Unsolicited advice for New Republic owner Chris Hughes
For more than a century, rich guys who think they’re smarter than the rich guys who came before them have been buying money-losing publications under the impression that by spending more money than their deep-pocketed predecessors, they’ll turn the red ink black. This tradition, whose ranks include such modern vanity moguls as Mortimer Zuckerman (Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), Arthur L. Carter (Nation, New York Observer), Philip Anschutz (San Francisco Examiner, Weekly Standard), David Bradley (Atlantic, National Journal), Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg Businessweek), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), and Martin Peretz (New Republic), gained a new adherent about a year ago when Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder whose net worth currently bounces around in the vicinity of the half-billion mark, purchased the New Republic.
Since then, Hughes has followed the century-old script to a T, wheel-barreling a load of cash into the magazine, replacing the top editor with the former top editor, adding staff, opening a New York office, making plans to move his Washington staff to a nicer home, and ordering a makeover of both the magazine and website. This week, those redesigns debuted, with the magazine getting slicker and thicker, and the website receiving a sumptuous transformation that makes the competition look like they’re squatting on GeoCities sites.
Like the rich guys who have come before, Hughes has also set the goal of making the magazine profitable in “a couple years.” Making money is a wonderful ambition for the New Republic, which was losing about $3 million a year several years before Hughes began the current expansion, according to Martin Peretz’s ex-wife, Ann Peretz. Everybody should make money! But the ambition is more loony than it is wonderful. In today’s publishing environment it’s almost impossible for a journal of opinion or national general-interest magazine that’s not part of a larger magazine group that handles ad sales and back-office matters (e.g., Time Warner and Time; Condé Nast and the New Yorker and Vanity Fair) to maintain profitability.
Perhaps the Hughes Republic could turn a quarterly profit now and again if it were to ape the Atlantic and buttress the magazine’s content with tons of topical copy by inexpensive writers, enter the events racket, start a “digital consultancy,” and launch a business site. But as an experienced advice-giver to vanity moguls, I must warn Hughes against trodding this path, even though he’s committed himself to hosting events and already helped chair a New Republic panel.
When folks suggest that he must spend money to make money — that in order to staunch losses one must lose even more — make sure they can cite an analogous case in which the strategy worked. Hughes will be a lot happier running the New Republic as an expensive toy or a cheap millionaire’s hobby, and so will the world of journalism. Let’s say Hughes’ losses crest at $5 million a year. If anybody gives him any lip about it, he can quote from the scene in Citizen Kane, where Charles Foster Kane’s banker frets about the $1 million Kane is losing each year on the New York Inquirer. Replies Kane, “At the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in 60 years.”
Some vanity moguls purchase publications primarily to bask in their glory. Others, such as Zuckerman, burn their millions on their money-losing operations so they can win a TV talk show invitation. Hughes, who has yet to display any of the talents associated with journalism, has given himself the title of editor in chief (as did Peretz) and has been lugging his mug to any show that will have him. Here we see him on Up With Chris Hayes. Over here, more recently, on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, Morning Joe, This Week, The Situation Room and CBS This Morning. Even factoring in the medium’s low standards, Hughes says almost nothing interesting in these appearances: “The possibility of targeting particularly online right now is really incredible. … Technology is a really important piece of any democratic movement. … From my perspective, what I want to see us do is really keep the folks in the White House on their toes.” Even the speakers at the Aspen Ideas Festival spike the punch bowl with something before serving.
If you think I’m being unfair to Hughes — and don’t put it past me — read his introductory note to readers in the redesigned magazine, where he deploys the same, lifeless voice. “We believe that our new hyper-information age is thrilling, but not entirely satisfying,” he writes. “We hope to discern the hidden patterns, to connect the disparate facts, and to find the deeper meaning, a layer of understanding beyond the daily headlines.” This is a memo that every newspaper and magazine editor since the invention of the telegraph could have written. And has! Even Sidney Harman, rest his soul, entered the magazine business this way, assigning Newsweek‘s staff to a similar mission in 2010. “Our job is to contemplate the universe, and to reduce that complicated, frequently frightening arrangement, to a sublime expression, to make sense of it all, to connect the dots,” Harman told them. What the world really needs is a magazine that disconnects the dots.
Hughes further demonstrates his talent for mush-speak in the interview with President Barack Obama that he and New Republic Editor Franklin Foer recently conducted. It’s a friendly interview: Hughes, after all, worked on the 2008 Obama campaign, and the magazine largely supports the White House. But it’s poor form for any journalist, even those from partisan magazines, to unilaterally disarm in an interview with the president. Foer, to his credit, fungoes Obama with specific questions about guns and the culture of violence. But Hughes places his bland questions on a T-ball stand and hands Obama a fat wiffle bat to swing. “You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. … Do you feel that you’ve made headway on that?” Hughes asks. “Has your view on executive authority changed now that you’ve been president for four years? … I wonder if you can speak about how you personally, morally, wrestle with the ongoing violence [in Syria].” Maybe Hughes (and Foer) haven’t heard about drone warfare.
As long as Hughes spends his millions freely and hires wisely (as he has been), his journalistic deficiencies will probably leave the New Republic unmarred. But if he continues to insist on playing the role of journalist, a role that doesn’t take extraordinary skill or even years of experience to fake, he’d better start studying the part. Journalists hate phonies, they’re capable of great cruelty, and they’ll even mock the guy who signs their paycheck if they can get away with it behind his back. I’d hate to see Hughes get hurt. A millionaire who is keen on supporting journalism is a terrible thing to waste.
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PHOTO: Screenshot of Chris Hughes on ABC News.