The Chris Hughes Era of The New Republic Is Ending

TNR's owner wants to sell the magazine.


Like the time Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke dropped acid right before taping The McLaughlin Group—whoa nelly, now that was a tale.
Bantam Books

Chris Hughes, the Facebook moneybags who bought The New Republic in 2012, is now looking to unload it. "After investing a great deal of time, energy, and over $20 million, I have come to the conclusion that it is time for new leadership and vision at The New Republic," he wrote in a memo sent to staffers this morning, adding that he "underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today's quickly evolving climate." The Wall Street Journal reports that Hughes has "already begun preliminary talks with a variety of potential buyers, including larger media companies, digital startups and philanthropic groups."

Hughes' brief period atop TNR can be split into two sections. In the first, he continued to work with the center-left staff he inherited; he did hire a new man to run the mag, Franklin Foer, but Foer had already edited the magazine from 2006 to 2010, so this wasn't exactly a sweeping change. The outlet in this iteration was more conventionally liberal than the New Republic of the '80s, '90s, and early '00s, but that shift was already underway well before Hughes bought the place, so it wasn't really a big change either. Hughes had worked for Obama during the 2008 campaign, and the magazine in this interval represented pretty much the sort of sensibility you'd expect from a man with that background.

The second phase began after Hughes fired Foer in late 2014, prompting most of the staff to resign en masse. Foer's replacement, former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder, moved the publication's center of political gravity much further to the left—though in some ways the magazine has been more of an ideological hodge-podge in the last year than an outlet with a consistent point of view.

It is common to claim that The New Republic either improved or declined dramatically under Snyder, depending on whether you preferred the old TNR's politics. But I think the decent stuff/bad stuff ratio stayed pretty much the same, just with different flavors of good and different flavors of crap. I doubt the pre-Hughes TNR would have published the radical writer Malcolm Harris' fine piece on the late Aaron Swartz, with its casual declaration that "one of the lessons that school teaches is that the people who make the rules don't really have to follow them." On the other hand, I doubt the old magazine would have published Phoebe Maltz Bovy's inane argument, if you even want to call it an argument, that "all guns" should be banned. (At one point, Bovy acknowledged the fact that since "crackdowns on guns are criminal-justice interventions," they're likely to have a "disparate impact" on "marginalized communities." She responded that, well, "ultimately" we should disarm the police too.) Similarly, I doubt the Snyder/Hughes New Republic would have published Jonathan Chait's scathing critique of Naomi Klein, even if Chait were still willing to write for them; but it hasn't published former owner Martin Peretz's creepy ruminations about Arabs and Muslims either.

I have no idea what will come next for TNR, but I should note one more tidbit from that Wall Street Journal story: Hughes is apparently "looking at a non-profit structure as one possible solution for the magazine." That's as good a reason as any to quote something Matt Welch wrote right after Hughes bought the mag four years ago:

Political magazines, which as a rule do not cover expenses through subscriptions and advertising, have two basic ownership models: Get an ideologically and/or culturally sympatico rich person (or "vanity mogul," in Jack Shafer's memorable phrasing) to subsidize the losses, or just organize as a nonprofit (Reason chose the latter road decades ago).

There are plusses and minuses to both—as Shafer points out, "Hughes should be able to sustain the magazine's annual losses—which Anne Peretz, the ex-wife of former owner Martin Peretz put at $3 million a year—for a couple of hundred years after his death"—but one aspect I certainly enjoy about the Reason way is that it is literally impossible for a single person (let alone a single person with deep political connections to the sitting U.S. president) to impose his or her will on the editorial decisions of a normally configured nonprofit publication. The basic editorial thrust is therefore much more resilient and consistent in the long term, much less subject to the temporal whims and temper tantrums of a lone deep-pocketed journalistic novice.

If the New Republicans are lucky, their next setup will not depend on a fickle millionaire's largesse.