It’s grim to watch a venerable publication get sliced up in the name of e-business platitudes. On Thursday, the top editors of The New Republic abruptly left, as owner Chris Hughes and his chief executive officer, Guy Vidra, announced a new vision for the century-old publication. Known for its in-depth political journalism and its long, expansive book reviews, TNR will be reimagined, according to Vidra’s memo, as a “vertically integrated digital media company” — whatever that means.
It means, at the least, publishing print magazines less frequently — 10 times a year, rather than 20. It means a bit of b-school rhetoric about “the beating heart of this brand” and disruption-chic bravado about “breaking [expletive].” It means moving TNR, among the Washington-est of Washington magazines, to New York. And it means, apparently, finding a whole new stable of writers and editors, because more than two dozen of the current ones quit on Friday.
The question isn’t whether the magazine needs to adapt to the Internet era. Of course it does. It’s whether Hughes understood what he was buying when he took over TNR in 2012 — and whether he understands what’s involved in converting a storied publication into something that it isn’t.
Consider one precedent for what Hughes is trying to do: Two years ago, Advance Publications sought to transform its newspaper in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, into a digital-first organization. (As it happens, I’ve worked both there and at TNR, in both cases long before the current troubles began.) In one stroke, Advance swept out dozens of staffers and announced a cutback from daily to thrice-weekly publication. The Picayune’s owners believed that, in an era of declining revenues and attrition across the newspaper industry, they were merely ripping off the Band-Aid rather than pulling it off slowly. Tellingly, Hughes sounded a similar note this week, saying in a statement that TNR had to “embrace the future or slide towards irrelevance, which is something I refuse to allow.”
But Advance didn’t think far enough ahead in New Orleans, a city where broadband adoption has been relatively slow. A new daily print competitor launched, forcing The Times-Picayune to rethink its new publishing schedule. The New Orleans Advocate hired away some of the Picayune’s most accomplished remaining staffers. Two years into its digital-forward experiment in the Crescent City, Advance finds itself in the middle of old-fashioned newspaper war.
Hughes’s plans for The New Republic seem, if anything, even more out of step with the history of the publication involved. Unlike newspapers, which used to enjoy comfortable margins, TNR has long required a wealthy patron more interested in prestige than revenue potential. (In the mid-’90s, when I was a lowly intern there, that was owner Martin Peretz.)
If the current owner wants to try a different strategy, that’s his call, of course. But with this week’s shift, Hughes risks converting The New Republic from a publication that doesn’t make money into one with no obvious reason for existing. Print media are ailing, but their future depends on how today’s would-be healers try to cure their patients. The range of possible treatments is broad — from stitching up minor wounds to switching out vital organs. But it’s folly to try to change the basic DNA.