Chris Hughes is history's greatest monster.
That's roughly the tone of the coverage dedicated to the youthful owner of The New Republic in the wake of his decision to part ways with the magazine's editor, Frank Foer, and its longtime literary critic, Leon Wieseltier. (Those resignations led to a mass resignation by much of the top staff at the magazine on Friday.)
Eulogies have been written for The New Republic. Hughes has been derided -- by both the ideological left and right -- as a clueless neophyte who has destroyed a once-great organization. (Cue Daniel Snyder comparisons.) Broader condemnations have been issued about the move toward so-called "click bait" and away from quality long-form journalism.
All of which raises the question (at least to me): Have we gone overboard in the "Chris Hughes is the worst person ever" sweepstakes? And, if so, why?
There's (almost) never one answer to a question like that. Here are my attempted answers -- and why they make sense (or don't).
(HUGE caveat before I go any further: I have met Frank Foer on a number of occasions and am a big fan of him and his "How Soccer Explains the World". I also know a bunch of the people who resigned Friday and admire their work. I have met Hughes once for maybe 15 seconds. I'm not sure any of that matters but just in case you cared, I said it.)
1. People like Frank. They don't like Hughes. The tendency is to make this whole thing a philosophical debate about the future of journalism. But, almost all high-minded fights are, at their root, about personal differences. Frank is a Washington institution whose ties to TNR go way back; it's why he was recruited by Hughes to return as the magazine's editor in 2012 after the Facebook co-founder bought it. Foer also possesses the sort of widely-roaming intellect that TNR prizes -- in its writers and its audience. Hughes, on the other hand, is eminently hate-able. The roommate of Mark Zuckerberg, Hughes is both very young (he's 31) and very rich ($935 million net worth in 2012). He also writes sentences like this: "I don’t share the unbridled, Panglossian optimism and casual disdain for established institutions and tradition of many technologists." Uh, what? Whether accurate or not, Hughes has allowed himself to be cast as the Montgomery Burns figure in all of this -- make sure to read Dana Milbank's takedown of him -- while Foer is characterized as the forever-altruistic Ned Flanders.
2. Hughes told the dirty secret of modern journalism. That secret? That it's, you know, a business. Here's Hughes in an op-ed he wrote for the Post on Monday:
I didn’t buy the New Republic to be the conservator of a small print magazine whose long-term influence and survival were at risk. I came to protect the future of the New Republic by creating a sustainable business so that our journalism, values and voice — the things that make us singular — could survive.
Reporters have long thought of themselves as much more closely aligned with artists than with accountants. What we do is for the public good. It's fundamentally different than an investment banker whose stated job is to make lots and lots of money. That was an easy high horse to ride during the glory days of newspapering when it seemed like every media company had a money-printing machine in its basement. But, the last decade -- at least -- has driven home the reality that, at root, journalism is a business like any other. The goal is, yes, to inform the public. But to do so without the public's input -- as judged by their reading habits and interests -- is a non-starter these days. Conversations about traffic -- the web kind, not the road kind -- are now part and parcel of how stories are judged. Success isn't solely traffic but traffic is how the journalism we all want to keep doing is financed. Hughes acknowledges that reality bluntly in his op-ed, meaning, presumably, he said much of the same over the past weeks and months as the debate over the future direction of TNR was happening internally.
Again, Hughes -- like everyone else in this situation -- is publicly positioning and trying to tweak perceptions. The idea of him as a benevolent and reluctant businessman trying to preserve what's great about TNR amid the resistance of a bunch of Don Quixote-like journalists and editors is a hell of a lot more appealing than the one currently out there.
3. Hughes is right about TNR's digital metabolism. Largely left out of the debate about what ring of hell Hughes should be relegated to is the idea that maybe he has correctly diagnosed what ails TNR -- and it's a lack of a commitment to the fast-moving world of politics and policy in the age of Twitter, BuzzFeed and every other site chasing these same ideas. Here's Philip Bump, who works at the Fix but previously worked at The Wire and was approached about a job by TNR, on his decision not to take the job:
One of the reasons I turned it down was that I didn't feel as though the offer matched where I was professionally. (How quickly our vanities grow.) But the larger reason I turned it down was because TNR just seemed to be really far behind on how the web worked, both in terms of content and structure. (This was during the period that titles overlapped with article cover art, which you may remember. One person I met suggested this was tricky to resolve.) So I said no.
Now, I never worked at TNR or was ever approached by them about a job. (Worth noting -- as Philip does in the above post: He worked for Gabriel Snyder at The Wire.) But I do think there is a tendency at media organizations with long histories -- the Washington Post very much included -- to fall back on the "well, we've always done things this way" argument. (Again, I am not privy to the internal debate at TNR. Rather this is a more generic thought about how long-standing media companies are handling radical change in the industry.) I can't count the number of times people have urged me to "stay in my lane" and keep The Fix exactly as it was when I started it a decade ago. But, my interests have changed -- and journalism has changed along with it. Writing solely about House races in this space no longer holds the appeal it once did for me; I love the fact that in one day we can run a quiz about do-nothing Congresses, a piece on why Ben Carson shouldn't run for president and two amazing charts that tell the story of the Obama economy. All of that ran in this space last Friday. None of it would have run five years ago. And I think the blog is better for it.
In the modern age of journalism, the specialist reporter/writer seems to me to be dying out. We all have to be able to write tweets, short posts, and long-form stories -- and everything in between. The New Yorker is, obviously, known for its long-form journalism but its website has adapted excellently to the web audience in recent years. BuzzFeed is, of course, known for its lists on cats that look like famous historical figures. But it has done tremendous in depth reporting including this recent piece about escaping a kidnapping attempt in Yemen and a remarkable look at gay football player Michael Sam.
It's a 'both/and' world. We as journalists need to write both big think pieces -- like this great Valerie Jarrett profile by Noam Scheiber or the work done by Alec MacGillis -- as well as short(ish) smart takes on things in the news. (Bloomberg's Dave Weigel does this better than anyone else.) That's not to say people at TNR weren't already doing that. But, the reporting in the aftermath of the magazine's implosion last week had lots of "we've always done things this way" quotes in it. That's dangerous for journalism.
In the end, everyone involved in all of this will be just fine. Frank remains a top-tier editor and writer (and soccer fan). The people who resigned in protest are, to a person, talented and well-regarded and I would be surprised if some already don't have new gigs lined up. Hughes will still be wealthy. Snyder will have a chance to build a media organization almost from scratch -- a rare chance.
And The New Republic -- perhaps not the same New Republic, but some New Republic -- will live on.