Money can’t buy happiness. Nor, it seems, can it buy success in the news business. Chris Hughes, who made his fortune as a co-founder of Facebook, is putting the New Republic back on the block, essentially admitting defeat after buying the century-old magazine in 2012 with great ambition and optimism.
Hughes, still only 32, wrote in a staff 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.”
It’s not exactly stunning that a guy with Hughes’s background would grow impatient. At roughly the same point in the Facebook venture (about four years), he and Harvard roommate Mark Zuckerberg had already watched their digital baby grow into a $15 billion company. He’s used to quick results.
Hughes left Facebook at the four-year mark, in 2007, and joined the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama, serving as a social media strategist. Again, his work was an overnight sensation. Hughes’s social networking initiatives helped raise $30 million.
But at the New Republic, Hughes learned a lesson that Jeb Bush is learning in this year’s presidential race: Spending money is hardly a foolproof way to win people over, be they readers or voters. Just more than a year after a staff shakeup that uprooted the venerated center-left media outlet and led to mass resignations, Hughes is throwing in the towel altogether.
Come to think of it, the parallels between contemporary media and campaign politics are pretty striking. The New Republic is kind of like the Jeb Bush of the 2016 GOP primary, while outlets like BuzzFeed are the Donald Trump. The smart, serious establishment can gripe all it wants about the vapid flashiness of the competition, but everyone can see what people are gravitating to.
I’m not saying the next owner of the New Republic should turn it into BuzzFeed any more than I’m saying Jeb Bush should turn himself into Donald Trump. Neither would work. But the newcomers in media and politics clearly appeal to the way their audiences feel, not merely the way they think, and are reaping the benefits.
Maybe Hughes’s successor can figure out how to borrow some of that emotive power without sacrificing the New Republic’s legacy of in-depth journalism. It might take more than four years — which is fine, so long as the next owner is willing to stick it out longer than Hughes did.
Bush, on the other hand, doesn’t have nearly as much time. He's got about a month.