Chris Hughes, the multimillionaire owner of the New Republic, gathered the staff into a conference room in its sublet K Street offices. The space used to be occupied by a grain lobby, and photos of amber waves still adorned the walls.
Although the staff members had heard rumors, the news felt like a shock. Their top editor was gone; a new guy was coming in. This was May 2012. Richard Just, who had been with the publication for eight years and reportedly helped persuade Hughes to purchase the magazine, was to be replaced by Franklin Foer.
“It was almost Stalinist the way he did not mention Richard’s name once,” said Alec MacGillis, a former New Republic staff writer. “It was like he had been disappeared. . . . It should have sent off more of a warning sign.”
And yet, it didn’t. Hughes — armed with millions of dollars from co-founding Facebook — went on a hiring spree, courting big names in journalism and offering bigger paychecks. He moved the magazine into a glitzy new office, had the Web site completely redesigned, spoke confidently about pairing the intellectual curiosity of the magazine with a digital aesthetic, and was quickly dubbed a savior of the 100-year-old magazine and beloved by the staff.
Then, history repeated itself.
On Dec. 4, Hughes, 31, unceremoniously replaced Foer with Gabriel Snyder, a former editor at Gawker and the Atlantic Wire. The move came coupled with a memo from the recently hired chief executive, Guy Vidra, that claimed the era of TNR being considered just a magazine was over. It was now a “vertically integrated digital media company.”
This time, the staff members didn’t take it so well. They felt as though they had been lied to about the job security of their top editor and worried that the new leaders were poised to sacrifice the type of in-depth journalism the century-old institution had been known for in favor of something more clicky.
The move resulted in a walkout by many of Hughes’s employees and a series of online eulogies for TNR. More than just a gossipy tale for those living in the media bubble, this one captured national interest. The story had the perception of a fight between modernity and history, a young technology prince taking over an iconic left-of-center magazine with a modest but influential readership and then running it into the ground just weeks after Bill Clinton keynoted its 100th birthday party.
In the process, Hughes has garnered the type of ire usually reserved in journalism for a plagiarist or fabulist. But had you asked Hughes’s staff members just a couple of months ago what they thought of him, it would have been a different story.
“I would have raved about him,” said Jason Zengerle, a former staff writer who had been wooed back to TNR by Hughes after having left once. “I never had an owner who was so comfortable hanging out with the workers.”
With the mass departure, there are plenty of people willing to share opinions of Hughes, a man who has been painted not so much as malevolent as in over his head in his dismantling of TNR. A group of journalists this talented is also wont to find a perceived narrative arc in Hughes’s journey — sometimes falling into the role of armchair psychologist. With that in mind, the image of Hughes that comes forward now is that of a man torn between two identities: the intellectual, with libraries full of heavy tomes and houses decorated with dark leather furniture, and the Silicon Valley disrupter.
There was the part of Hughes that wanted to impress the cultural elites of Washington, the type of guy who would have House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on a wedding party guest list. And then there was the techy Hughes, hoping to fit in with the start-up crowd. While he could make a good claim for both groups, he never quite was of either.
“I noticed he had all this photography hanging everywhere, and I said something to him about it, that I liked it,” Julia Ioffe, a former TNR senior editor, recalled about his SoHo loft. “And he whispers conspiratorially, ‘It’s all from Art.com! I’m so cheap!’ ”
Hughes returned last week to work out of the now noticeably empty downtown office. When asked about how it felt for his former friends (albeit ones who worked for him) to be ripping him in the media, Hughes paused, gazed out the window and traced the ups and downs of a stock index with his finger.
“These are the people that I worked with and respect,” he said. “I really am sorry to see them go.”
In a half-hour interview, Hughes spoke guardedly about a situation that has taken a toll on him but one that he believes he and the magazine can come back from. When asked about whether he thought he could salvage some of his close relationships that had been frayed, he responded: “I’m happy to talk off the record about that.”
Hughes grew up the son of a paper salesman and a schoolteacher in Hickory, N.C. By his account, he didn’t really feel “in sync” with his town. (A friend of his told New York magazine that Hughes “hates where he’s from with a passion.”) So, he put “best high schools in America” into a search engine and went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., followed by Harvard University.
At Harvard, Hughes found himself rooming with Mark Zuckerberg. Never one of the programmers, Hughes became a co-founder of Facebook by serving as a sort of communications director (read: the socially adept member of the group) and ended up making somewhere around $600 million in the process.
A man with a complicated relationship with his past who has come into a vast sum of new money: More than one former employee compared him to Jay Gatsby. After purchasing the magazine, Hughes was introduced to the upper echelon of Washington society with a party thrown by David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic magazine. The guest list at the event at Bradley’s decadent Embassy Row home included Jack Lew, then-chief of staff to President Obama; Obama Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard; and NPR’s Steve Inskeep and Melissa Block.
“Everyone wanted to ask him questions about journalism,” Bradley said in an interview. “I think he would have done well to be a little modest about what he was getting into. But he spoke with sincerity, and we were impressed with that.”
As the owner and editor of TNR (roles he took on after working for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and starting a social network for charities called Jumo), Hughes aimed to project an aura of seriousness. MacGillis, who was a reporter at The Washington Post before working at TNR, remembers writing a cover story about Obama’s relationship with hedge fund managers. The cover, as MacGillis recalled, called hedge funders “crybabies,” a term that Hughes thought was too glib.
“He yanked it at the last second,” he said. “I’m pretty sure we had to chase the issues to the press.” There was no amount of content too small for Hughes to be involved in; he even had a hand in the official TNR tweets.
“He was so serious that I thought he would be okay,” MacGillis said. “It was like insurance that he wouldn’t flake out on us.”
The thinking in the newsroom went something like this: Hughes knew that he was perceived to be an accidental millionaire; this was his chance to show that he meant business. In addition to coming across as a stabilizing force in an unstable profession, people seemed to like Hughes. When he went out drinking with members of the TNR staff, which he would do on occasion, he would stay out as late as the rest of them.
One staffer remembers Hughes swinging by his apartment one day just to shoot the breeze.
“We talked about growing up, his relationship,” the staffer said. “He felt, until the last three months, like a legitimately good friend of mine. Like I could be fairly emotionally open with him.”
For Ioffe, who has expertise on Russia, the bonding took place much farther away. She became close with Hughes on a trip to Ukraine for a conference put on by the magazine in May.
“I remember being so impressed that he wanted to come out to Ukraine,” Ioffe said. “He was just so cool and down to earth. We’d get drunk and bum cigarettes off each other and just had fun.”
Ioffe said one moment stands out. A group of young journalists was spending the evening with Hughes on the roof of a Kiev hotel. And Hughes was feeling conflicted. He wanted to buy a bottle of booze for the group but was worried about how it would be perceived.
“He told me he wanted everyone to have fun but was worried people would see him as the crazy rich guy. He was agonizing over it,” she said. “I was so touched that he was trying this hard, and you know he did feel like one of us.”
Greg Veis, a former TNR executive editor, knew right away that he was going to like Hughes. The first time they met, Veis accidentally spilled water all over his new millionaire boss.
“He was totally cool with it,” Veis said.
But the staff learned that as quick as Hughes was to take to people, he could just as quickly tire of them, and that he was, as one person said, “really sensitive to slights either real or perceived.” Staffers recalled that Hughes had a way of avoiding eye contact when he was upset with someone. In the past few months, he wasn’t making a lot of eye contact.
“I think it is possible that Chris lost patience too early with his magazine and staff in Washington,” said Bradley, who has experience sticking out highs at lows at the helm of a media company. Bradley noted that when he bought the Atlantic, it was never about making money. And yet, losing money took a greater psychic toll on him than he expected.
Theories abound about what happened. Without fail, almost all of the former TNR staffers will bring up Sean Eldridge’s campaign for Congress. Eldridge, Hughes’s husband, ran a campaign filled with accusations of carpetbagging (the couple bought a house in the Hudson Valley district just before the race) and devoid of serious interviews. He lost to the Republican incumbent by 30 percentage points last month.
“The race was something out of his control, and he sort of tightened his grip on the thing he could control and overcorrected,” one TNR staffer posited about why there was a sudden change in management style.
“If Sean had won his campaign, I’d still be working at TNR,” another suggested.
Hughes said that this is absurd.
“This is like . . . okay, I’m on the record,” a visibly exasperated Hughes said in his office. “Nothing that happened has anything to do with the campaign.”
The change was in progress long before the election ended, Hughes said. Plus, he contended, his basic outlook about what TNR should be hasn’t shifted. He still cares about in-depth articles, he said, and he still cares about ideas. He just wants the company to evolve.
“We need to do the same type of journalism that we’ve been doing, full stop. We also have to make sure that it takes multiple forms.” He admits that he wishes he had had better communication with the staff, but he believes that, in the end, his actions will be louder than words.
“People are going to say what they’re going to say,” he said. “I think most people know that what we do over the next few months is going to be a lot more important than anything people say. . . . People say the New Republic is dead because it’s an easy headline. . . . We already have hundreds of résumés.”
At the start of 2014, the end of the year held such promise for Hughes. His husband could be elected to Congress, the magazine would celebrate its 100-year mark with an anniversary issue, and there would be a party fit for an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
But the year is coming to a close with Hughes and Eldridge beating back against the negativity.
In a meeting a day after the news broke, Hughes conference-called in to speak with the remaining staff. The news was still raw for the staffers and owner alike.
“I bought the New Republic 2