Facebook co-founder to sell off the wreck of The New Republic

Nearly four years after he bought it and tried to convert it into his vision of a new-media publication, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has thrown in the towel on The New Republic. A mass walk-out in December 2014 exposed the deep divisions between the former center-left old guard and the progressive direction Hughes wanted to force, as well as the internal dissent over his decision to turn the magazine into an all-digital format. Now Hughes has put the 102-year-old publication back on the block, with its future even more in doubt:

The New Republic, the century-old magazine that was rocked a year ago by the mass exodus of its staff following an effort by its owner to make it more digitally focused, is being put up for sale.

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who purchased a majority stake in the struggling title in 2012, said in a staff memo Monday that he had underestimated “the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate,” and would seek to find a new owner.

“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,” the memo read. “Although I do not have the silver bullet, a new owner should have the vision and commitment to carry on the traditions that make this place unique and give it a new mandate for a new century.”

The WSJ notes that traffic cratered after the walkout in December 2014, but those metrics probably need a little more context:

Immediately following the tumult, the magazine’s Web traffic declined by more than 50%, 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.

It’s not unusual for web-based publications to see traffic fall off after an election year — especially one in which the target audience suffered a loss like progressives did in the midterms. Comparing one November in an election year — when electoral fever might hit its peak — to a November of an off year can be somewhat misleading.  The falloff here is pretty dramatic, though, much more than one would expect from mere electoral disillusionment. By November, it should have rebounded enough to come within a few percentage points to a mid-summer-of-2014 mean, but the WSJ’s report suggests that it hasn’t even come close.

In his statement to TNR staffers — those who are left, anyway — Hughes wants credit for the effort:

Over the past few years we have made good progress in reinvigorating this institution. Our readership has grown younger and more diverse, largely as a result of our digital strategy. Our journalism has been widely recognized as impactful, impassioned, and more relevant to our nation’s challenges than ever. As a business, we have launched a brand marketing studio called Novel, built a flexible and fast mobile website, and developed our own content management system. We have made it possible for The New Republic to survive and begin to flourish in its second century.

Yet 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. When I bought The New Republic, it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and I believed that an institution as old and important as it should survive and evolve in an era where its values were still relevant and needed. This place stands for some of the best and most important elements of liberalism: a belief in the role of government to correct free markets, in the power of representative democracy to hold the elite accountable, and in America’s responsibility to be a force for good in the world. These values have sustained and animated not just me, but this tireless and dedicated team over the past few years.

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? There are bright signs on the horizon: Vox, Vice, the Texas Tribune, Buzzfeed, ProPublica, and Mic embody a new generation of promising organizations — some for-profit, others non-profit — that have put serious, high-quality journalism at the core of their identities. The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other traditional outlets seem to have found business models that work for them. I hope that this institution will one day be part of that list. To get there The New Republic needs a new vision that only a new owner can bring.

Well, the financial model may be part of the problem, but a readership crisis isn’t caused by faulty financials. That comes from a lack of credibility. Even for conservatives, TNR used to matter as a measure of the center-left, a pulse-taking of the rational opposition. Hughes turned TNR into a slightly more pretentious Salon without the entertainment value, and in doing so made TNR utterly unimportant. The magazine lost its distinctiveness and simply faded into a larger crowd of paradigmatically undistinguishable voices.

The next owner has to figure out how to salvage TNR from the shoals onto which Hughes has sailed it. Whether that’s possible or not will depend in large part on the new ownership’s recognition of where Hughes went so badly wrong, and whether there is a market any longer for the center-left perspective in an environment where populism has become the driving political force on both sides of the aisle.

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