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Opinion Chris Hughes at the New Republic: A wasteful experiment in modern design

Chris Hughes in 2010. (Reuters/Adam Hunger)

As Chris Hughes prepares to unload the New Republic, he’s getting criticized for being a lame mogul and a metaphorical “small person,” among other things. Never let it be said, though, that he didn’t take great interest in the work environment of his colleagues. After the Facebook co-founder bought a majority stake in the famous Washington politics-and-literature journal in 2012, for instance, he outfitted it with a snazzy office on 9th Street NW, just around the corner from the Spy Museum.

A sleek, open newsroom layout, a stately library and other touches, though, weren’t quite enough. Under Hughes’s leadership, staffers gossiped about a proposal to commission a New York graffiti artist to paint an installation on one of the office’s blank walls. So the magazine that debated America’s place in the world and the role of government on poverty also squared off on interior design. According to sources familiar with the discussions, top editor Franklin Foer urged Hughes to keep office decor expenditures “within reason” because the salaries of many staffers were still modest. “I think Frank was very cognizant of that, and I don’t think Chris was cognizant of that,” said a source.

Score one for austerity: The graffiti didn’t happen; Washington-based employees at the New Republic would be doing their work in the absence of an edgy mural.

That Hughes never shelled out for wall art carries a grain of irony. Here’s a guy whose net worth was estimated in the neighborhood of $700 million upon purchasing the magazine; who took on a property that has always lost money; and who whined about his outlays when he recently announced that he was selling the magazine.

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“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,” wrote Hughes in a note to staffers that was also published on Medium.

What a reversal. Compare that capitulation to the sort of things Hughes was saying when he took control of the New Republic. “Profit per se is not my motive,” Hughes told the New York Times. “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.”

The clamber from proud, loss-sustaining media baron to guy worried about losses was a gradual one. Little more than a year ago, the magazine suffered through a leadership crisis precipitated by Hughes, who along with chief executive Guy Vidra forced Foer’s departure and handed the operation to former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder. Legendary literary editor Leon Wieseltier exited as well. Around that time, Hughes wrote in a Post op-ed, “At the New Republic, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to this institution to aim to become a sustainable business and not position ourselves to rely on the largesse of an unpredictable few.”

One man’s largesse, of course, is another man’s smallesse. Taking Hughes’s $20 million subsidy claim at face value, he covered about $5 million per year in losses. Longtime former owner Marty Peretz appears to have spent less to keep the magazine afloat. In 2011, the New York Times quoted Anne Peretz, Peretz’s ex-wife, explaining why they unloaded the magazine: “We just didn’t have the $3 million a year to spend any more,” she said. Vanity Fair has reported that prior to Hughes’s acquisition, the losses had shrunk to $1 million per year.

Those numbers contextualize Hughes’s complaint about his $20 million in losses. A good chunk of the red ink was discretionary, driven by Hughes’s insistence on sleekness and design perfection on all the New Republic platforms: Web, print, mobile and corner office. He loved consultants, too. Here are some of the less glorious expenses/projects that the New Republic incurred/organized under Hughes:

A quickie renovation: The magazine’s onetime space at 14th and K Streets NW, as former staffers tell the story, was drab and retro, nothing like the open Silicon Valley layouts that might appeal to a guy like Hughes. To make room for a large office fit for the boss, Hughes brought in a contractor to tumble a wall to create one big office where two smaller offices once stood. Next came a wooden desk, leather furnishings and other fine touches. Cheek-by-jowl with a bunch of ho-hum spaces, recalls a former employee, “his office was this Mecca of design.” Thing was, this renovation came not long before the magazine ditched the space for the 9th Street office.

Reaching “influencers”: In preparation for the relaunch of the New Republic, the magazine hired consultants from SKDKnickerbocker — a top Washington image-fashioning consultancy — to provide media training and media exposure and media whatever to Hughes and other New Republic staffers. Former Obama messagemeister Anita Dunn was a frequent presence in these consultations, according to former employees. The scope of work included assisting the New Republic with promotion strategies for print editions. The idea, recalls a former staffer, was to find a way to get the magazine into the hands of “influencers.”

A fresh look — twice: A new era cannot begin with an old design. According to a former staffer, Hughes initially brought on Pentagram, a Fifth Avenue design firm, to carry out the visual revitalization of the New Republic print product. Renowned designers Michael Bierut (a luminary, according to Wired) and Luke Hayman spearheaded the effort. Not to Hughes’s liking, however. After a while, he bagged Pentagram for another designer. “Pentagram (specifically our partners Luke Hayman and Michael Bierut) worked on this very early in the process but the redesign was ultimately carried out by another designer, Dirk Barnett,” writes a rep for Pentagram in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog.

One redesign wasn’t enough. In August 2015, the Hughes-owned New Republic re-reinvented itself:

Waste, waste, waste: The New Republic had antique roots in New York. Its original offices in 1914 were in the city, and it maintained a business office there in the 2000s.

The new owner of the New Republic, a New Yorker himself, resolved to revive this presence. Perhaps Hughes didn’t want to commute too much to the District. Former staffers told the Erik Wemple Blog that a central reason for the New York presence was recruiting. The D.C. office, they said, just wasn’t going to attract the web- and print-design talent needed to sustain a 21st-century New Republic.

Whatever the motivations, New Republic North started out at 60 Madison Ave. and later migrated to a wondrous space at Union Square. Photos of the place reveal sophisticated lighting schemes, appropriately placed books and other touches to encourage high-mindedness and blog posts. So confident was Hughes of the New Republic’s spot in New York that he signed a 10-year lease for the Union Square space. He also signed on to duplication. For example:

  • Teleconferencing. Ask any New Republic staffer about the magazine’s teleconferencing system, and prepare for groans. According to multiple sources, Hughes insisted on using state-of-the-art technology so that the New Yorkers and D.C.ers could meet really well. What a former staffer terms “massive flatscreen” monitors and state-of-the-art cameras suddenly appeared in conference rooms. Whatever efficiencies resulted from sleek video links, however, were dashed by setup time and the frustrations of making the thing work. “He wanted everything to be teleconferenced,” recalls a former staffer. “We’d spend 20 minutes each time to get it set up. … It was something that he was personally obsessed with and it infuriated him.” A reporter’s notebook in a conference room was designated for recording complaints about the system, according to three sources.
  • Retreats. Video links get you only so far. The long history of antagonism and back-biting between the Washington and New York operations of journalistic outfits requires face-to-face team-building exercises. Perhaps with that in mind, Hughes sent a squadron of New York staffers on a retreat to D.C. back in December 2013. They stayed at the Tabard Inn on N Street NW. They enjoyed a party at the residence of then-editor Frank Foer, after which a bus ferried them to Black Jack, a bar on 14th Street NW. And retreats tend to beget retreats: In 2014, the D.C. office trudged up to New York for more bridging efforts. More expenses for food, travel and lodging.
  • Miscellaneous lost productivity. Whenever an organization splinters geographically, communication gaps and other lapses cause operational problems. There is no evidence that Hughes hired a consultant to measure this strain on the New Republic.

Parties: Under Hughes, New Republic parties tended toward the lavish. The tweet below yields a feel for the setup for its 2013 White House Correspondents’ Association cocktail hour:

There was a relaunch party at downtown Italian restaurant Bibiana in January 2013, complete with fine drink and food and all kinds of clever branding ploys.

Since Hughes turned the New Republic into a two-city operation, though, he threw a corresponding fete in New York. It went down at his apartment, and the planning alone sucked resources. According to an internal email from the time, Hughes directed one of his colleagues to assemble a mini-facebook of the media reporters expected to attend the event:

As modern media celebrations go, however, the centennial New Republic dinner fete of November 2014 will sit at its own table. Hundreds of guests noshed on “ribbons of beet-cured char,” “beef tenderloin [with] truffled potato crepes” and “apple pecan tart [with] warm bourbon-caramel sauce.” Photos capture the event’s grandiosity:

Reader study and other consultants: Hughes’s New Republic worked with the Benenson Strategy Group to organize focus groups and produce a profile of the magazine’s readers, finding that few were women, many were men. Former staffers indicate that the study’s conclusions didn’t affect much. “As far as I could tell, it didn’t change anything,” recalls one. Other consultants addressed workflow issues for packaging a more glossy print product; Internet strategies; party planning. And more: The magazine contracted with Hard Candy Shell to create an elegant web design that would feature the magazine’s big, deeply reported pieces. Months after launching the thing, the magazine decided that a busier, more traffic-conscious approach would be preferable. So designers chiseled away at the original version.

Killer decals: Hughes liked the company’s nautically themed logo:

So oversized decals of the logo were pasted to key doors at the magazine’s Washington offices. After they were installed, Hughes decided he didn’t like the look, according to several sources.

The library: When the great mid-Atlantic earthquake of August 2011 rattled the District, New Republic staffers joked that literary editor and public intellectual Leon Wieseltier may well have succumbed to an avalanche of books in his over-volumed office. “I’m talking stacks and stacks of books,” recalls a former staffer.

When the magazine moved to its new offices by the Spy Museum, Wieseltier’s space was too small to accommodate his collection. The overflow seeped into a Hughes boondoggle: A library with leather furniture, lots of bookcases and little practical value. Asked about the space, Wieseltier responded, “There was such a library … I had an infinite number of books and they were all generously provided for.”

Consider those outlays against the expense-side heritage of the New Republic. Allen Chin, who formerly served as the magazine’s chief financial officer, had duties beyond balancing the books. “I would stock the soda machines,” said Chin when asked about his vending side gig. “That’s how it was when I was there … We did everything we could to invest as much as possible in the editorial product.”

Presented with a list of questionable expenditures, Hughes replied via spokesman Ben LaBolt, founding partner of the Incite Agency and a (quite gifted) spokesman for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign: “Chris made investments in The New Republic that made every effort to expand its readership, reach, and advertising base and build an attractive office culture,” wrote LaBolt, who didn’t respond to a question about the terms of his consulting work for Hughes. “Providing people with the technology needed to do their jobs and thinking through how to diversify its audience hardly seem like wasted investments.”

Oh, but they do. What Hughes has done is to manufacture an ever-more-unsustainable New Republic, one with a pricey New York City lease and employees carrying out the whims of a quasi-vanity publisher. Winnowing the publication back down to its nuts-and-bolts model will take more work, more severance pay, more unwanted publicity for a brand that Hughes has sullied with his own lack of commitment.

The best defense for Hughes stresses his work on behalf of good journalism. After taking over, he hired Foer to a second go-round as editor of the magazine, as well as several staffers to upgrade the copy, including Julia Ioffe, Walter Kirn, Nate Cohn, Greg Veis, Rebecca Traister, Lydia DePillis and others. As we’ve written before, the Foer era was very successful on the journalistic front, if two-and-a-half years constitutes an “era.” The magazine produced investigative pieces that sat on a simmer burner for weeks and even months, adding a new muscle for a publication that was chiefly in the business of proto-hot takes.

Sadly for Hughes, he can’t quite take credit for that period, considering that he upended it. A legion of New Republic talent followed Foer out the door in late 2014.

Early on in his tenure, Hughes dispatched an assistant to scan eBay for copies of long-ago editions of the New Republic. A closet at the magazine’s offices had a bunch of copies dating back a few decades, but Hughes wanted more antique specimens. The roundup effort secured a few dozen old copies at a cost of perhaps a few hundred dollars, recalls a source. In other words, just the sort of exercise you’d expect from a rich guy looking to undertake a lifetime commitment to his new magazine. The next owner, at least, will inherit an improved archive.