News Gatherers, Follow the Reporting!

When starting to write last night’s commentary on the upheaval at the New Republic, I sided firmly with the resigning staff. After all, they apparently stand firm for journalistic integrity and preserving an institution that reached a century’s publication in September. But the more I researched, the more obvious the wisdom changing the magazine’s editorial distribution approach and relocating to New York. I followed the reporting rather than personal preconceptions, or biases.

I started with headline: “Say Goodbye to the Old Republic”, choosing the above photo of stormtroopers snapped during Comic-Con 2014. I assumed that anyone who ever watched Star Wars—and who hasn’t—would get the hed and art combo. But midway through writing and research, which I often do simultaneously in one draft, the story shifted somewhere else. When finished writing, I changed headline to “Say Hello to the New Republic” and photo to Manhattan’s Soho district. After some deliberation about burying the lede, I tacked on an addition to the first paragraph: “which, by the way, is totally sensible”, referring to the “magazine’s massive makeover”. The top half remains as written, which I hope doesn’t confuse the reader or misshape the storytelling. 

Put Feelings Aside
As an aging journalist, coming from the print era but writing exclusively online since May 1999, my feelings flow first to the reporter working traditional tradecraft—that is original sourcing and mythical ideals of the lone muckraker uncovering wrongs in the public interest. But in first reviewing commentary from resigning New Republic staffers, I applied the “Who benefits?” question, which answer raised concerns.

If you are a news gatherer and don’t ask “Who benefits?” about everything, your reporting will go astray. New Republic layoffs were inevitable, based on statements from the magazine’s CEO, which surely meant some seasoned reporters clinging to certain ways of working and earning more money than the new “vertically integrated digital media company” would pay.

So I question motivations of at least some exiting, vocal staffers rallying support around the journalistic integrity flag, which benefits should be obvious. They’re right. Management is wrong. They crusade for tradition. Solidarity—a large group resigning in concert—cements righteous perceptions. But I see opportunistic behavior, even if some participants justify to themselves something else. Their future employment prospects are stronger exiting this way rather than being laid off.

The Genius works Magic
But the story here isn’t so simple. Chris Hughes, the magazine’s new owner, cannot be ignored for his social-engineering genius. If not for the mechanisms he put in place during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, Barrack Obama probably wouldn’t sit in the Oval Office today. When I pair what he accomplished for Facebook and the President against news consumption trends among Millennials, the New Republic’s new direction makes loads of sense. The demographic data collected by organizations like comScorePew, and PIRG, among others, are clear.

It was my research about Millennial habits, and New York emerging as the center for new media, that swayed the story’s direction. The reporting led me away from New Republic staffer solidarity to a realization about what the magazine needs to become if the mission remains being an independent liberal voice.

I will say again, and this is what successful new media organizations get that traditionalists don’t: Truth is not the 21st Century reporter’s primary objective. Obtaining and maintaining audience trust matters more than everything. New Republic has a trusted brand, but not necessarily the audience of influential liberals who are the emerging decision-makers shaping society.

We are Becoming a New Republic
The United States is a country deeply-divided around values and politics, something at least a decade-and-a-half of presidential and mid-term elections reveals. Millennials account for about one-quarter of the U.S. population, they are present in or moving into the workforce, and many share liberal values long espoused by the New Republic.

That makes the magazine’s title all the more fitting as the United States of America becomes a new republic. Like Baby Boomers, which population is equally as large, Millennials will imprint their values onto this society—and some already do so. The realignment is smart and sensible. To be determined: Details of the new strategy and whether or not the new New Republic succeeds. That’s an unfolding story.

Had I not followed the reporting, and stuck to preconceptions and biases about standing by my peers, last night’s post would have ended differently. Any news feature or story that starts out to prove a point, and sifts reporting to make it, is doomed to self-destruction. Having a hypothesis that the reporting supports or disproves is something much different. You go where the reporting leads, something sensible to me as a former science geek. Everything starts from a hypothesis. You collect data that proves or refutes it.

Fair disclosure: I didn’t directly contact resigning staffers or New Republic management. The public record of commentary is clear and consistent. If writing for more than my personal blog, I would reach out to all parties for comment. I wouldn’t expect any if just writing for my site, which doesn’t have broad audience, so I stuck to the public record and available research about news consumption and new media organizations like BuzzFeed and Vice.