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.”