The New Republic is for Sale

About a year ago, I wrote a post asking if I should cancel my subscription to The New Republic in the wake of major changes to its editorial staff.

For those of you who are not familiar with the magazine, it is a 101 year old “institution” which has always been more influential than its modest subscriber base would indicate. It considers itself “liberal” but has generally been more centrist than the word “liberal” conveys in the popular vernacular today. It has generally had a reputation for intellectual rigor. When I first purchased my subscription, my own politics were somewhat to the left of the line of The New Republic’s editorial staff. For that reason I found it valuable. It was a different liberal voice in a sea of liberal voices which often sound too much the same.

It was bought by Martin Peretz in 1974.

Peretz was a veteran of the New Left who had broken with that movement over its support of various Third World liberationist movements, particularly the Palestine Liberation Organization. Peretz transformed TNR into its current form.

It advocated what Wikipedia calls “a self-critical brand of liberalism.”

The magazine as I would first come to know it was

known for its originality and unpredictability in the 1980s. It was widely considered a “must read” across the political spectrum. An article in Vanity Fair judged TNR “the smartest, most impudent weekly in the country,” and the “most entertaining and intellectually agile magazine in the country.” According to Alterman, the magazine’s prose could sparkle and the contrasting views within its pages were “genuinely exciting”. He added, “The magazine unarguably set the terms of debate for insider political elites during the Reagan era.”

At this point in time, it was very much to the right of where I was. Still, it was not so far to the right that I didn’t feel that I couldn’t benefit from the writing in it from time to time but didn’t have a subscription.

Peter Beinart was the editor in the late nineties and early 2000s while Franklin Foer became editor after him. Under Foer the magazine went in a decidedly leftward direction. Prior to Foer the magazine had an unapologetic emphasis on words. The layout and design weren’t much to look at and there were few illustrations. When they first went for a glossier, mass market, general interest look, I was initially apprehensive because I was afraid it was a sign that less emphasis would be put on the substance of the magazine. After a few issues, it seemed that my worries were either unfounded or, if there was a decline in the quality of the writing I was unable to perceive it.

In 2012 on of the co-founders of Facebook, bought The New Republic and appointed himself editor-in-chief. His status as a co-founder of Facebook is said to be entirely due to the luck of being college roommates with Mark Zuckerberg (after attending Andover). The fortune he acquired as a result prompted Peretz to quip, “I think he owes about $700 million to the Harvard housing office.”

Hugh’s did make some changes in the beginning, including a greater emphasis on the website and more visuals. A little over a year ago, at the time I wrote my post about canceling my subscription, Hughes made significant changes. He replaced Franklin Foer with Gabriel Snyder and created the new position of CEO, filled by Guy Vidra,

a Yahoo veteran who had a short attention span and was a vocal critic of the magazine’s discursive style during internal staff meetings, saying the articles bored him—demonstrated tone-deafness to the cherished culture of the opinion journal.

A recent Daily Beast article by Lloyd Grove recounted how during the December 2014 crisis caused my the management changes a dozen editors and writers quit.

John Judis, one of the brand-name writers who quit the magazine amid the implosion of December 2014, wrote Monday on his Facebook page: “What’s a good saying that will allow me not to use clichés like ‘the chickens have come home to roost.’ Hughes, the first generation of Silicon nouveaux riches, didn’t know what he was doing when he bought a political magazine. He didn’t understand what a political magazine was. And now that he has gotten rid of all the original staff, blown away its readership, and tarnished a century of work by people dedicated to make the country better rather than making a profit for the already wealthy, he’s calling it quits.”

Much of this has been cast as traditionalists versus Silicone Valley, although I think that gives Hughes far too much credit. Hughes says that he was trying to find a viable business model, but maybe he just doesn’t know anything about business. The absolute disdain for Hughes is palpable. The headline on one New York Times post read, “When Restless Billionaires Trip on Their Toys.” From The Wall Street Journal:

Web traffic declined by more than 50% following the tumult, according to comScore Inc., and hasn’t risen much in the past year.

In November, the site attracted 2.3 million unique visitors, down 38% from the same month a year earlier.

In fact, the graph included with the article shows numbers that are far worse because November was higher than the previous months.

Ira Stoll, writing in the New York Sun, had an additional point, beyond the mismanagement, and why I’m writing about the subject myself:

But the bigger issue isn’t a collapse of circulation or advertising revenue or the publishing industry’s digital transformation. Underlying the New Republic’s difficulties is a broader and far more troubling collapse of the ideology — call it Cold War liberalism, or the center-right wing of the Democratic Party — that once animated the magazine.

What did the New Republic stand for? Under the long editorship of Martin Peretz, if the magazine stood for anything, it was the idea that Israel had reliable allies — and Islamic extremism had reliable enemies — among the American intellectual center-left elites. That certainty is now gone, as evidenced by, among other things, the paltry opposition in the Democratic Party to President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Senator Schumer and Rep. Nita Lowey of New York voted to block the deal, but theirs was a lonely stance.

Under Mr. Peretz, the New Republic editorialized in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, entertained doubts about the justice and efficacy of race-based affirmative action, supported American military intervention in Bosnia, published a devastating takedown of Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, and otherwise displayed an admirable independent-mindedness. It was a counterpoint to the blame-America-and-capitalism-first attitude of other left-of-center publications such as the Nation or Mother Jones. It wasn’t clear that Mr. Hughes was interested in pursuing that political agenda, or that, even if he was, there was an audience remaining for it.

At the current moment in our politics, the left is suffering from a lack of self-criticism. They seem to fallen into self-parody and they don’t even know it. The vacuum located where the center left used to be is huge and it’s palpable. Despite the noisiness of the far right, the center right is still there.

Ultimately, a magazine provides a service to its readers. No one reads a magazine because they like the platform. The New Republic under Hughes just became one more generic liberal magazine in a market already inundated with like-minded publications. I subscribed, not because I agreed with its positions all the time, but because it gave me something that I couldn’t get elsewhere.

I didn’t actually cancel my subscription, I just let it lapse.

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