Chris Hughes has had better autumns. First the Facebook co-founder saw his husband, Sean Eldridge, lose a pricey race for Congress. Now Hughes is the target of irate journalists for the way he’s handling changes at The New Republic, the liberal policy magazine that he bought two years ago. From the outpouring of outrage, you’d think that Hughes had committed the publishing equivalent of tearing down the White House to put up a strip mall. The fury of so many big-name journalists can’t be misplaced, can it?
Actually, in this case, yes.
Hughes deserves a chunk of the blame for the mess he finds himself in. He’s the one who brought in Guy Vidra as CEO, who seems to have all the diplomatic skills of Kim Jong-un. Vidra clearly had it in for TNR editor-in-chief Franklin Foer, who was widely respected by staff and peers.
This week, Vidra announced that Gabriel Snyder, a former editor at the Atlantic Wire, was replacing Foer, who apparently learned through the grapevine that Vidra was replacing him. To add insult to injury, Vidra didn’t even know how to pronounce Foer’s name, getting it wrong at the 100th anniversary celebration for the magazine last month.
Foer’s resignation opened the floodgates. So far about a dozen of the magazine’s staff of 54 have quit in protest, as have a large number of the occasional contributors whose names pad the masthead.
The dismissal of Foer was just one part of the changes taking place. The magazine will be cutting its print schedule from 20 issues a year to 10 and moving the bulk of its operations to New York from D.C.
From the uproar, you’d think that Hughes had strangled the crown prince of liberal journalism in the cradle. “Hughes and Vidra have provided no reason at all for anybody to believe they have a plausible plan to modernize The New Republic,” Jonathan Chait, a former TNR staffer, complained.
The problem with angering journalists is a) they have plenty of outlets to express their anger at you and b) they have plenty of friends who think trade gossip is as newsworthy as nuclear nonproliferation pacts (actually, more so).
Hughes’ greatest sin is that he has never been a member of the club. He brings a Silicon Valley sensibility to his work. He’s never really tried to make himself part of The Village, that closed circle of the D.C. elite that fancies itself the repository of all wisdom. As Bloomberg political columnist David Weigel notes, “The knives were out for Chris Hughes from his first weeks.”
Hughes’ biggest sin seems to be that he is looking at The New Republic as a business and not a charity. He certainly has the money to keeping sinking into the magazine as a kind of non-profit project, and no doubt many of his current critics would have been happy if he kept signing big checks and kept silent.
But at some point, Hughes seems to have concluded that the course TNR was on would doom the enterprise. Trying to make a go in the dead-tree industry these days is like choosing a career as the town blacksmith. Think of our own late, great Advocate magazine. Hughes seems to want to make TNR more web oriented, with the kind of stories that will drive traffic. (Although that’s not the easiest business model, either. Ask the publisher of any online magazine.)
For all the eulogies about how Hughes has killed TNR, the reality is that the magazine has been flat-lining for years. With the advent of blogs, the monopoly that the D.C. policy magazines held on political discourse is long gone. (Queerty.com, founded in 2005, has approximately the same daily audience as the online site, newrepublic.com, of the century old magazine.)
Hughes’ critics seemed convinced that TNR is one step away from running endless videos of cats playing in paper bags as clickbait. But they seem to forget that the magazine has a long, ignoble history of clickbait before it was known clickbait. The most notorious example: In the 1980s, the magazine, under Andrew Sullivan’s editorship, was a chief promoter of The Bell Curve, a scientifically questionable “study” of why blacks had lower I.Q.s. Back then, this type of outrageous contrarianism was called buzz.
Maybe Hughes handled the shift in strategy all wrong. (Vidra certainly looks like he did.) After all, he got rich very young, and lacks experience in journalism. But that doesn’t mean the strategy itself is wrong. Maybe the guy who saw the future of social media knows a thing or two about the internet.