Confronting Digital Reality at The New Republic


All hell broke loose at The New Republic (TNR) in December 2014. It was almost comical-as long as you don't actually work there. There was a mass (and very public) exodus of editorial staff, complete with an open letter published on Robert Reich's Facebook page. Here is the gist of the letter: "The magazine's present owner and managers claim they are giving it new relevance while remaining true to its century-old mission. ... The New Republic cannot be merely a ‘brand.' It has never been and cannot be a ‘media company' that markets ‘content.'... It is not, or not primarily, a business. It is a voice, even a cause. It has lasted through numerous transformations of the ‘media landscape'-transformations that, far from rendering its work obsolete, have made that work ever more valuable."

The "present owner" is Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook. He took to The Washington Post to explain his side of the story. Hughes wrote, "If we wanted to chase traffic with listicles and slide shows, we would have. Instead, I have spent the last two and a half years supporting an institution whose mission I believe in and investing millions of dollars into its singular journalism so that it can continue to be influential and important."

Hughes' plans, according to TNR's CEO Guy Vidra, include turning the magazine into a "vertically integrated digital product." That level of jargon-y nonsense is enough to scare anyone right out the front door. However, even the crankiest, dustiest corners of my journalist's soul thinks the folks at TNR are overreacting.

This isn't about old media versus new media. This is about reality, something the open letter on Facebook seems a bit out of touch with. It concludes, "It is a sad irony that at this perilous moment, with a reactionary variant of conservatism in the ascendancy, liberalism's central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon. The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow."

A tad dramatic, don't you think? The New Yorker says no. George Packer writes, "I highly doubt that Hughes wanted this debacle. He didn't plan for a change at the top to expose the emptiness of his commitment to the hard work of journalism." But did it? Or did the staff members reveal their complete unwillingness to confront reality and make the necessary changes to ensure their beloved publication continues to be viable?

On TNR's site, Vidra wrote, in his own open letter, "Over the coming months we will add to our masthead and bring on a great and diverse set of writers and editors. We will also invest in product managers, engineers, designers, data visualization and multimedia editors. We will build a platform that lets us create unique and compelling experiences on our web site and on mobile platforms, as well as the means to reach audiences outside our walls."

Most journalists confronted the new reality of the digital world a long time ago. I would have thought that, by now, editors would understand that becoming a viable digital property doesn't mean becoming BuzzFeed. It doesn't have to mean listicles and slideshows of cat gifs.

That being said, it's hard to know what is actually going on inside TNR. It's even harder to know what general statements--such as this one from Vidra, "What will not change is our dedication to the ideals that underpin our institution--experimentation, opinion, argument, ideas, and quality."-mean until the new strategies are implemented. Who knows? Maybe the next time you head over to TNR looking for a takedown of Senator Mitch McConnell, you'll find a tiny hamster eating a burrito instead. But I wouldn't bet on it.

I would be on the look out for new mobile products, more multimedia experiences, and content--excuse me, journalism--that is more targeted and personalized. For many hallowed journalistic institutions, these techniques are already part of daily business.

"The New Republic is a kind of public trust. That is something all its previous owners and publishers understood and respected. The legacy has now been trashed, the trust violated." That's what the former TNR editors say, but it sounds to me as if they are lamenting the changing face of journalism--not just their own magazine. For too long, journalists have been removed from the business side of the industry--as they get smacked with that reality, tantrums will ensue, but it doesn't have to be the end.