There was a telling moment at the New Republic’s centennial celebration last month in the stately Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. New CEO Guy Vidra, recently appointed by owner (and Facebook co-founder) Chris Hughes, took the podium to discuss the magazine’s challenges and opportunities in a digital age, just as any modern-day media mogul would do. When he referenced the name of The New Republic’s top editor, however, he mispronounced it: “Frank FOY-er,” he said.
“That’s indicative of his familiarity and interest in Frank’s impact on the magazine, on the website,” says a TNR editorial staffer familiar with the disconnect between the magazine’s new leadership and Foer himself, who has served as editor since 2012, his second stint in the position.
This afternoon, a shower of memos sprung from New Republic e-mail accounts, announcing a significant shakeup, as first reported by Politico’s Dylan Byers: Foer was out as editor-in-chief, to be replaced by Gabriel Snyder of Bloomberg Media, and formerly editor of Atlantic Wire and Gawker. In his memo, Vidra wrote of his new top editor, “He is committed – as am I – to The New Republic’s mission of impact, influence and persuasion, but understands that fulfilling that mission in today’s media landscape requires new forms,” reads the memo. “He truly reflects the ‘straddle generation’ of journalists and editors who remain deeply rooted in the qualities of traditional journalism – having worked with brands such as the New York Observer and The Atlantic – but also understands what it takes to create content that will travel across all platforms. We believe he is the right person to help us to maintain the core DNA of The New Republic, while propelling us forward to the 21st century.”
In that same missive, Vidra announced that the frequency of the New Republic’s print edition would drop from 20 to 10 issues a year. In conjunction with the print reduction, Vidra promises something chilling: “[W]e will also be making some changes to staff structure. This is not a decision we make lightly, but we believe this restructuring is critical to the long-term success of the company.”
Are layoffs coming? Nobody knows. According to one internal source, there was chatter in the office of a mass departure, in large part because the staff was loyal to Foer. “Everyone loves Frank,” says the internal source. Staffers say that Foer found out about his ouster not from Hughes and Vidra but rather through the grapevine, as word of Snyder’s hiring seeped into his socio-professional network.
More big news in the memo: The New Republic’s New York arm is moving to “a newly re-designed, expanded office in New York’s Union Square. New York was the original home of The New Republic, and we’re thrilled to further expand our presence here.” (The D.C. office will remain put). And in case you haven’t heard, famed literary editor Leon Wieseltier is out in the purge.
A newish, tech-oriented New Republic in a sleek New York office won’t surprise staffers who’ve interacted with Vidra, a former general manager of Yahoo News and former head of business development at The Washington Post, since his announcement as the New Republic’s CEO in September. According to an informed source, Vidra introduced himself to the staff in a meeting where he spoke grandly of the digital imperatives of the magazine. What was absent from the session was any nod to the work of Foer. “There was no deference to Frank,” says a source.
Vidra’s insertion comes after some strategic shifting at the New Republic. In 2012, multimillionaire Hughes bought a majority stake in the magazine and determinedly set out to pound Washington with its relevance. He doubled the editorial staff of 15; he hired Foer; he opened a New York office; and he talked big: “I want everyone from Michael Bloomberg to Zadie Smith to Sheryl Sandberg to read The New Republic,” he told the New York Times.
Though Hughes had come from the world of technology, his magazine’s initial strategy came from the world of media. The staff build-out created separate and unequal fiefdoms of youngsters who toiled away primarily on NewRepublic.com and more experienced writers who did good, big pieces for the print edition (and which also did well on NewRepublic.com). The websters didn’t stick around: Lydia DePillis left the New Republic for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog; Noreen Malone left for New York Magazine; Molly Redden left for Mother Jones; Marc Tracy eventually left for the New York Times.
According to three sources, the Hughes regime realized in mid-2013 that it couldn’t sustain a great print magazine and a great web project at the same time. Its efforts to boost print subscriptions weren’t producing the dividends it needed, nor was it pulling in enough print advertising. So it started to pivot toward a more web-trafficky approach. For this tack, it grabbed the prolific Brian Beutler from Salon.com as well as Danny Vinik and Rebecca Leber, from ThinkProgress. As part of the turn towards webbiness, the New Republic started imitating others last June, launching QED, a boutique-y version of Wonkblog-Vox.com, FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot — you know, smart people explaining stuff with a bit of opinion thrown in.
The push toward a digital emphasis hit a new level with Vidra’s hiring. In a recent New York Times interview, Vidra touted a focus on storytelling approaches that “travel well” on the Internet. Seeking a bit more explanation on that topic, the Erik Wemple Blog last month received this explanation from Vidra:
Our aim is to find forms of storytelling that resonate with online audiences, not just to drive traffic, but to have readers engage deeply with The New Republic. Our long form journalism is one form of storytelling that readers consistently flock to. Pieces that challenge, provoke, and elevate the discourse perform extremely well online. For example, William Deresiewicz’s cover story on the Ivy League (our most read story of all time), Noam Scheiber’s cover story on Valerie Jarrett, and Franklin Foer’s cover story on Amazon are some of our most read articles this past month. A very relevant example of extending our storytelling into new formats that travel well online is our 100 Thinkers project. We brought 100 Thinkers to life on the web earlier this week after having our developers, designers and writers work collaboratively from ideation to execution. The results have been very positive with readers engaging deeply, spending a significant amount of time navigating through the microsite and sharing it broadly on Facebook and Twitter. While not a 5,000 word essay, it challenges our readers’ assumptions about the world and we’ll continue to experiment with storytelling forms like this.
Those are telling words, in hindsight. For one, Vidra cites as aspirational the work of a guy whose firing he just effected (Foer’s Amazon piece, that is). And for another, he lauds Scheiber’s excellent piece on Jarrett, titled “The Obama Whisperer: No one has understood Valerie Jarrett’s role, until now.” Had he cared to include other examples of that New Republic genre, he might have cited Alec MacGillis’s stunning September 2013 investigation of Bill Clinton aide Doug Band; MacGillis’s in-depth profile of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Jonathan Cohn’s investigation into “the barely regulated, unsafe business of looking after our children“; and a whole lot of Julia Ioffe reporting on Russia.
Those, and others like them, are the hallmarks of Foer’s second go-round at the New Republic. At the centennial gala, Foer and others, including Wieseltier, waxed grandiose about the New Republic’s history as a journal of ideas, of great debates, of concepts and “blah blah blah.” The celebration, the costs of which the New Republic wouldn’t divulge, offered as party gifts a large tome of great New Republic essays going back to its beginnings. The Erik Wemple Blog spent Thanksgiving break with the book and enjoyed the thinking of Walter Lippmann, Margaret Talbot, Wieseltier and many others. Indeed, the featured works align with the notion of an idea-centric New Republic.
Yet Foer in recent years has tacked away from pure thinkiness with his idea-investigative pieces — pieces that have clothed the publication in recent glory. The Jarrett piece, for instance, hopped all around social media, leaving the Erik Wemple Blog absolutely no choice but to open it up. Similar surges of interest around other deeply reported stuff had to delight Hughes. Wasn’t this precisely the stuff that a status-conscious vanity publisher wanted to generate? Yes, says one staffer: “He was totally into it. He was basking in the prestige he was getting from it. This is why it seemed like things were going to be fine.”
Now there’s concern that under this staff restructuring and continuing web pivot, such stories won’t be coming out too often: “It’s mystifying that he’s doing something that’s about to make him look deeply unserious,” says the staffer.
Perhaps Vidra and Snyder can thread “straddling” operation. We’ll have to wait and see. As they go about their business, they’ll be doing it without the guidance of Wieseltier, who by his own admission isn’t the most webby guy:
Leon says he doesn’t do Twitter but he loves you all.
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) December 4, 2014
Whether you call him the magazine’s conscience, its guiding light, its curmudgeon or much, much worse, one thing is clear: Wieseltier has been a constant at the New Republic, having served as literary editor since 1983. Upon Hughes’s accession as publisher, Wieseltier struck a tone of conciliation, sounding very hopeful of holding on to his longtime perch: “He has no interest in blogging, which, I have to say, sounded like Mozart to me,” said Wieseltier of Hughes to the New Yorker back in 2012. “In acquiring a new owner, the thing you worry about, it’s the continuities and the discontinuities—what will be continuous and what will be discontinuous. It’s pretty clear that the continuities here are going to be the essential ones. I’m really confident that that includes our politics.”
Those continuities held on Wieseltier on staff for a couple of years. Despite all the chatter about web vs. print and “thinky” vs. investigative, his departure is the big story here. After all, regular old editors commonly get tossed from their New Republic offices, while Wieseltier kept on writing, thinking, lecturing. And then a tech upstart booted a Washington institution.