The New Republic: blame the youngest

Chris Hughes is blamed (and this is pretty reasonable) for breaking apart “The New Republic”: more than a dozen editors and staff members followed the magazine’s departing editor Franklin Foer and its literary editor Leon Wieseltier in leaving the publication. They were all replaced by newcomers appointed by Guy Vidra, the newly appointed chief executive and Hughes protégé.

As a result, everyone is unhappy now. Contributors and editors accuse Vidra of being snobbish, using faulty language and having a weak understanding of TNR’s roots, while the owner and senior management have already given up their hopes of putting out a fresh issue of the magazine in time for the holidays or of turning the 100-year old behemoth into a profitable business.

While both sides have legitimate arguments in their favor, Hughes’ move was very shortsighted. And the reason for this is his refusal to appreciate the current state of modern journalism. Making money in this field is a troublesome task for any player. The New Republic is full of the traditions of “quality investigative journalism,” which means it’s full of long essays and doesn’t have a lot of space for advertising or special features. But Hughes imprudently determined that he would solve that problem by putting Vidra, a tanned former Yahoo executive, in front of industry legends who effectively invented this magazine and are not going to give up their habits and beliefs. Unsurprisingly, Vidra started ‘breaking shit and disrupting everything’ from his first meeting with the newsroom, instead of tactfully highlighting the importance of clicks and page views.

Both sides failed to understand that The New Republic was losing money for years and has never been a cash cow. The magazine’s previous owner, Marty Peretz, used it as a megaphone to draw attention to issues that were important to him. TNR lent influence and respect to its owners – that is how it ever was. And that major purpose hasn’t changed since the emergence of the Internet, but the magazine’s footprint has dwindled.

When you’re Mark Zuckerberg’s former roommate and worth $700M you can tell the world what you want through your Facebook page or Twitter account. You can speak to the audience you are most interested in reaching. But Hughes decided that a little bit of legacy publication influence never hurts. Currently, he is paying a high price for that legacy, by having to solve problems that still puzzle the finest brains of News Corporation, the NYT and Conde Nast.

The incompatibility of cultures is another problem Hughes didn’t care to think much about. As the Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank said of himself, ‘he left the Wall Street Journal to join TNR in the 1990s, taking a 50 percent pay cut and a 95 percent reduction in subscribers for the pleasure of joining what felt like a family.’

Apparently, Hughes didn’t expect such a high amount of camaraderie among the New Republic’s authors. He simply didn’t develop enough business nous after he quit Facebook to his own startup, Jumo, which later was sold for a sum close to just $65K. As George Parker of the New Yorker writes: “the crisis in journalism is a business crisis, and it’s been going on for twenty years; the outcome remains far from obvious. Writers and editors at magazines and newspapers live with a perpetual sense of foreboding, which leads to plummeting self-confidence in their own work and a tendency to overestimate the new digital enterprises, or the new digitally rich owners of the old enterprises.”.

It looks like that there is no right answer to how anyone can make a legacy paper or periodical profitable again. You either accept that fact and follow the existing rules, or you try to start taking incremental steps, instead of adding widgets to the web page and asking middle-aged authors to rewrite their articles in a “10 reasons why X is better than Y” format (a la www.buzzfeed.com). As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. In TNR’s case, the thing you have to try not to fix is the editorship. And that is also something that started to resist any attempts at fixing it much earlier than some had obviously expected.

 
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