Tea Party reading

A few months into his job as publisher of the new magazine Tea Party Review, William Owens is ever the publication’s salesman.

From his point of view, the magazine has debuted to overwhelming praise — “Michele Bachmann loves it, Mike Pence loves it, Rush Limbaugh loves it,” he says — and other, less well-known people have been equally impressed by the Review’s first two issues, he adds.

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“Everyone who holds it, sees it, says, ‘Wow, this is really great,’ ” Owens said. “The quality of it — people are just pleased.”

People are pleased, he says, largely because they might not have known what to expect out of a magazine geared toward a large and loose network of political activists who take pride in the often ad-hoc and diffuse nature of their movement.

“I guess when you say ‘Tea Party,’ you expect something that’s going to look grassroots,” Owens jokes, pointing out with satisfaction the April edition’s perfect binding. (Owens had to go with a saddle stitch for the inaugural March issue in order to get it out in time for the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in February.) 

Owens and editor Steve Allen acknowledge that their magazine is still very much in its infancy, and they refer often to the long days, relentless networking and exhausting grunt work that goes along with any nascent project. Yet they hold high hopes that the magazine will become something around which the Tea Party movement can coalesce, and that it will offer a sounding board to help activists solidify policy stances that will propel them to more political leadership positions in the near future.

Like the movement itself, the magazine’s genesis was swift. Owens and Allen started from zero late last fall — around Thanksgiving, they both recall. They met at what Owens called a “conservative meeting” in Washington and soon found out they share an interest in publishing. Owens, who describes himself as a lifelong entrepreneur, had written a book (Obama: Why Black America Should Have Doubts) and published smaller newsletters for various Tea Party groups in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Allen had floated into and out of various journalism and political communications jobs — among them senior editor at the Conservative Digest and press secretary for former Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) — and said he first had an idea for a magazine when he wrote a plan for “Grassroots for America” in 1986. (It never got off the ground because there was a problem with the funding, he said.)

After a short getting-to-know-you period, they decided to go into business with each other.

They make an odd couple: Owens, 46, dressed in a crisp business suit, speaks in business aphorisms, uttering phrases like “purpose-focused” and “principles over policy,” while Allen, 54 and more informal in appearance, is prone to launching into long, meandering anecdotes on topics ranging from quantitative easing to the first time he read an issue of the National Review as a 13-year-old in the dentist’s office-slash-campaign headquarters of a local Alabama election his parents were working on. Allen is a member of Mensa, and he met his wife at one of the organization’s meetings.

“It was just a situation where we knew we had to trust each other, and that was the only way something like this was going to happen,” Allen said of his quick partnership with Owens.

And they both agreed something like the Tea Party Review needed to happen — and for several reasons. Allen says it’s almost a foregone conclusion that any movement needs its own publication — the civil rights movement had The Chicago Defender, he points out — and Owens believes that a physical publication lends credence to the Tea Party movement. 

“There’s a psychological connection when you’re holding a magazine in your hand,” he said. “You have this magazine in your hand, and you’re looking at it, and you’re flipping pages — there’s a believability.”

But this isn’t the pre-Internet civil rights era. Neither Owens nor Allen expresses any worry over the idea that launching a monthly print publication at a time when Americans are increasingly consuming news and opinion online might be a recipe for failure. Owens says his research shows that the Tea Party’s median age is 50, a demographic that isn’t spending as much time on the Internet as the millennial generation, and Allen adds that of the print publications still out there, few represent the Tea Party’s viewpoint. He says, for instance, that he didn’t renew his Newsweek subscription because “it’s full of these people who say people like me are vile, awful individuals.”

Richard Viguerie, the conservative donor who’s made his money in the direct-mail business, said Allen’s one of the best writers he’s ever worked with. Allen has ghost-written for Viguerie off and on since the mid-1980s.

“There’s never a time I talk to Steve that I don’t learn something,” he said. Viguerie said he agrees that there’s a need for a publication for the Tea Party movement but that it’s too early to tell whether the Tea Party Review is it.

The magazine, which costs $34.95 annually, had a handful of subscribers before CPAC but ended the week with approximately 1,900, Owens said. They have no big investors, relying instead on an affiliate program that kicks back 35 percent of the rate to groups that sell subscriptions. 

For as much praise as the new magazine has received from some big names, at least one Tea Party leader thinks the model might be missing the mark.

Mark Meckler, the co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, told The Hill in an email that he doesn’t have an opinion of the magazine because he hasn’t seen it and isn’t “aware of anyone who has.”

“The vast majority of the Tea Party movement is online,” he said.

Nevertheless, Owens and Allen continue to move ahead with their magazine. Allen says the biggest challenge so far has been finding and managing a stable of writers, but he delights in the idea that an article by a Colombian immigrant can appear alongside a piece written by a former book editor at the Harvard Law Review (as was the case in the March issue). 

As for his challenges, Owens said, “Money’s always hard.” He’s also been working on putting in systems that will handle potential growth in subscriptions, like housing the online order form on their own website rather than relying on a third party. But both still see their work as a way to improve the country’s future. Allen has a 17-month-old daughter, and he said he wants her to have “a country that’s strong.”

Owens, always thinking business, jokes that the ultimate bump for them these days would be if Limbaugh were to mention the magazine on his radio show.

“I think the next phase is for us to show that we’re credible [and] we’re here to stay,” Owens says. “I think the future is very, very bright.”

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