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Inside the Collapse of the New Republic (newyorker.com)
140 points by GabrielF00 on Dec 13, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

There is something deeply tragicomic about Vidra's role in this. I know nothing about the man, and it would be too easy to disparage him on this basis of this report; one should presume that he has management and organizational skills well suited to an executive position, and one should not forget that he seems to have been completely hamstrung by the owner's ill-fated activism and engagement with the magazine, whatever his own faults might be.

That said, two items strike me. The first is that he comes across as stunningly tone deaf in this circumstance; unless I am reading pure calumny, it seems that he did not consider what a corrosive effect a jargon-heavy, non-committal communication style would have when dealing with people who were deeply, professionally engaged with the meaning of words. Nor does he seem to have understood that he was in a situation where he was starting with zero social credibility and would need to establish social credibility in order to do his job.

The second is that this was a situation in which he was facing the least fungible workers imaginable. All TNR had, besides the cheques for the current subscriptions, was the culture and society that had built up around it: most specifically that this particular small social network, consisting of these people, had as its central focus, source of wider status, and raison d'etre the writing down of words in exchange for money under the masthead of this particular little magazine. There are no factories, nor even inventories. There are no repositories of source code. There are no patents or significant intellectual property rights. The people he alienated were completely integral to the product he was undertaking to make profitable.

Sadly, I have seen this quite a bit already in my short time in the Valley - how do people get so caught up in the tech industry jargon that they forget how to interact with people? Even worse, this is what seems to be the heart of why management in general is so terrible in the area. True leaders are in short supply here.

The TNR was never profitable though and likely could never be given its current structure.

But I wonder why buy and gut TNR if you could have just started a separate endeavor. TNR isn't that strong of a name - it is just a name is relatively small circles of elitists.

Let's be blunt about it- Buying TNR was an attempt to buy status with the old school intellectual liberal elite. Which is completely valid as far as it goes.

The unimaginably bad mistake is to then screw around with it in a way that makes it no longer what he was trying to buy.

I think you hit the nail on the head with this. And it echoed the same approach he and his husband took for their political foray.

The article makes it sound like it was originally bought when the buyer was feeling successful. As the buyer started to feel less successful due to other circumstances in their life, they started to feel less comfortable with the idea of owning a print magazine that was losing money. Thus the idea of reinventing it to be profitable.

Excellent comment. I made an account just to say thanks for those great insights.

The magazine has almost always lost money

Magazines like The New Republic are effectively public-facing think tanks, and were never meant to be enterprises. Print journalism as a whole is going in that direction. Billionaires like Carlos Slim and Jeff Bezos will prop up the big papers, and multi-millionaires like Chris Hughes will prop up the little papers.

Hughes (bizarrely) confused himself with a businessman, and confused TNR with a business. No. It's always been a political mouthpiece. You're supposed to lose money.

You're not going to have much political influence ("travel") if you don't have readership.

TNR has been floundering for an ideological voice since the end of the Cold War, and took quite a few hits to its credibility under Peretz. Readership was down for a reason.

A sympathetic view would be that Hughes wanted to go for a technical solution - invest in TNR's digital presence - rather than completely purge the staff as Peretz did in the 1970s. Too bad the effect was the same.

When you had a Supreme Court justice (Ginsburg) in your readership, you had political influence.

The influence journals like TNR and The New Criterion once had were wholly unrelated to their tiny readership numbers and instead depended upon the fact that they were for a time considered required reading for much of the political and cultural elite.

Exactly: you are eager to lose money because you value the outcome in a different (non-monetary) way. Value is not necessarily convertible to dollars.

I think that's exactly it: the output is a complex web of societal effects, and thus does not translate easily into dollars. It is possible that money be extracted out of that output if you push it, but it comes at the expense of some part of that complexity that forever lies in a tug-of-war between authenticity and power.

> Hughes insisted that deep reporting and ideas would still be important to the magazine. “That’s not enough,” he added. “We also have to do videos. We also have to do interactive graphics. We also have to be increasingly smarter—we’ve already made good progress, but even more—about how we use social media.” The session finished abruptly with Hughes banging on the table and declaring, “This institution has been around for one hundred fucking years,” and promising that it wasn’t dead.

Ugh...as someone who worked as a developer in the news industry...I don't believe that fancy interactive graphics and video have a chance to save a text-based company. What is necessary for journalism companies to survive is not only good content, but good process...and if you have a staff accustomed to producing text pieces, you will not have the pipeline necessary to do the "cool" web stuff...And even if you did, those things would not save you, even when done competently.

Case in point: The New York Times produces visuals and interactives at a level that is the state-of-the-art; not just in the journalism industry, but in any industry. But there hasn't been much evidence that their groundbreaking work has made a significant impact in declining revenues.

As evidence, I point out that NYT's current strategy is to bet much more heavily on video, massively increasing its video production (and presumably, video-ad-producing) department. However, according to this Columbia University survey (http://videonow.towcenter.org/), not a single newspaper organization has yet made a profit off of video, and video has been part of news websites for almost a decade.

This is not to dismiss the talent at the Times...it's very possible, for example, that their web interactive group can produce dividends...but that will be because of a focus on developer process and digital strategy...not simply because they produced a few highly popular features.

That said, I'm not suggesting that if New Republic stuck to what they do now, that they'd make a profit. But as they say, jumping from the frying pan into the fryer is not really a survival strategy.

Just an anecdote, but I literally never watch video news online. I can consume information from text many times as fast, so watching a video just feels like slow motion. I doubt I'm alone in this.

I think the major reason for John Oliver's success is his ability to produce videos that are long enough to capture some of the insight of long-form text, with enough gags to meet today's attention spans.

Exactly. I LOVE his weekly (well, when he's on...) 15 or so minute examination/attack of an important political or social issue. I may not always agree, but I find I come away with a better understanding of an issue and a few good laughs.

Your're exactly right, of course.

The people making bets on video are MBAs trying to fit numbers into spreadsheets. The video "growth story" is a multiple expander for future earnings growth {blah blah blah}. But such is the sway of the ad/cpm based biz model.

The inefficiency of video is the alure...to the advertsiing people on Madison avenue. The emotional malleability and inertia of the video experience is arguably a much stronger context to insert a behaviour modifier. Because its less efficiency, you are more open to new ideas...the hyper-efficient mindset and instinct is turned off...etc.

I'm sure you know this, but its worth spelling out in context here.

And you don't have to put up with "anchor speak". I don't know or where these people pick it up, but I wish they would talk like normal human beings.

Agreed. I began to abandoned TV news entirely back in 2006, driven in part because of the (apparently universal) habit of leading and/or closing every story with a pun, idiom or catchphrase. At least when my eyes start to detect it in text, I can jump two lines down and spare myself the groan.

For me, auto starting a video in news item I want to read is an abandonment driver unless the link either had the word 'video' in the title or an icon that represented a video would be part of the story. 'Your video will begin momentarily...' - Oh no it won't.

I once added a reply to a news site to give my feedback on their use of videos and it was removed.

Even the New York Times have this weird discrepency between desktop and mobile articles, where the mobile articles just flat-out do not include some of the media and information of the full article.

I guess that frying pan should've been placed on a fire instead :p

>But there hasn't been much evidence that their groundbreaking work has made a significant impact in declining revenues.

Do people have the time or attention span to read anymore? For me I love the Economist, but I don't have the time to read it anymore. Thankfully they have an audio edition. I wonder if this might be the trick to get subscribers up.

The Economist audio edition is so well done and has been around for years. I'm surprised no other major publications have looked at it for inspiration. As a one time subscriber of the New Republic, an audio edition would have really had me thinking about subscribing again. I loved the long-form journalism, and it's better content than most podcasts I listen to while doing other things.

To me the most interesting parts were the ones where stories were buried on Hughes direction:

>Several months earlier, Noam Scheiber, a senior editor at the magazine, had started to report a story about Andreessen Horowitz, a major Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. It was slated to be a feature in T.N.R.’s hundredth-anniversary issue. But Hughes told Foer that he was scheduled to meet with Andreessen Horowitz about investing in another venture. Scheiber was reassigned to work on a profile of Valerie Jarrett. (Hughes denies that he gave orders to delay or cancel the Andreessen story.)

>“Chris seemed pretty pissed about Leon’s ‘Colbert’ appearance,” a staffer who is still at the magazine told me. “Editorial people were talking about how great Leon was, and Chris was angry that the first thing Leon said was what’s wrong with American culture is ‘too much digital.’ ”

>Hughes responded to the note six minutes later: “I think those are valid issues, although Apple has acted squarely within the law,” he wrote.

Most interesting and most telling.

It seems that Hughes was acting decidedly immature and selfish, and that led to many consequences in such a delicate culture. He had no idea how to lead it, or he just clashed with it too much—and he broke it.

It is a story about the importance of understanding and respecting internal culture, above all. It can be incredibly powerful if directed in a positive direction, but absolutely destructive if it's shaken. A lesson for all of us.

The article is a reminder that groups of people make decisions like primates, even the most intellectual people. The criticisms are purely subjective (slashes mine):

- "To some staffers, /it felt as if/ Hughes had sent Vidra to scare them into writing more, buzzier Web items"

- "Vidra made his first appearance...It was /just terrifying rhetoric/ about change without any substance to back it up."

However the author couldn't come up with any specific examples where Hughes or Vidra are unreasonable people:

- Hughes removed "Attack of the Crybabies:" from an article title "Why Hedge Fund Honchos Turned Against Obama” (Hughes was going for /less/ "buzzy").

- Foer wanted to make Amazon’s suspension of advertising public, but Hughes insisted that he not. (Again, Hughes is the one avoiding "buzziness")

- Hughes asks questions like, "Has anyone, including this article, said what they did was illegal?" (a reasonable question about objectivity)

- “The only compliment [Hughes] or [Vidra] ever said about a piece was that it ‘did well,’ or it ‘travelled well,’ ”

Just about the only useful takeaway from this article is: don't try to manage a politically sensitive situation by video conference.

I'm not sure if the question is if they're unreasonable people. I think it's more where they want to take the publication:

“vertically integrated digital-media company”


“We also have to do videos. We also have to do interactive graphics. We also have to be increasingly smarter ... about how we use social media.”

That's completely at odds with what the publication was, and with the reasons long term staffers worked for it. If I was working for a digital media company and it suddenly wanted to be a print only magazine, I'd look for work at another digital media company.

Or, if I'm a die hard low level C++ coder with a deep understanding of the language working at the same company for 20 years, and now suddenly that company wants me to write html templates and javascript glue code for web framework x.

> Just about the only useful takeaway from this article is: don't try to manage a politically sensitive situation by video conference.

More like don't expect your staff to stick around if you shift your company into something that they hold disdain for, have not much experience in and have no desire to have experience in.

A bunch of people leaving at once looks similar to groupthink, but in this case I think it's only correlation, not causation.

> However the author couldn't come up with any specific examples where Hughes or Vidra are unreasonable people

I would say the key point of the lines you quote isn't that they were unreasonable people, but that they catastrophically failed to understand the staff -- resulting in them being seen as unreasonable.

Though, there's plenty of specific examples -- most of the article, in fact -- of specific events that contributed to this feeling, and specific warnings that Hughes received that should not have made the mass exodus a surprise.

This is a fascinating look at someone royally fucking something up. Great read. Although, I'm not sure it was an unavoidable tragedy. The magazine has always lost money and to survive it must have rich patrons. It ran out of them and the only one left wanted to make it something it wasn't. If this hadn't happened it would have a slow death of starved cash flow. I'm not sure if that's better or worse.

I think I'm exactly the audience that TNR wants. I'm well-educated, make a good living, largely agree with them politically, enjoy long-form journalism, and am familiar with the brand and its history. Yet I don't think I would ever subscribe to TNR. I just see a magazine as something that's going to pile up in my house. I can read more than enough great content online for free. If I was going to subscribe to a magazine, I think that The New Yorker is a lot more interesting than The New Republic. If I was going to subscribe to two magazines, I might pick the Atlantic or another competitor over TNR. The media has largely portrayed this as Hughes carelessly destroying a renowned and vital institution. Hughes has certainly made some mistakes, but I wonder whether Foer and Wiesetlier were just letting the magazine gradually slide into irrelevance and inevitable death anyway. This is a magazine whose readership has dropped by half since 2000.

If Hughes doesn't want to subsidize a money-losing institution with a declining and aging readership, then isn't it his prerogative as an owner to shake things up? He may have gone about it the wrong way, but ultimately wouldn't the public be better off with a TNR that has an ability to support itself and thrive in the future?

No one's doubting his prerogative to shake things up (not even, by this report, the editors he forced out, who had no problem with the concept of digital initiatives per se). But the main reasons to buy an old magazine, instead of starting a new one, are to gain access to its staff and brand equity, and the results so far are that he flushed those assets down the toilet. It's completely fair to judge him on results.

I don't think that Foer and Wiesetlier "had no problem with the concept of digital initiatives per se". I think TNR had a view of the Internet's effect on culture as something to be defended against. For instance, TNR put out an article in October arguing that readers on the Internet shouldn't post their own book reviews: "I can see the value—maybe—for man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?!"[1] There are many quotes in the New Yorker article of TNR editors and writers sneering at "new media".

If the goal was to give the magazine some relevancy beyond its shrinking, aging, audience, I don't think that Foer and Wiesetlier were the right people for the job.


His job was to go about it the right way. It doesn't help anyone to write buggy code.

> If Hughes doesn't want to subsidize a money-losing institution with a declining and aging readership, then isn't it his prerogative as an owner to shake things up?

Sure, just as if he can't sell his particular ideas to his staff, its there prerogative to leave. Of course, if he has spent two years "cultivating" them and then is surprised when there is an exodus -- even after having been specifically told that that would be the result if the editor that he replaced left -- then clearly his work at "cultivating" his staff is pretty good.

And if he has that little understanding of what motivates a fairly small group of people he actively interacted with for an extended period of time, one might also wonder how good of a grasp he has of what motivates the audience he is seeking with TNR.

This struck me as odd management technique:

Hughes tried to contain the damage. As rumors of a second wave of departures circulated, Hughes and Snyder offered several members of the remaining editorial staff one- to two-thousand-dollar bonuses, and in an op-ed for the Washington Post Hughes tried to explain his vision for the magazine.

There are people to whom a two thousand dollar bonus would mean a lot and there are people considering quitting a professional job as a as a matter of principle or out of pique.

Only $2000?

> Only $2000?

Yeah, that was my reaction. I was kind of assuming a standard spat between head honchos until that.

Anyone that tone deaf is the primary problem. If someone is quitting, you're going to have to put major cash to reverse the decision. That kind of insulting response just causes even more people to eject.

> Only $2000?

When you consider that many outlets only play $200-1000 for a piece, $2000 is a lot of money. Journalism is not software development.

As someone not in the business of tech or journalism I'm left to wonder why Hughes didn't anticipate the editorial staff's reaction to Foer's firing.

Going out on a limb, is it possible that tech workers are more likely to go along with the whims of management, and journalists have more stake in their institutions? Or is it that due to the nature of their cultures tech workers have an intrinsic adaptability and journalists are stuck with inflexible traditions?

It seems to me that Hughes has surrounded himself with sycophants. This would also explain why he was so upset when his husband's political campaign ran into trouble. He was not used to the criticism. Hence his dismissive attitude toward the writing staff.

My hometown paper, the LA Times, also became a money losing proposition, and was sold by the impatient heirs of the founding family to Sam Zell, a Chicago billionaire who was also used to getting his way.

It went about the same way. The two low points that come to mind are Zell saying it was OK for employees to watch porn at work "because it is un-American not to like pussy," and calling a reporter a "motherfucker" to their face, from a podium, while addressing the staff.

Zell is coarser, and is on the right politically, but the essence of the story is the same. Asserting editorial control, thoughtless "disruption," buzzwords, resistance from the old guard of reporters, revolving door of editors, bad news via conference call, resignations.

Because of the way the deal was structured, Zell laughed all the way to the bank. I don't see that happening with Hughes and TNR.

The comment about it being okay to watch porn at work rang untrue to me, and I found a primary source that indicates a much milder story, that still itself was a myth: http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2008/02/words_of_chairman_...

Sam Zell visited the LA times newsroom, where he made the comments I quoted regarding "pussy."

Then, he went to the LA Times printing plant and made the comments I mentioned regarding watching porn: http://www.bulldogreporter.com/dailydog/article/turmoil-la-t... So I feel that my facts are not significantly different than the truth.

Also, reviewing the sources, he told the reporter -- a reporter from his own paper -- "fuck you" from the podium, rather than "motherfucker." That one was caught on video. There's much, much more on Zell; don't rule anything out by the ordinary sanity checks.

I find him a fascinating character. Utterly repellent, of course. He illustrates the emptiness of the rebel posture, when isolated from any sense of ethics or dignity. Did I mention that he's had The Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac, play at his birthday parties? It's that rock and roll rebel spirit ;-).

Whoever is responsible for it, the LAT's online presence is much better than it was 5 years ago. I don't know if it's working for them money-wise, but as a reader I've been happy with their direction.


Journalist here, survivor of several 'digital first' revolutions and now, officially, a 'content director' and glad to have a very good job. A couple of things:

1. A really good newsroom is really tight. Very few print-trained journalists are in it for the money, so the cause and comradeship are everything. A quick way to ruin a newsroom is to implement sweeping changes that have nothing to do with good storytelling (and also mean a lot of extra work). I've been through several of these reorganizations. In the worst, management delivers a master plan heavy on digital/social goals but then provides no tools or training. Essentially, somebody went to yet another publishing conference, heard the latest on why everyone's losing money, or what sort of digital results you need to hit the multiples the current VC owners want to flip their share ... Oh hell, this is too frustrating to relive.

Gist: By and large, print journos don't do digital. A good story is a good story, but the tools/skills are essentially different. It's like telling someone skilled with an epee she's going to have start breaking boards. Ordering an accomplished story teller to deliver a list and a quiz each week and promote them heavily across multiple social platforms, for example, is a mistake. You want clickbait, get a pro. You want video, get a pro--not GoPros and iMovie tips for the writers.

2. Of course, owners are absolutely expected to do what they think is best for a property. And outside of TNR alums and friends of recent staff, the reaction of journalists has been largely to shrug: Nothing new here, other than the duly noted wrongheadedness of trying to make TNR something it's never been. (There's also probably some jealously: TNR was a good gig.)

But this is what we all fear: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/12/charles-johns...

And this: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/12/01/if-you-cant-parody...

Frankly, he probably has more money than sense.

He funded his husband's congressional campaign against a republican in the New York Hudson Valley and was defeated handily, even after spending a ridiculous amount of cash. Hell, even the local NPR guy thought it was a not-so-great effort.

At a guess, Hughes is a businessman; he's used to dealing with people with economic motives. From the description, that magazine seems to be a primarily political institution; its staff were in it for the politics, not the money, which probably took Hughes by surprise.

Nobody with even a nodding acquaintance with The New Republic should have been surprised that its people weren't primarily in it for the money. TNR has been a money-losing proposition for most of its 100-year history. People write for it because of its reputation and audience, not because it pays the most per word.

> As someone not in the business of tech or journalism I'm left to wonder why Hughes didn't anticipate the editorial staff's reaction to Foer's firing.

Especially after he was pretty directly told by one of the senior editors about earlier appearances that Foer might be on the way out that "For a while there it seemed like Frank was leaving and us senior editors were like, I guess we’re leaving, too!"

I mean, there's one thing about missing subtle clues, and there's another about being hit over the head with a clue-by-four and still managing to be surprised.

Others share your surprise. From the piece: "Another said, “He was shocked. And I’m kind of shocked that he was shocked. He was trying to make sense of it all.”"

My reaction to all this on my blog, "The New Republic as a product": http://www.pixelmonkey.org/2014/12/13/the-new-republic-as-a-...

The resigning editors wrote: "It is a sad irony that [...] liberalism’s central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon. The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow."

Is it a doubt of anyone here that, in the web era, "liberalism's central journal" won't be a journal and won't be central? To remain relevant, TNR needs a growing and loyal digital audience. Because sooner or later, there won’t be any other kind for journalism and opinion.

The story reads like a great example of how a war-time leader will obliterate a team if he fails to integrate. Despite all the initial good karma between Hughes, Foer, and other editors, Hughes and the team clashed badly whenever Hughes' personal network risked damage due to TNR issues (e.g. the leak about Amazon pulling ads). The article seems to set SV culture at odds with TNR, but I think there's a much more basic explanation for the tragedy here: Hughes failed to integrate himself. The very fact that Hughes felt it necessary to conceal the search for Foer's replacement is a red flag that Hughes had no reason to ignore himself.

For a war-time leader to have a fighting chance, he'll need to integrate himself and leverage the existing culture (and product). Regardless of how much spin this article may cast, there's plenty of undeniable evidence that Hughes failed to integrate. Hughes brought this failure upon himself.

Hughes and is cronies seem like a bunch of disingenuous buffoons.

Near the end the article says something about how employees felt Hughes et al. were dishonest, and if the article's telling is accurate that certainly seems the case. Especially for Hughes to publicly praise Foer, give assurances that he will stay, and meanwhile be looking for a replacement for months does seem a bit slimey, though I guess people do this kind of thing all the time in business.

Not being a management expert I wonder how to handle that specific aspect better. One thing that comes to mind is to communicate your intentions well in advance and allow for a slow transition. Maybe that's naive and wouldn't have been possible, I don't know.

I expected a Star Wars-related news piece with that title.

"The Siliconian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in wireless gold, Crying Media Company Vertically Integrated! As all before them they willfully extirpated: The Back of the Book and the Front and the Middle, Until all that was left was digital piddle, And Thought and Word lay dead and cold."

This poem really is really depressing. I hope it's not our future?

I'll get down voted, or Hell flamed(I really hate this cliched way of speaking), but here goes; I'm all for progress, but I don't want to dumb down journalism so it fit's in a digital format. After reading that poem I started to think about the book A Brave New World, and odly enough I looked up how old someone needs to be if they want to be a US President--yea--I forgot.

One other thing has been on my mind after reading this article, and reading a lot if comments on HN over the years. I'll paraphrase because I'm old and lazy, 'Apple didn't break the law. They were required to maximize shareholders profits. I don't see a problem?' I've seen this line of thinking a lot. In my world, my father taught me, "Just because it's legal son--doesn't make it right!"

Maybe it's just me, but being Editor of a magazine like the New Republic requires a very special person--a little age and wisdom(not out of a college text book) seems like it would go a long way? Along with a long apprentiship that many Journalists were once required to endure?

Don't get me wrong, I value youth and believe a lot of entrenched men of authority should be put out to pasture, but when it to situations like what transpired at the New Republic--my butt twitches. I picture the new editor sending back stories with TLDR. Ugh-

You'd think neoliberals would welcome a little creative destruction.

I hope writers like Cohn, Beutler and Ioffe land on their feet, but I'm shedding no tears for TNR.

It's true, I'm mystified that TNR gets any respect at all. I've always equated them with neoconservative/hawkish Democrat ideology, lockstep allegiance to Israel, support for the invasion of Iraq etc etc. It's funny because when Marty Peretz bought it in the 70s he pretty much kicked everyone out. I don't know what politics Hughes has but here's hoping it's to the left of Peretz/Weiseltier.

Crap. I was expecting a good writeup about how Palpatine screwed things up.

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