Media Moves

Coverage: The New Republic debacle

December 8, 2014

Posted by Liz Hester

Recent changes at The New Republic have left the magazine in turmoil with staff resigning and the next issue cancelled. The transition, like other media outlets, has been rocky.

The New York Times had this story by Jonathan Mahler and Ravi Somaiya:

But when the 28-year-old Chris Hughes snapped up The New Republic in 2012, he cast himself as more preservationist than disrupter, praising the magazine’s rich tradition of rigorous reporting and speaking of the public’s appetite for quality, in-depth journalism.

The staff who joined, or rejoined, felt as if they were part of a romantic endeavor, as much a restoration as a relaunch. Writers were offered generous salaries and assured that they would be given time and space. The website was redesigned, not to drive more traffic and thus lure advertisers but to look cleaner. The print magazine, Mr. Hughes said, would remain the primary product.

Now, like the nouveau riche buyer who says he’s only planning to slap a fresh coat of paint on that New England colonial but soon embarks on a tear-down, Mr. Hughes has apparently reconsidered. In October, he hired as chief executive a former Yahoo official, Guy Vidra, who told the staff that he intended to break stuff — though he used a profanity — and to rebuild the magazine as a “vertically integrated digital media company.” And last week, Mr. Hughes drove out the magazine’s widely admired editor, Franklin Foer, and its longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, replacing Mr. Foer with a former editor of the Atlantic Wire and Gawker, Gabriel Snyder.

The moves set off a mass exodus that forced the magazine to cancel the publication of its next issue. It also prompted an angry public letter from a group of New Republic alumni. “As former writers and editors for The New Republic,” it began, “we write to express our dismay and sorrow at its destruction in all but name.”

In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe, Dante Ramos said the question was whether or not Hughes knew what he was getting into when he bought the publication:

Consider one precedent for what Hughes is trying to do: Two years ago, Advance Publications sought to transform its newspaper in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, into a digital-first organization. (As it happens, I’ve worked both there and at TNR, in both cases long before the current troubles began.) In one stroke, Advance swept out dozens of staffers and announced a cutback from daily to thrice-weekly publication. The Picayune’s owners believed that, in an era of declining revenues and attrition across the newspaper industry, they were merely ripping off the Band-Aid rather than pulling it off slowly. Tellingly, Hughes sounded a similar note this week, saying in a statement that TNR had to “embrace the future or slide towards irrelevance, which is something I refuse to allow.”

But Advance didn’t think far enough ahead in New Orleans, a city where broadband adoption has been relatively slowA new daily print competitor launched, forcing The Times-Picayune to rethink its new publishing schedule. The New Orleans Advocate hired away some of the Picayune’s most accomplished remaining staffers. Two years into its digital-forward experiment in the Crescent City, Advance finds itself in the middle of old-fashioned newspaper war.

Hughes’s plans for The New Republic seem, if anything, even more out of step with the history of the publication involved. Unlike newspapers, which used to enjoy comfortable margins, TNR has long required a wealthy patron more interested in prestige than revenue potential. (In the mid-’90s, when I was a lowly intern there, that was owner Martin Peretz.)

Wealthy owner aside, the current patron of The New Republic isn’t afraid to go public with his thoughts. Hughes published an op-ed in the Washington Post defending his choices, saying it was the only way forward:

For anyone who loves what makes the New Republic special — the valuable journalism that pours forth on its digital and print pages — and believes there ought to be more outlets committed to quality journalism rather than fewer, the current choice is clear: Either walk away mourning a certain death or set to work building its future. That means we have to embrace some change.

Those who have watched the recent evolution in media know the dichotomy between techy buzzwords and tradition is a false choice. Journalists across the industry are using new techniques to tell vital stories and make passionate arguments. Innovation is happening in traditional newsrooms like the New York Times and The Post and at start-ups such as Vox and Politico. The New Republic should and will be mentioned in the same breath.

The New Republic’s future will be in both digital and print, and it will mean aspiring to be a strong and sustainable institution that constantly challenges itself to adapt. Former editors and writers who claim in an open letter that the New Republic should not be a business would prefer an institution that looks backward more often than forward and does not challenge itself to experiment with new business models and new ways to tell important stories. Unless we experiment now, today’s young people will not even recognize the New Republic’s name nor care about its voice when they arrive in the halls of power tomorrow.

As outlets fight for eyes and attention in an increasingly content heavy landscape, differentiation in the key and also the hardest thing to produce. The New Republic is going the way that so many other publications have – talking about the ideals of journalism until it’s not economically impossible to continue to do so. The saddest part is that we’ve seen this staff-revolting-to-change story before. And the editors and reporters don’t usually win when paying the bills must come first.

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