Chris Hughes, once a new-media pioneer, makes bet on old media with New Republic
By Paul Farhi,
Chris Hughes’s first business venture worked out nicely. As a teenager, he helped start something called Facebook. Within four years, working mostly part-time, Hughes vaulted into the ranks of the stratospherically wealthy. He wasn’t quite 23 years old.
His second project met with a different kind of success. Hughes quit Facebook in early 2007 to work for a candidate named Barack Obama. Hughes developed and ran Obama’s social media operations. He was 24 when his boss won the White House.
For his third act, Chris Hughes, prince of the new media, has set his sights on the old media.
On March 9, readers of the venerable New Republic magazine were greeted by a brief essay by Hughes in which he introduced himself as the publication’s new owner and editor in chief. Hughes, who’d never run a magazine or been a journalist before, blandly promised to “aggressively adapt to the newest information technologies without sacrificing our commitment to serious journalism.”
The surprise purchase touched off a low-level buzz in the power and money corridors of Washington and New York. Why was Hughes, now 28, bothering with the New Republic, a magazine with a long and storied history but a dismal present and recent past?
In the magazine’s K Street offices, meanwhile, Hughes was greeted as a kind of liberator and savior. Given that the magazine’s ownership had changed hands four times over the preceding five years, staff members viewed him as a stabilizing force. The optimism has so far been rewarded: Hughes has added more pages to each issue, bulked up the editorial staff and improved the print magazine’s laggardly delivery time.
“We’re young again,” says an optimistic Leon Wieseltier, who has overseen the magazine’s back-of-the-book cultural coverage for three decades. Hughes, he says, “cares about books, about ideas, about the nature of the discourse. I have to tell you, it’s a spectacular relief. The pressures of the present moment in American journalism aren’t just economic; they’re intellectual, or rather anti-intellectual. I feel very confident in saying we’re not going to become quicker, fuzzier, faster. We’re reviving our old standards.”
In fact, Hughes himself has said little about his plans and goals (he declined to be interviewed for this story, pending a “relaunch” of the magazine in the fall). And even after three months, insiders remain a little puzzled by their dashing new publisher. Some wonder if the magazine is a sideline or a lifelong commitment for Hughes, a hobby or a crusade.
They know Hughes has money, brains and time. What they don’t know is whether he has an agenda.
As a kid growing up in Hickory, N.C. (population 41,469), Hughes seems to have known exactly what he wanted. He wanted to get out of Hickory, N.C. At 15, he applied to the exclusive Phillips Academy prep school in Andover, Mass., which came as a surprise to his parents, Ray, a sales manager for a paper company, and Brenda, a high-school math teacher. Hughes, an only child, won admission and attended the school with the help of a scholarship.
He quickly became an academic star at Andover, a WASP haven whose alumni include George H.W. and George W. Bush. Hughes won another scholarship, this one to Harvard. His sophomore-year suitemate in 2002 was a kid from the rival Phillips Exeter prep school, a computer-programming whiz named Mark Zuckerberg. Hughes, a history and literature major, didn’t have computer chops, but he was intrigued by the Web project Zuckerberg and two other classmates were developing. He offered suggestions. More important, he offered his personality. In contrast to the intense and focused Zuckerberg, Hughes was articulate and outgoing, and boyishly attractive. He was the group’s natural salesman and, eventually, its spokesman.
The project, of course, was “TheFacebook,” which grew from Zuckerberg and Hughes’s dorm room into an earth-straddling social-media colossus. Hughes would leave Facebook just a few months after graduating from Harvard in 2006. But his co-founding role, and several years of mostly part-time commitment to the company, earned him about 1 percent of its stock, a stake now worth an estimated $850 million.
He also left with a key connection. Before the elections of 2006, Reggie Love, personal aide to then-Sen. Obama, asked Hughes for help in setting up a Facebook page for his boss. A few months after leaving Facebook, he signed on to work as director of online organizing for Obama’s presidential campaign. His personal project was called MyBarackObama.com, which was incorporated into Obama’s site. Unique at the time, it was a kind of Facebook for Obama’s grass-roots organizers, canvassers and donors. MyBO, as it became known, helped raise $30 million for the campaign and engaged millions of Obama’s young supporters.
Since 2009, Hughes has sought a permanent place for his exploding Facebook wealth and an outlet for his progressive politics. First, he started a social network called Jumo, which aimed to do for charities and nonprofits “what Yelp did for restaurants,” as Hughes once put it. But the idea failed to gain traction and was merged into the like-minded Good media organization 10 months after its launch.
In the meantime, Hughes moved to an 80-acre estate in the Hudson River Valley with his boyfriend, Sean Eldridge. Since Obama’s election, the two men have raised their profiles as fundraisers and advocates of an array of causes: marriage equality (Eldridge was formerly political director of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry), a bipartisan effort at campaign finance reform in New York state, and the United Nations’ HIV prevention efforts in Africa, among others.
That Hughes and Eldridge are now among New York’s best-connected couples — the “A gays,” as one wag put it — was evident from the guest list at their wedding reception in New York on June 30. The reception at a posh Manhattan restaurant included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the actor Kal Penn, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), TV host Gayle King, Huffington Post publisher Arianna Huffington, and Zuckerberg.
An intriguing investment
In November, as he turned 28, Hughes got a call from Richard Just, the young editor of the New Republic magazine, who asked whether Hughes was interested in exploring an investment in the publication. He explained that the magazine’s ownership had whipsawed since 2007 among longtime owner Martin Peretz, the Canadian media company CanWest Global, and an investor group headed by New York investment banker Laurence Grafstein. The New Republic had never made money, but Just emphasized its storied history and considerable intellectual stature.
As it happened, Hughes was intrigued. As he later told the magazine’s editors and writers, he’d been a fan of “TNR” for several years; he’d read many of the back issues — a considerable commitment, given that the magazine’s first issue appeared in 1914. Hughes thought TNR was still a prestigious “platform” for liberalism, albeit an undercapitalized and increasingly threadbare one.
Just and Hughes began talking, and Just introduced him to Grafstein, the chairman of the magazine’s ownership group. They quickly came to an agreement. Hughes would control a majority of the magazine’s stock.
From both inside and outside the magazine, the reaction to the deal was surprise. Hughes wasn’t the first mega-wealthy individual to buy an ailing magazine (Michael Bloomberg, New York’s billionaire mayor, purchased BusinessWeek through his company, Bloomberg LLC, in 2009, and the late Sidney Harman bought Newsweek in 2010), but he was an unusual buyer nonetheless.
Why, some wondered, would a young man who made his name and fortune via social media want to own something that still came every two weeks in the mail?
The digital era, and the recession, have been especially unkind to magazines. The New Republic’s print circulation has been in near free-fall for more than a decade; it now stands at about 40,000, roughly one-third of what it was 15 years ago. Its online strategy has seemed uncertain, too. One of Hughes’s first acts was to tear down its pay wall, which had produced little revenue and left TNR.com far behind dynamic competitors such as the Atlantic magazine.
“There were times in the last few years when I worried whether we’d make it” to the magazine’s centennial year in 2014, says Wieseltier. But, he says, “I don’t worry now.”
Hughes plainly sees his new acquisition as a fixer-upper, and he has been willing to sink money into renovations. Among its new additions is Walter Kirn, the critic, essayist and author of the novel “Up in the Air,” which became the basis for the George Clooney movie.
Some at the New Republic say Hughes wants to transform the magazine from a brainy but narrow politics-and-arts magazine into a more general-interest title like the New Yorker. But others suggest the goal is more attitudinal — to combine the cheeky authority of the Economist with the intellectual heft of the New York Review of Books, which happen to be two of Hughes’s favorite reads.
“I don’t think he has any particular agenda politically or editorially, except to make us bigger, better and better read,” says Alec MacGillis, a staff writer. “My impression is he’s a true-believing liberal who genuinely worries about the state of the country and wants this to be a magazine that tackles the big questions.”
Adds MacGillis, “What I find impressive is that he’s so rooted for someone who is as young and absurdly fortunate as he is. He doesn’t seem to read some grand entrepreneurial narrative into his success.”
Despite the generally warm reception for Hughes, his tenure has thus far produced one unsettling development, at least within the magazine’s corridors. Staffers were shocked in May when Hughes fired Just as editor and replaced him with Franklin Foer, who had been TNR’s editor from 2006 to 2010.
Just, 32, was probably more surprised than anyone. Under his watch, TNR was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for general excellence in the “thought leader” category, a signal achievement, given the publication’s ragtag financial state. He’d also recruited Hughes to buy the publication. Indeed, when the sale was announced in March, Just confidently told the New York Times that Hughes “has assured me that I’m going to continue to run the editorial side of the magazine.”
Instead, Hughes replaced him with the man Just had succeeded as editor just 18 months earlier. (Just, now at the Daily Beast, declined to comment, as did Foer.)
Timothy Noah, a senior editor, calls Just’s firing “weird” in light of his role in bringing Hughes in. “I was very dismayed to see Richard fired,” says Noah, “and I was very happy to see Frank hired. The net result was perfect neutrality.”
Another writer, who asked not to be identified, called the change “totally jarring.” He notes “there was some sense that things were not going well between Chris and Richard. There was head-butting over covers. Chris was taking more interest in the day-to-day [editing] than Richard was comfortable with. I think Richard was very surprised that he’s no longer at the helm.”
Another staff member analyzed the firing this way: “I think Chris felt like Richard wasn’t thinking big enough or aggressive enough about the future of the magazine. . . . It didn’t help that their personalities didn’t mesh.”
The comment suggests the extent of Hughes’s involvement in his new enterprise. Hughes has been a hands-on presence. Staffers say he attends about half of the magazine’s editorial meetings, commuting from his estate in Garrison, N.Y., or his loft in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
Eric Alterman, a media critic at the Nation magazine, already sees some signs of change. In May, TNR published a sensitive and deeply reported feature on Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, entitled “The Visionary.” Such a piece, Alterman says, would have been unthinkable under Peretz, who was relentlessly anti-Palestinian. “The general tone of the magazine has been changed by the absence of Marty Peretz,” Alterman says.
Yet it’s still unclear where Hughes intends to steer the magazine.
“My sense about Chris is that he’s more interested in influence than power,” says Wieseltier. “He’s concerned about the vulgarization of political discourse. He’s interested in the arts and culture. He’s a man with values and with means. But I don’t think he wants to take over the world.”
Noah puts it a little differently: “He’s said all the right things, but I don’t know what the plan is. It’s probably evolving as we speak. I’m delighted we have some money behind us. . . . I’m delighted that his politics appear to be similar to my own. But I’d be lying if I said I knew what the grand plan is.”