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.