If you really care about an institution and want to make it strong for the ages, you don’t walk out.” – Chris Hughes, December 7, 2014
By now, every journalist should detect something menacing in the insistence that, when it comes to their vocation, business is business. After Sheldon Adelson and his family quietly took over the Las Vegas Review-Journal, working hard to keep their identity a secret—even from the paper’s own staff—they sent an emissary who warned the newsroom, “Newspapers are a business, and owners can do what they want with them.” Chris Hughes smirks rather than snarls, and he prefers the optimistic twaddle of the Silicon Valley press release to the blunt assertion of ownership prerogative. But he, too, has resorted to the language of business in the face of criticism. After his mismanagement prompted a massive talent exodus from The New Republic in late 2014, Hughes took to The Washington Post to criticize those who saw his magazine as “a ‘public trust’ and not a business,” insisting that “we owe it to ourselves and to this institution to aim to become a sustainable business and not position ourselves to rely on the largesse of an unpredictable few.” Scarcely a year after making this high-minded pronouncement, Hughes has grown bored. Yesterday, he announced that he is taking his unpredictable largesse elsewhere, as soon as he can find a new buyer. “After investing a great deal of time, energy, and over $20 million,” he wrote in a post on Medium, and not on his own publication’s site, “I have come to the conclusion that it is time for new leadership and vision at The New Republic.”
In fairness, four years is indeed “a great deal of time”—not for a century-old magazine, maybe, but certainly for Chris Hughes, who is 32 and somehow young for his age. His impatient exit befits a reign marked by demands for “snackable content” and the hiring of an ex-Daily Caller consultant who complained that he couldn’t read past the first 500 words of any article because the magazine was too boring. That Hughes has reversed himself should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to his erratic management of the magazine. He was affable and reassuring at first, eagerly emphasizing to the staff that he admired the magazine, prized its history, and saw himself as a steward. It was only after precipitating a staff revolt that he shifted tone, portraying himself as the herald of a new era at a stuffy old periodical badly in need of course correction and housecleaning. There were other signs too, subtler but still ominous: Early press materials from the Hughes era vacuously announced that “The New Republic covers politics, culture and big ideas from an unbiased and thought-provoking perspective.” As a description of the magazine, “unbiased” was simply wrong; The New Republic was the one of the paradigmatic opinion magazines in American politics, something anybody with Hughes’s professed love of the place would have known well. Nobody seemed to bat an eye at this historically illiterate description, whose diction suggests a publicist, not a journalist. Nor did anyone take notice when it abruptly and inexplicably changed to its current, contradictory wording: “For over 100 years, we have championed progressive ideas and challenged popular opinion.” I have a little firsthand knowledge of Hughes’s concern for image and tendency towards micromanagement. To think he had no involvement in these documents, which bear all the traces of his rhetorical style, strains credulity.
No matter. When he succeeds in finding a new buyer, Hughes will be relieved of feigning an interest in intellectual magazines. The tiny fraction of his fortune that was spent on TNR bought a splashy (but not very imaginative) print and web redesign, as well as luxurious new offices far outpacing what anybody who goes into journalism would expect. Enough remains to support his philanthropic pursuits and win the elite approval he craves.
It’s the rest of us who should be worried. An informed public needs both local newspapers and national opinion magazines; it needs both the Las Vegas Review-Journal and The New Republic. Historically, these kinds of publications have not faced identical economic pressures, but today both are facing pressures that make billionaire ownership seem more prudent than desperate. Sadly, experience shows that few of these would-be stewards are actually interested in being disinterested, which is what real stewardship requires. Professional journalists, whose best work is unlikely to be profitable, should be left to simply do their jobs without too much corruption from market pressure. Today’s billionaire owners can’t be relied upon to let this happen, whether due to partisan ambition or callow caprice. Of course, there’s a small chance that someone, or perhaps some institution, could step in to purchase The New Republic. If so, there will probably be less of the Adelsonian secrecy and veiled threats, and more cooing about long-form journalism and high-minded arguments. But—and for this, we should thank Chris Hughes—nobody will mistake their takeover for a solution.