Commonweal & the New Republic

The big news in the world of opinion journalism—where Commonweal swims unobtrusively alongside much bigger fish (or sharks)—is last week’s mass resignations at the New Republic, long the flagship intellectual journal of American liberalism. First the editor, Franklin Foer, and TNR’s longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier, resigned. The next day, in a very impressive act of suttee, most of the senior editorial staff and virtually all of the magazine’s well-known contributing editors threw themselves onto the pyre. I’ve been a journalist for more than thirty years, and that sort of personal and professional loyalty (Commonweal excepted!) is about as common as a typo-free newspaper (or magazine). Or a money-making journal of opinion.  

Foer obviously was a much beloved and respected boss, and Wieseltier, who had edited the back of the book for more than thirty years, was an intimidating figure, a notorious champion of both critical seriousness and critical severity when it came to book reviewing and literary journalism. He is also a terrific writer, and a fierce polemicist, in his own right. I, for one, have always felt compelled to read just about anything he writes, especially if I’m inclined to disagree with him. In recent years he has written scathingly about the shallow and trivial nature of much of the “journalism” found online, and about the dangers the relentless demand for “content” presents to reasoned political debate, literary standards, and our public culture. Amen, I say.    

So it is not much of a surprise to learn that the implosion of the New Republic was caused by a fundamental disagreement over the digital direction in which the magazine’s new owner, multi-millionaire Chris Hughes, was taking the venerable magazine. A little surprising is that the upheaval occurred just a few weeks after TNR celebrated its hundredth birthday with a big gala in Washington, D.C. The principal speaker was Bill Clinton. (He’s no George Mitchell, but still a pretty big deal.) News reports suggest that the antagonism between ownership and editorial staff was barely concealed during the dinner. Ouch. How awkward to announce a divorce right after an anniversary party.

The thirty-one-year-old Hughes, who made his fortune as a college roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, bought the magazine in 2012, and has spent millions upgrading its digital presence and reorienting and redesigning the print magazine. One of his first steps was to do away with editorials, which should have sent a clear signal about the value the new owner placed on the historical weight of the New Republic’s “voice.” More recently, it was announced that the magazine would cut the number of issues from twenty to ten a year, and that TNR was no longer a magazine, but a “vertically integrated digital media company.” At the same time, Hughes hired a more web savvy replacement for Foer. He did not tell Foer he was being ousted. Whatever an integrated digital media company is, it does not appear to be very good at actual communication.

 

Right now, the New Republic is an integrated digital media company without much of a staff. Even in the digital age, one needs a staff to put out a “product,” and the issue slated to hit newsstands December 15 has been cancelled. Not many people in political or cultural journalism are wishing it good luck and Godspeed. In repositioning a magazine like the New Republic in the cannibalistic digital world, it is crucial to hold onto its traditional audience as you broaden the magazine’s reach. After last week, it is safe to say that the magazine’s loyal readers are running for the exits while the identity of its prospective “pageviewers” remains unidentified. As former TNR staffer and current New York Magazine blogger Jonathan Chait has written, if Hughes wanted a vertically integrated digital media company, he should have started one instead of purchasing, and then gutting, a storied institution like the New Republic.        

Everyone knows that the future of print magazines, let alone small circulation journals like the New Republic and Commonweal, is precarious. Commonweal was, in fact, established as a Catholic answer to the more secular influence of the New Republic and the Nation. “Little” magazines have always depended on the financial kindness of friends, and sometimes even strangers. The situation is even dicier today. Internet readers simply do not identify with particular magazines the way older readers used to. Those raised on the internet tend to jump from website to website, with little regard for who is paying for the so-called content. Actually taking out a subscription to a magazine is becoming something of an antiquarian hobby. Increasingly, magazines that strive to offer journalism that is well written (and well edited) and carefully argued must generate revenue in other ways. Commonweal has had some success in that regard, but we must do more.

Money, however, is not the only, or even the principal, problem. The New Republic has all the money in the world and still can’t figure out how it should make its way from the past to the future. One thing is clear, however. Trying to turn a journal like the New Republic into a money-making operation is hubris of a rare technocratic kind. Many valuable, even essential, cultural institutions never make a dime. Never making a dime, in fact, gives them their singular character and perspective. That outside perspective is desperately needed in our money-mad age. If such enterprises are to be supported, and cherished, it will have to be for reasons that transcend the marketplace and even the seemingly unappeasable demands of the digital age.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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