I came to Crisis in September 1994 to spend a sabbatical year as senior editor under Michael Novak. I’d taught philosophy at Fordham University since 1989 and was looking forward to the experience of a larger classroom. I quickly discovered, however, that the magazine was going to be my teacher. The job of editing, I found out, only begins with good ideas. And as for the demands of publishing—well, I had no clue.
The office on 15th and K streets was cramped, but managing editor Scott Walter produced a magazine notable for its punchy and readable prose. The office infrastructure was able but minimal: Financial records and subscription services were handled at Notre Dame by Ralph McInerny’s longtime assistant, Alice Osberger, to whom Crisis readers will always be in debt. Actual paid subscriptions numbered somewhere around 6,500, and the annual budget was under $500,000.
Michael Novak asked me to do three things during my year at Crisis: help the magazine grow, widen its influence, and continue to improve its editorial quality. As a lifelong academic, my first mistake was to assume that great ideas and arguments sell themselves. I knew nothing about the challenges of marketing a magazine of opinion to a public whose attention span had been shrinking for years.
My first lessons came from Ed Capano, the publisher of National Review. Over a series of lunches in New York (which he was generous enough to pay for), he taught me Publishing 101. One fact stood out: You have to send out 100 pieces of mail in order to get one, maybe two, subscribers. It takes a lot of money to grow a magazine because you have to spend money to get subscribers and you lose money on the majority of first-year subscriptions. For every subscriber who pays $19.95 in the first year, Crisis pays about $40 to bring in and service the subscription. Mass-market magazines solve this problem by selling advertising, which brings in four times the revenue of their subscription sales. A magazine like Crisis, given its size and audience, cannot expect more than moderate advertising revenue. A tough business, to say the least.
We had to raise the money to fund a new infrastructure (a larger staff, a new printer, and a fulfillment service) and create a direct-mail program. Perhaps because I threw myself into the water at the deep end, Mclnerny and Novak asked me if I wanted to create my own nonprofit corporation and take over Crisis completely. And so in February 1995, the Morley Institute (now Morley Publishing Group, Inc.) was created. I named it after my great aunt Lucile Morley, the only family member who seemed to applaud my early love for philosophy.
One basic decision I made, along with the first executive board, was that Crisis should be known first as a Catholic magazine rather than as a conservative one. Conservative readers were already well-served by National Review, The Weekly Standard, and American Spectator; there was no reason to compete with them. Yes, there were, and are, many Catholic magazines, but none of them had exactly the same mission or audience as Crisis.
Over the past eight years, we’ve found a reliable printer and, after some hits and misses, a great fulfillment service. We had to find larger office space as the staff grew from three to ten. As we have expanded our direct mail each year, under the expert eye of our associate publisher, Matt Wray, our readership has grown to just over 25,000 subscribers. This gives us more paid readers than older counterparts on the left like Commonweal and America.
The Crisis staff has sometimes been frustrated by our inability to respond more quickly to current events—the lead time for an article in our magazine is substantial. So six months ago we initiated a weekly electronic newsletter, which is available through our Web site at www.crisis-magazine.com. This enables us to track the latest developments on crucial issues of interest to all of us. The path of dissent is often unpredictable and requires a quick response team. That’s why the e-newsletter has become a necessary supplement to the magazine—and best of all, it’s free!
The success of Crisis over the past 20 years can be attributed to its founders, the staff—both present and past—its donors and readers, and the Morley executive board. But most of all, please join me in thanking God for blessing our efforts.