The New Republic: Vertical integration, or horizontal disintegration?

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought The New Republic two years ago, promising to maintain its century-old tradition as a print magazine and thought leader for the center-Left. A few weeks ago, Hughes coughed up an impressive amount of cash for a big 100th-anniversary celebration for the Washington DC institution, at which former President Bill Clinton spoke. And this week, Hughes decided to cut ties with the magazine’s legacy by forcing out two senior editors, halving its publication schedule, and promising to make TNR into a full-fledged digital media company based in New York City rather than Washington DC.

Today, Hughes has to wonder whether he has a company left at all:

To get a sense of the scope of this stampede, I’ve highlighted the names of those exiting TNR from their masthead as of this morning (after importing the whole mess into Word), at least as of 11 am ET this morning. The blue highlights show the two senior departures, and the yellow shows the walkout that those terminations fueled:

tnr-masthead

It’s not a total walkout, but it may not be over yet, either:

https://twitter.com/DamonLinker/status/540865567654420480

Why the sudden rush for the exits? Try reading Guy Vidra’s “corporate word salad,” as Sonny Bunch called it yesterday:

https://twitter.com/alexmassie/status/540610606899167232/photo/1

What exactly does “vertically integrated digital media company” mean, anyway? Vertical integration usually means controlling the production arc from resource acquisition all the way through final sales. The new TNR will not be buying pulp mills to supply the paper for its declining number of issues and buying the newsstands to sell them — or in the case of digital, they won’t be buying pixels and serving them up over the Golden Mile over their own cables. Thanks to the exodus of contributing editors, they won’t even have much original reporting to verticalize, which the old TNR provided for almost a century before Hughes bought the company.

Politico’s Dylan Byers called it an “implosion” even before the walkout:

Still, the center of operations is moving to New York, and the widely held belief now is that Hughes plans to use TNR to chase clicks and web traffic, a la BuzzFeed, while sacrificing its reputable brand as a political and literary magazine.

“Assuming Chris really does plan to dumb it down in the name of clicks, what’s maddening is the way he has betrayed the premise on which he bought it. It’s like buying a historic Victorian mansion with the promise of preserving it — and then carving it into condos two years later,” one former longtime TNR staffer told POLITICO.

“I hope Chris realizes how much intellectual firepower he’s losing here — and how hard it is to fake intellectual substance,” the former staffer said. “It makes no sense to publish clickbait under the TNR name (again, if that’s really his plan), you might as well just build a new thing from scratch.”

It doesn’t take long for even highly-respected brands to lose their luster, of course. Coca-Cola realized this belatedly after New Coke and made the necessary adjustments, but if the above predictions come true, a better parallel might be Schlitz Beer. At one time, Schlitz was a major brand, but it couldn’t catch up to Miller and Budweiser/Busch. Instead of competing on quality, Schlitz decided to cut corners on its formula and process to save costs — and rendered the beer undrinkable if it sat in cans for anything longer than a few weeks. They switched back, but the experiment ruined the brand.

Lloyd Grove gets a little more personal at The Daily Beast, referring to Hughes as the “Facebook prince”:

Hughes’s and Vidra’s decision to abruptly change the 100-year-old journal of politics, policy, art and culture into what Hughes calls a “digital media company” and relocate to Manhattan–and in the process get rid of top editor Franklin Foer, who has run the magazine on and off since 2006, and literary editor Leon Wieseltier, a major figure at TNR since the early 1980s–has prompted what is expected to be a mass exodus by most if not all of the senior editors and writers.

“Leon said he’s never seen any editor be so disrespected and dicked around–I’m paraphrasing–as Frank has been treated for the last couple of months,” said senior editor Julia Ioffe, describing the meeting Thursday afternoon in the newsroom, at which Wieseltier and Foer announced that they’d quit.

The irony is that the end of TNR as we know it comes less than three weeks after the 30-year-old Hughes–who had the good fortune to have been Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate, and helped Zuckerberg launch the social networking behemoth–spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stage a gala Washington dinner celebrating the magazine’s 100th anniversary. Among the 400 attendees–who supped on “ribbons of beet-cured char,” “beef tenderloin [with] truffled potato crepes” and “apple pecan tart [with] warm bourbon-caramel sauce”–were keynote speaker Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Wynton Marsalis entertained. Vidra also gave a speech, talking mostly about himself, according to one attendee, and, in a brief mention of TNR’s editor, mispronouncing Foer as “foyer”–a gaffe that provoked gasps and laughter.

“That dinner was like the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones,” a TNR veteran told The Daily Beast.

Lizza followed up on that reference:

The Washington Free Beacon noticed a pattern emerging before the change of direction:

The names of several prominent Jewish writers from both the left and right of the political spectrum were dropped from TNR’s masthead in the latest issue.

They include: Daily Beast reporter Eli Lake, longtime TNR columnist James Kirchick, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, and onetime senior editor Lawrence Kaplan. Complicating the picture, former TNR editor Peter Beinart was also dropped from the masthead. Beinart is the publisher of Open Zion, an anti-Zionist Daily Beast blog sponsored by the New America Foundation.

Each of these writers had been well-respected longtime contributors to the magazine and frequently wrote about Israel and the Middle East.

The departure of those writers highlights the shift in editorial direction after Marty Peretz’ departure. Peretz was more of a classic liberal – more or less progressive on domestic policy, but hawkish on foreign policy and strongly pro-Israel. The Hughes era seems to have moved the needle to full progressivism, at least when it comes to staff.

Now, however, it’s mostly empty desks. TNR may struggle to get one print issue for sale, let alone ten a year, unless they find people willing to work under the new regime. The disapproval and anger of the old hands will hang over TNR for a considerable period of time, though, which will make those openings look somewhat less valuable to up-and-coming writers on the Left. So too will the perception that Hughes and Vidra want to “Buzzfeedify” TNR, although Sam Stein says that’s unfair — to Buzzfeed:

Joseph Weisenthal agrees, but also posits that any attempt to duplicate those models will fail in short order anyway:

Anyway, I think both views are somewhat wrong, and that any media company that thinks that Buzzfeed shows “it can be done” is likely to be disappointed.

Buzzfeed is in a relatively rare situation of being a publishing brand that’s enjoying a huge of attention, as a cool brand. Vice is kind of in the same league in that respect. Advertisers just really want to be associated with those guys. For most media companies that’s an unrealistic outcome, no matter how good they are at it. Publishers are rarely cool, and so while they might have traffic, for most outlets, it’s never going to be a phenomenal business where advertisers are desperate to have their name attached to you, because of who you are.

And in this case, Hughes just made TNR one of the least cool places on the Left side of the media. The walkout not only leaves TNR without much of a staff to produce content, it does real brand damage that one or two departures would be unable to accomplish. Hughes, however, hasn’t caught up with that reality, as departing senior editor Julia Ioffe reports:

Around half of the people who produce and manage content for TNR have walked out, and they’re not just well positioned, but “incredibly well positioned”? This sounds a bit like a Baghdad Bob moment, unless Hughes really wants to go full digital immediately. At least he won’t have to worry about expanding TNR’s office space again for a while.

Most of the commentary on this collapse has come from the interested parties on the Left, for good reason, as it impacts them much more than it does conservatives on line. However, TNR under Peretz at least was a good read for those who wanted to get a sense of where the reasonable minds across the aisle were wandering. They still produce good content, or at least they did until yesterday; the writers I follow at TNR were those departing today. If Hughes wants to make TNR a monolithically ideological site, I suspect that value will never re-emerge, and any new writers they hire will be much less interesting — even on the Left.

On the Right, Jim Geraghty offers an amusing conclusion:

For fans of TNR and its contributors, who feel like they’re watching a beloved institution with an unparalleled history and place in their lives get taken over by a bunch of irresponsible, arrogant, smug, habitually-dishonest radicals with more money than good sense, who don’t appreciate the institution’s tradition, greatness, or place in history, who are convinced they know best, who disregard all criticism, ignore all warning signs, and are running the place into the ground…

o-laugh

…millions of Americans know exactly how you feel.

Like Obama, Hughes can honestly claim to be transformational.