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The Baffler is back — with local ties

New owners have big plans for small journal of cultural criticism

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / May 17, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — Over two celebrated decades, The Baffler acquired a reputation for being a small-circulation journal with an outsize knack for skewering the powers that be. Launched in Chicago in 1988, it trained its critical firepower on a wide range of targets, from investment bankers to indie-rock moguls, earning a devoted following that numbered at most 12,000 subscribers.

Many regular contributors — including founding editor Thomas Frank, author of the bestseller “What’s the Matter With Kansas?’’ — went on to become brand-name authors and pundits. Publishing was erratic at best, though. Only 17 issues appeared before the last one, in January 2010. Years sometimes passed without publishing at all.

Now comes a new ownership team with local ties vowing to breathe new life into The Baffler. Headed by John Summers, 40, a writer and academic who has taught at Harvard and Boston College, the new owners hope to make the revamped journal both commercially viable and relevant to the current conversation about politics, business, and culture. A prospectus aimed at investors and advertisers calls the journal “a clear alternative to the servility of pundits, the wonkery of established liberals, the solemnity of socialists, and the pseudo-sophistication of professors.’’

In short, The Baffler — sassy, irreverent, often down but never quite out — is back.

“I’m trying to keep the best of the old Baffler, using basic managerial principles,’’ Summers said during an interview near Harvard Square. “The magazine got lost, but not because it failed culturally. It never had a business model.’’

Along with a small group of investors — among them Harvard Book Store owner Jeff Mayersohn — Summers is buying, for an undisclosed sum, the journal’s remaining assets. These include its logo and inventory of back issues; subscriber and mailing lists; rights to two previously published anthologies of Baffler material; and all other intellectual property rights.

Negotiations to transfer ownership began last fall and were finalized last week. Frank has agreed to stay on as editor at large. Another prominent past contributor, columnist and author Chris Lehmann, will serve as senior editor.

“We are in need of a dose of Baffler esque commentary,’’ Frank said, “and John is the man to do it.’’

For now, Summers will oversee the journal and related website from his home office in Cambridge. He incorporated the Baffler Foundation as a Massachusetts-based nonprofit in January and is actively seeking more investors.

Summers will work on The Baffler full time, which Frank did not. Small online journals such as Electric Literature have demonstrated that they can make a profit, according to Summers, who is relying on smartphone apps and other flourishes to usher The Baffler into the digital age. A new website (thebaffler.com) is scheduled to be launched this summer.

Long-form essays (5,000 words and up) will continue to be The Baffler’s calling card, though. Short fiction, poetry, cartoons, and photographs will also regularly appear in print and online. Next month Summers will meet with a group of editors and designers in Manhattan to map out a detailed editorial plan. Once that’s finalized, other staffers will be added as needed, he said.

The next print edition, tentatively titled “Your Money and Your Life,’’ is scheduled for October. Summers intends to publish three issues per year after that, beginning in 2012. In between, he will use the website to publish more timely commentary on current affairs and developing trends.

“There are plenty of writers out there who want to write at greater length, which book publishers like, too,’’ he said, noting that many Baffler writers, Frank among them, spun off book deals from their published essays. “Developing a critical perspective is the most important thing, though. We have only two rules: Don’t lie, and don’t be boring. If we don’t do those two things, we’ll find a huge audience.’’

Those who assume the journal will adopt a liberal-leaning, pro-Obama slant are likely to be surprised.

“Our target audience is anyone who’s wondering why the Obama administration hasn’t enacted meaningful economic reforms since 2008,’’ Summers said with an impish smile.

Summers, who plans on writing for the journal regularly, has a doctorate in US history, has published dozens of essays in mainstream periodicals including The Nation and New Republic, and is writing a biography of sociologist C. Wright Mills. His wife, Anna Summers, a critically acclaimed translator, will serve as The Baffler’s literary editor.

For a magazine with such a small readership, The Baffler made plenty of noise in its heyday. Among its most talked-about pieces was one titled “Harsh Realm, Mr. Sulzberger!’’ In it, Frank deconstructed a New York Times feature on “grunge speak,’’ published during the height of Seattle’s grunge-rock glory days, and revealed how the paper had been duped into publishing a glossary invented by a clever prankster. Another signature essay, Steve Albini’s “The Problem With Music,’’ took a scalpel to the indie-rock business, demonstrating (with numbers) how financially exploited most bands have been.

The Baffler’s name, according to Frank, was “a joke spawned by ‘undecidability,’ a fad idea of the ’80s . . . in which a baffling sort of jargonese was much celebrated. Our idea was to go in the opposite direction, toward complete lucidity.’’

In doing so, said Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation’’ and other books, The Baffler became “one of the few places that actually went after the sheer absurdity of a lot of corporate culture, and did so sardonically.’’ Ehrenreich never wrote for the journal but as a fan calls its resurrection “wonderful news.’’

Last fall, Summers and Mayersohn began talking about launching a small journal much like The Baffler when Frank suggested they buy the original instead. Both men agree it was a nearly perfect confluence of motivation and opportunity.

“Boston actually has a tradition of journals based on its bookstores,’’ Mayersohn said. “We think this will enhance and grow the literary scene here.’’

Asked if he were worried about investing in a publication with such an unreliable track record, Mayersohn shook his head. “No, because John will make it succeed,’’ he replied. “I’m investing in him.’’

Summers also promised The Baffler will continue to make discovering talented young writers a top priority. Blogs will be one such source of new talent, he said. Another tradition likely to be held onto: relying upon independent bookstores like Mayersohn’s to carry and promote the journal. What about, say, Starbucks stores, appealing targets though they might be for some Baffleresque skewering?

“Why not,’’ said Summers. “If they’ll have us.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.