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….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. Our success is not guaranteed, but I think it’s critical to try. …If you really care about an institution and want to make it strong for the ages, you don’t walk out. You roll up your sleeves, you redouble your commitment to those ideals in a changing world, and you fight. This 100-year-old story is worth fighting for.
Eleven months later, Hughes has stopped fighting and is walking out:
I have some difficult news today: I have decided to put The New Republic up for sale. I bought this company nearly four years ago to ensure its survival and give it the financial runway to experiment with new business models in a time of immense change in media. 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….I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate. …The unanswered question for The New Republic remains: can it find a sustainable business model that will power its journalism in the decades to come?
I’m enough of a fan of the old TNR to try to defend Hughes a bit here:
- He plowed a lot of his money into TNR. If you combine the net worth of everyone snarking about Hughes online right now, that and a fiver will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
- Hughes’s new TNR did address some of the more problematic areas of TNR’s intellectual legacy and still made waves on occasion.
- Um …
Alas, much as I’d love to balance against the schadenfreude, it does not require a counterintuitive take to diagnose what happened. TNR’s traditional “business model” was simple. Starting with Willard Straight and proceeding through Marty Peretz, a cavalcade of wealthy owners have been, for a time, willing to bankroll the magazine’s significant achievements in unprofitability in return for the cachet it afforded in political, literary and academic circles. Eventually, however, losses accumulate, forcing TNR’s current patron to find a new one willing to shoulder the financial burden.
The problem this time around was that Hughes never bought into the money-for-cachet exchange. It seems he really thought he could break the cycle and produce something that could generate influence and affluence. Instead, according to Hughes’s interview with Vanity Fair, the losses accelerated. This was traditionally the point in the cycle when previous TNR owners cast about for a new benefactor to buy the magazine and assume the mantle of subsidizing its publication. Hughes charted a different course, bringing in Guy Vidra’s warmed-over gospel of disruption to shake things up. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Lukas Alpert, however, it didn’t work out as intended:
The acrimonious fallout from the mass exodus — which triggered numerous critical broadsides against Mr. Hughes penned by the magazine’s long roster of notable alumni — proved to be difficult to recover from.Web traffic declined by more than 50% following the tumult, according to comScore Inc., and hasn’t risen much in the last year. In November, the site attracted 2.3 million unique visitors, down 38% from the same month a year earlier.
So, essentially, Hughes’s efforts to deviate from TNR’s business model proved even more disastrous than TNR’s traditionally unprofitable modus operandi.
Whether the magazine can be resuscitated depends on whether Hughes can find a wealthy person willing to accept TNR alumnus Jonathan Chait’s non-business model:
Mr. Chait said that, to him, The New Republic was fundamentally not a business proposition. “A business is something that is trying to make money,” he said. “If you’re in a town and you’re trying to sell hamburgers, and everyone wants pizza, you’d switch to pizza. But The New Republic believes in hamburgers. We think you need hamburgers, and we will continue to make hamburgers and try and persuade you to eat them.”
The problem, as I noted last year, is that today’s class of benefactors is far more interested in return-on-investment than the traditional money-for-cachet exchange that TNR and its ilk affords. And we are now in an Ideas Industry where traditional contributors to TNR can find new and exciting ways to have impact. So any new TNR will have to cope with a world in which the suppliers of capital will be more demanding and the suppliers of words have a lot more options.