When Chris Hughes bought a majority stake in the New Republic in 2012, it looked like the money-losing, century-old opinion journal might just have found a sugar daddy who would keep it subsidized for decades: Hughes was 28 at the time; he was really rich, having been a co-founder of Facebook; and he said the right things about the property. “Profit per se is not my motive. The reason I’m getting involved here is that I believe in the type of vigorous contextual journalism that we — we in general as a society — need,” Hughes told the New York Times.
Nope: The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Hughes is dumping the New Republic after a tumultuous tenure as owner. And the report quotes this bit of whining from Hughes sent to his staffers in a memo: “After investing a great deal of time, energy, and over $20 million, I have come to the conclusion that it is time for new leadership and vision at The New Republic. Although I do not have the silver bullet, a new owner should have the vision and commitment to carry on the traditions that make this place unique and give it a new mandate for a new century.”
Hey, Hughes: That owner was supposed to be you.
The news, at first blush, may appear shocking, as CNN media reporter Brian Stelter affixed a siren to his tweet about it:
Truth is, it is not surprising. A bit more than a year ago, the New Republic underwent a tumult triggered entirely by Hughes’s jitters. Hughes and then-freshly appointed chief executive Guy Vidra ousted top editor Franklin Foer in a palace coup powered by web gibberish. In naming Foer’s successor, Gabriel Snyder, Vidra wrote, “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.” Legendary New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier also left in the purge.
The hubbub generated more hubbub, as a great number of New Republic editorial staffers — accomplished names like Julia Ioffe, Alec MacGillis and several others — bolted following the Hughes-Vidra repositioning. They were fleeing from what had been an experiment in promise and hope. After Hughes took over the magazine, he invested in it, opening offices in New York, hiring top talent and otherwise acting the way a vanity publisher should act. The editorial staff responded by outperforming the archives, producing deep and occasionally investigative stories on topics such as Bill Clinton, Amazon and the day-care industry. To fete it all, Hughes even threw a lavish party in November 2014 at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in D.C. upon the magazine’s centennial.
It would have been understandable if Hughes had lost his nerve after a couple of decades. But this guy lost his nerve after a couple of years. The sense of defeat runs through his staff memo: “My aim is to place The New Republic in the hands of the most promising and dedicated potential steward,” wrote Hughes, in what sounds like a spasm of self-awareness: that he himself has been an unpromising and distracted steward.
So, good! Maybe someone who understands, for real, that the New Republic is a vanity project will come in and take over. And perhaps hire Foer for his third run as editor.