weren’t asking them to work full-time. There was no lack of highly qualified people. In fact, the labor market for bright, motivated, left-leaning college graduates was so bad that we weren’t confined to undergrads as in the past. These BAs (and occasional MAs) were happy to have Dissent on their résumés.
We eliminated the end-of-the-year luncheon with staff and board at a local restaurant. We kept the tradition of giving a party at the end of the year for all our subscribers and friends, but moved to a cheaper space.
Through it all, we attracted and kept a dedicated and talented staff. One person turned down a full ride to a master’s program at a prestigious university to stay on for another year. We relied even more on the interns as the “farm team” from which we could draw staff and not have to worry about a learning curve. Although we never advertised internships as a pathway to work for the magazine, the fact that we did almost all our hiring from the intern pool — and that the time interns spent with us helped them get into grad school or find better jobs — made it seem to us less terrible that we weren’t paying a stipend.
Mitchell Cohen, who’d been a coeditor since 1991, resigned in 2009, and Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown, came in as coeditor with Walzer. Not long after, he announced that he believed editors of little magazines should be paid. This was heresy. On the other hand, not being a peer-reviewed journal, Dissent was no help to an academic career, either an editor’s or an author’s. The unpaid editors got no break from teaching loads or their own publishers’ demands. Authors could not use their articles for their tenure committees.
Kazin’s apostatic statement reflected his understanding that although he, being already tenured, might be able to give the time, the milieu from which Dissent draws its editors and authors has changed. There are fewer jobs around that will allow someone to devote significant time to Dissent on the side. In the fall of 2014, former (paid) web editor and later (unpaid) co–book editor David Marcus, now working on his doctoral dissertation, joined Kazin as coeditor. Although he does not come from among the tenured, he remains unpaid. Where before an up-and-coming writer might start out with us and donate a piece now and then after becoming successful, now freelancers may be willing to work for our noncompetitive rates in order to get the exposure, but they do have to be paid.
As we published more articles on student debt and intern exploitation, we realized that we would have to start paying interns again. This meant a decrease in talent, because we can afford only one stipend per semester, but it may signal an increase in diversity as it allows for a wider range of applicants.
Meanwhile, website redesigns, necessary every five years, average about $30,000 and are out of date almost as soon as they are finished. Articles on the web, most of which are free to read, can reach more people than Howe could ever have imagined.
As the web increased in importance, younger staff pointed out that it wasn’t fair to pay print writers and not web writers. After all, we were, in effect, publishing two magazines. One had great reach. That would be the free one. The other had the reputation and heft that gave credence to the free one. We needed both. We cut pay rates and expanded the categories of those who would be paid. Now we pay everyone less, but we pay more people (and don’t pay many more; sacrifice and subsidy still make it possible for us to survive).
Our budget, which, Kazin frequently points out, is slightly above the salary of a tenured Yale law professor, is still unbalanced. We’ve hired a development director and moved to a small space that we sublet from the New Press on Wall Street (!!!), where we’re closer to other left-wing publications and to the place most current staff can afford to live (Brooklyn, for the time being). Like many publications, we haven’t found the balance between paywall and access. We would like to make every article available for free. Absent a deep-pocketed publisher, that way lies extinction. We still think of ourselves as a magazine with a mission, not just a demographic. However, high ideals don’t meet payroll.
Mitchell Cohen frequently lamented that we were a magazine without a movement. The mission remains. The movement? We hope to be there for it when it arrives.