If Chris Hughes knew anything about journalism, he’d throw a big party in New York and another in Washington and the media wags now heaping abuse on him would be hailing him as the last of the Medicis. But the 31-year-old owner and editor in chief of the New Republic doesn’t know a damn thing about journalism, which is why scores of hungry and thirsty journalists won’t shut up.
Hughes is getting it from the left, nostalgic for a magazine that hasn’t existed in a while, and the right, nostalgic for a magazine that never really existed at all. In their estimation, Hughes is guilty of destroying one of America’s great cultural institutions. His two top editors, Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier, resigned last week, spearheading a mass exodus of staffers and contributors. In his response, published in the Washington Post last weekend, Hughes writes: “I didn’t buy the New Republic to be the conservator of a small print magazine whose long-term influence and survival were at risk. I came to protect the future of the New Republic by creating a sustainable business so that our journalism, values and voice — the things that make us singular — could survive.”
Hughes deserves credit for seeing that TNR’s model wasn’t working. What he didn’t understand was that the biggest problem facing TNR wasn’t about markets or revenue streams. Rather it was simply that the magazine of ideas he bought back in 2012 had no ideas. Even worse is that it’s unlikely Hughes can do much about it, since he too stands for nothing.
Hughes is regularly knocked for having lucked into his wealth by rooming in college with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. And yet the reality is that most really rich people in America—rich meaning not just millions, but hundreds of millions or billions—are rich because they luck into it. It is lucky to inherit money and it is lucky to make something that people want to pay lots of money for, especially when it is something as puerile as Facebook. Zuckerberg was just as lucky as Hughes. All he did was take a staple of New England prep school and college life—a book handed out to students in the fall with the pictures and dorm addresses of all your classmates—and change the platform, from printed book to the Internet.
This is all that Hughes means when he refers to his property as a “vertically integrated media company.” Digital TNR will be to print magazine TNR what Facebook is to Harvard’s paperback facebook. Like, with old facebook, you can’t send messages to the cute boys and girls in your class. But you can do that on Facebook! Maybe TNR readers will now be able to send messages to the cute boys and girls who write for the magazine. Hughes regrets that the staffers who resigned missed the chance to help him create the next generation TNR. “If you really care about an institution and want to make it strong for the ages, you don’t walk out,” Hughes writes. “You roll up your sleeves, you redouble your commitment to those ideals in a changing world, and you fight.”
Hughes’ passionate exhortation begs the key question: what ideals? TNR has not stood for anything for quite some time now, perhaps not for twenty years. Back then it was a very good magazine insofar as it dramatized the political, cultural, and personal conflicts within the head of an interesting person, its owner and editor-in-chief Martin Peretz. Accordingly, the New Republic argued with itself—Charles Krauthammer vs. Hendrik Hertzberg, Andrew Sullivan vs. Michael Kinsley, etc.—which was the source of its glamor and cachet. The point was to make good arguments—better than the ones made by the guy in the office next to you.
That brief golden age ended for a number of reasons. Bill Clinton became president, which made the magazine somewhat irrelevant since many of the arguments taking place in Peretz’s head were now taking place in the Oval Office. Editor Michael Kinsley knew it was time to move on, so he left Washington and went to Seattle to start Slate and get close to another kind of power, Bill Gates. Another editor, Michael Kelly, stood by Stephen Glass, a sociopath whose published lies did lasting damage to the magazine’s credibility. And then when Al Gore didn’t become president in 2000, TNR went into its fatal tailspin.