Say Hello to the New Republic

The New Republic boggles the mind for what its changes represent: Large number of staff resignations as the publication relocates and transforms into something else. I can’t but think the defections make way for a new blood transfusion and clear out editorial cholesterol that could slow down the transition from the old New Republic to the new New Republic. How ironic that by quitting, the exiting editors enable the iconic magazine’s massive makeover, which, by the way, is totally sensible.

The story goes like this: Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, whose social media magic ignited Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign, purchased the New Republic in March 2012. Following foreshadowings, on Dec. 4, 2014, recently appointed CEO Guy Vidra announced the departures of editor-in-chief Frank Foer and long-time literary editor Leon Wieseltier. (Three decades!) Gabriel Snyder takes over the top editorial spot. 

But that’s not all! Vidra writes in a staff memo, cited by The Washington:

As we move forward under Gabriel’s leadership, we are re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company. Gabriel is ideally suited to bridge traditional journalism and digital media. He is committed—as am I—to The New Republic’s mission of impact, influence, and persuasion, but understands that fulfilling that mission in today’s media landscape requires new forms. He truly reflects the ‘straddle generation’ of journalists and editors who remain deeply rooted in the qualities of traditional journalism—having worked with brands such as the New York Observer and The Atlantic—but also understands what it takes to create content that will travel across all platforms. We believe he is the right person to help us to maintain the core DNA of The New Republic, while propelling us forward to the 21st century.

The “re-imaging” moves the century-old magazine to New York from Washington and reduces publication by about half to 10 issues. New media and old media values often don’t mix, and I’ve got to wonder what the exodus foretells about Vidra’s sentiments regarding “qualities of traditional journalism”.

There’s No Clash of Values
Julia Ioffe, now former senior editor, takes charge of the story for departing staff, posting yesterday to Facebook:

The narrative you’re going to see Chris and Guy put out there is that I and the rest of my colleagues who quit today were dinosaurs, who think that the Internet is scary and that BuzzFeed is a slur. Don’t believe them. The staff at TNR has always been faithful to the magazine’s founding mission to experiment, and nowhere have I been so encouraged to do so. There was no opposition in the editorial ranks to expanding TNR’s web presence, to innovating digitally. Many were even board for going monthly. We’re not afraid of change. We have always embraced it.

As for the health of long-form journalism, well, the pieces that often did the best online were the deeply reported, carefully edited and fact-checked, and beautifully written. Those were the pieces that got the most clicks.

The question on my mind: Is there really a clash of journalistic values here, or something else? My read, which of course could be misguided, is at, the top, managerial style rather than issues of journalistic integrity. Then there is the inevitable fallout; in the memo, Vidra writes: “Given the frequency reduction, we will also be making some changes to staff structure. This is not a decision we make lightly, but we believe this restructuring is critical to the long-term success of the company”. That’s a polite way of saying layoffs. If you’re going anyway, quitting first, in protest, takes the apparent moral high ground.

Ioffe stands lofty looking down on New Republic brass, tweeting: “TNR management says our leaving freed up some money—which is all they ever wanted”, referring to Wall Street Journal post “‘Cultural Disconnect'” Led to New Republic Resignations“, in which she is repeatedly quoted. Her tweet says more about what’s really going on than any values disputes, methinks. The news media loves to report about itself—narcism at its grandest—which provides a platform for quitters to be high-minded hitters.

Get a life! Change is inevitable. Pirañas are in the water stripping long-form, sourced, fact-checked journalism to aggregated synopses. But is change necessary? When Chris Hughes took over ownership, like others, I saw him as the magazine’s savior—the wealthy benefactor seeking to preserve the magazine’s unique voice for the sake of quality journalism even at financial loss.

Among the exiting contributors, David Greenberg writes in “What We Lost With the Loss of the New Republic” for Slate: “The problem with this line of argument is that ‘little magazines’ have always lost money, relying instead on the largesse of rich owners, whose combination of public-spiritedness and vanity has led them to sponsor high-quality journalism”. Who didn’t expect Hughes to br that public-spirited owner, before Vidra’s appointment foreshadowed something else? Greenberg observes:

Wiser ownership could have recognized that although little magazines must adapt to the digital age with strategies for reaching social media users and mobile phone readers, they will never be cash cows. They succeed through influence, not volume.

Yes, but influences whom? The question’s answer means everything.

New Direction Makes Sense
As I review commentary from within and without (much more than cited here), the narrative that emerges isn’t one of journalistic tradition, unless supporting the concept  intellectual publishing should’t be profitable. Hughes and Vidra seek profitability and visibility for the New Republic. Visibility is very much about audience and reaching it. Is the magazine’s future old liberals or young ones? If the latter, which makes a helluva lot of sense to me, the content must reach them where they are.

Social media is part of Chris Hughes’ DNA, not just Facebook but what he accomplished behind the scenes for Obama’s campaign. New York is the country’s new media hub. For example, BuzzFeed, Gawker, Quartz, Tumblr, and Vice Media are in the city or one of the boroughs. These all are successful and/or upcoming  media brands, particularly Millennials, who make up about one-quarter of the U.S. population. They tend to be liberal, too.

Writing for Harvard University’s NeimanLab, Ken Doctor lays out “The newsonomics of the millennial moment“, leading off:

The new wave of news sites all look like they do different things. Vox attracts those drawn to the populist wonkiness of explainer journalism. BuzzFeed entertains those attracted by its mix of addictive animal videos and a growing news report. Vice entrances with adventurous, less-filtered news video, while Fusion provides both irreverence and context on the news of the day. What they have in common is more important that what differentiates them: They all aim to get significant shares of the millennial market.

If New Republic wants to preserve its liberal voice, the magazine must transcend its audience. Millennials are liberalism’s future influencers. They largely don’t read magazines. Pew Research Journalism Project produces numerous reports that lay out Millennial news consumption habits—to many to review here. Think social and sharing and most certainly not print magazines.

“The younger millennials are the digital natives, a strange species first identified back in the last century. Now it’s out of high school, in college and in the workforce”, Doctor observes. “Digital natives don’t see much use in print, especially packaged news as stale as day-old bread”. He is absolutely right.

Hughes and Vidra likely have a much better sense what the New Republic must become to stay influential than the dozens of contributors and staffers severing relationship this week. New York is where the talent is, and the resignations opens up that pool of younger writers—presumably digital natives like Hughes who are more attuned to how Millennials consume editorial content.

Take a look at March 2014 Pew report “The Growth in Digital Reporting: What it Means for Journalism and News Consumers“. Consider who’s hiring, who they are hiring, and where. Vice employs 1,100, for example. From the report:

Increasingly, editors of digital natives say they are hiring younger staffers with better digital instincts and skills. ‘The training of traditional journalism is not perfectly suited to what digital audiences are looking to read’, says Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney.

To former New Republic staffers standing on their laurels, you can keep them—while the magazine takes New York, hires fresh in-touch talent, and focuses on what matters most: Building audience for the next 100 years not last Century’s aging readership.

Disclaimer: I rarely read the New Republic (although that could change); therefore, I am not emotionally-invested in the magazine and so, presumably, more impartial in my commentary. For whatever that’s worth.

Photo Credit: Maciek Lulko