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So What Do You Do, Nick Gillespie?

On Reason's 35th anniversary, the libertarian mag's editor talks about its politics, its far-flung operations, and the glamorous world of Sew Business

- November 4, 2003

Nick Gillespie, who has edited Reason magazine since 2000, took a long and unconventional route to where he is today. He first worked at a number of trade publications and regional newspapers that went under—plus two failed Felix Dennis magazines—before quitting the business in the mid-'90s. Instead he went and got an MFA in creative writing at Temple University, convinced he was the "angel of death" for publications at which he worked. Even so, as a longtime reader of Reason, he eventually applied for a job there and elbowed his way up the masthead. As the libertarian mag reaches its 35th birthday--and was recently named one of the country's 50 best magazines by The Chicago Tribune, Gillespie talks about ghostwriting for Alyssa Milano, the uselessness of newsweeklies, and how a good magazine is like a good party.

Birthdate: 1963
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
First section of the Sunday paper: "Sunday is a day of rest for everyone except Tony Snow, who seemingly puts in a triple shift on Fox News. While i don't believe in God, and I stopped going to church even before I graduated from St. Mary's Grammar School in New Monmouth, New Jersey, I still try to observe a day of rest by reading nothing more edifying than the USA Today Weekend and Kroger circulars that thankfully make up the bulk of the Sunday edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer, the largest newspaper in my immediate area."

You worked at all these trade pubs before you started editing Reason. Tell me about some of them.
Well, I helped bring a youthful sensibility to such publications as Sew Business, which was about the yarn industry and sew shops. My masterpiece there was a piece about how sewing stores could put ads on MTV to get kids back interested into sewing. And, you know, I think history has borne me out on that.

I also later worked for the pornographically named teen magazine, Teen Machine, where I interviewed the Coreys: Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and that ilk. At Teen Machine, the most notable thing there was that I ghostwrote an advice column there for Alyssa Milano. And there's probably any number of pregnant teenage mothers who unfortunately followed the bad advice of Alyssa Milano. Who knows actually how much venereal disease got spread as a result of that column?

And then you ended up at Reason. How's it different from other political magazines?
It's a libertarian magazine. So, it's like National Review or The Nation or The New Republic, in that general genre of magazine, but with a different set of politics, which I had always been predisposed to. In fact, the magazine helped shape my views on politics. So it's kind of interesting to end up working for them and running it. And I suppose I'm running it into the ground, if my track record means anything.

The tag line of the magazine is, "free mind and free markets." It's the idea that less regulation of all aspects of people's lives is good. In terms of their thinking, in terms of their lifestyle, in terms of their economics, you name it. It's like, let's let it all hang out, and that's better overall.

One of the differences about Reason from the Republican and Democrat-type magazines—which are, after all, conservative and liberal magazines—is that we really focus on politics not as an end in itself but rather as a means to an end. And the means of politics, or what politics are good for, is that they might be able to get you to a world in which people are able to live more fully on their own terms. But, fundamentally, I don't think the magazine is interested in controlling people's lives. What we're interested in doing is reducing the number of controls on people's lives, both in the cultural arena, in the political arena and in the lifestyle arena. You know, the point of life is not to be engaged in politics, the point of life is to get to a place where you can do what you want to and be with the people you want to be with, and create the life that you take pleasure in.

If you read The Nation or the National Review, you get a sense that these are people who really like politics and they like the ability to control what other people are able to do. Typically, the joke is that conservatives want to be your father and leftists want to be your mother. But both of them want to control what you're doing to a substantial degree.

It's your 35th anniversary. Has the magazine changed over the past 35 years?
I don't know that it's changed all that much. In 1968, it started as a student publication by this guy Lanny Friedlander at Boston University. There were some campus revolts, demonstrations against the Vietnam War on campus, and the cops came and beat the shit out of them. He was appalled both that the students were keeping him from going to classes as well as the cops who were beating up the students. And that in a way sums up where we are, how we're positioned in a different place than most political magazines.

Compared to when the magazine started, we're now engaged more in issues about globalization and whether or not increasing trade among countries of the world both in terms of goods and services and in terms of people. There's fierce debate over this and we're in the thick of that. Foreign policy has really come to the core in the past couple of years, since 9/11, and we're dealing with that, we're discussing that in the pages of the magazine in a way that is interesting and that is not dogmatic, because our readership and our writers all take different views on the legitimacy and the efficacy on the current occupation of Iraq. We remain really interested in technology, both in terms of medical technology as well as machines, things that empower people to do more stuff.

We cover a lot of that kind of stuff, how digital technology or computer technology allows people to do stuff that was unimaginable 10 years ago, much less 35 years ago. But also, biotechnology and medical technology—we've entered in age with increasing success and increasing ease, people can radically alter themselves. Whether it's a man becoming a woman—one of our contributing editors is a trans-gendered economist named Deirdre McCloskey. We did an excerpt a couple of years ago from her memoir about that change. Genetic diseases or genetic problems, that is something that has been a longstanding interest of the magazine, what has changed is that the pace of that kind of ability and that kind of liberation is really pretty intriguing and amazing.

How many people do you have on staff?
Ten or 11 full-time people, and that includes the business side and the art department. We're probably far and away the most decentralized and virtual magazine office in America. If the anthrax mailer ever comes back, it's going to take him at least three or four bucks to knock us off. Our web editor is currently in Lebanon. We've got one full-time staffer in L.A., we've got our art director in Phoenix, we've got a guy in Baltimore, we've got a couple people in the D.C. area, I'm in Ohio, our publisher's in Connecticut; we're totally spread out. The reason we've started doing it this way is that it kind of fits in with our philosophy of experimentive living and it allows us to keep the people we need to keep as they have moved for spouse reasons, or whatever.

What other magazines do you read?
I read just about everything. I used to read all of the newsweeklies, U.S. News, stuff like that. But I've been taken with The Week lately, which I think is a really smart alternative and what it actually shows is that Time and Newsweek have been floundering for a while because the world in which they were created and in which they were dominant—they're still obviously huge-circulation magazines—but we don't need a news magazine from the 1970s or 1980s in today's media environment. Time and Newsweek are always late on stuff because they're weekly, but they still try to break stories and they have these interminable trend stories which are always fake or phony. It just seems like The Week gets me the information that I used to look for in Time and Newsweek.

The New York Observer remains a favorite of mine as a weekly read, that's something that I always make time for. One of the ways that I look at magazines or news publications is that they are kind of like parties. A good magazine or a good publication is like a really good party, where you go there and you wander around and there's a lot of different rooms you can move in and out of and have a lot of different conversations, some are serious, some are funny, some are totally offbeat and weird. You get into a couple of arguments and start shouting and screaming at each other, you also get into a clinch or two with people and then hopefully you go home before you get too sloppy drunk and make an ass out of yourself. I like publications that give me a sense of that, and The New York Observer is certainly one that pulls that off with real success.

This is one of the reasons why I'm at Reason. I find a lot of traditional political magazines and political and cultural coverage magazines to be incredibly boring, partly because they take themselves way too seriously and they take actors in the political theater too seriously. Also, that they're not really talking about the things that change people's lives and that really affect people's lives

One of our guys is just finishing up a manuscript about the Burning Man Festival. If you look in the December issue, we've got a list of 35 heroes of freedom. And these are just people, none of whom would ever be put in the same list by anybody else, the vast majority of these people are not political, they are innovators either technologically or scientifically, or lifestyle-wise. In the end, that's what matters.

What is your ideal for Reason in five or 10 years? What would be the best thing that could happen?
One of the things that we've been doing is building up our circulation as much as we can, and one of the issues—and this is an irony for a magazine that is devoted to free minds and free markets—is that we haven't found the sugar daddies who can really give us the kind of money to grow our print circulation. But we have a target of, in five years, boosting up to 100,000 circulation from around 60,000 now. It's not unrealistic. On our website we're up 300 percent from where we were in 2000.

I would actually like to create more of a physical setting in Washington. At this point, it makes the most sense in terms of our professional contacts, media contacts, and things like that, and it's a relatively easy city to enter and exit, in a way that New York is not. What we're trying to do is have more influence and to be more a part of the national debates and discussions, and a physical setting will allow us to have events and to become more a part of the furniture of media debates, media dialogues, policy debates, and things like that and to more fully showcase the alternative vision of American that we actually discuss and articulate in the magazine.

David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and editor and's news editor. You can subscribe to Reason here.

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