Where Are The Sugar-Daddies Of Yore?

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 8 2014 @ 12:02pm


Chris Hughes wants to turn a profit:

At the heart of the conflict of the past few days is a divergent view on how the New Republic — and journalism more broadly — will survive. In one view, it is a “public trust” and not a business. It is something greater than a commercial enterprise, ineffable, an ideal that cannot be touched. Financially, it would be a charity. There is much experimentation in nonprofit journalism – ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are proving the model — and that may be the right path for certain institutions. At the New Republic, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to this institution to aim to become a sustainable business and not position ourselves to rely on the largesse of an unpredictable few. Our success is not guaranteed, but I think it’s critical to try.

This is relatively new in the history of persons of sugar. And I don’t think it’s because Hughes is somehow a different sort of mogul than those in days gone by, just that the incentives have shifted rather dramatically in a very short period of time. The truth is: when there were only a handful of magazines that had a monopoly on opinion journalism, owning one gave you a real cultural gate-keeper power. It was worth losing money for the huge gains in influence you received in return, the social status, access to the powerful and pursuit of a cause. You could shape the discourse around your pet causes, and alter and shape the debate in ways no one – outside the Kochs and liberal ad-buyers – now can. This was a bad thing in some respects – the debate about Israel, for example, was far less open and diverse than today – and a few men (and they were almost all men) really shouldn’t be able to wield that kind of influence in a democracy. But it also provided a way for great writing and sharp thinking to endure. As a simple formula, it worked. And owners were relatively happy.

Fast-forward to today and the benefits of owning TNR or the Atlantic or the Nation have all but evaporated. There is no incentive for cultural gate-keepers any more, because there are no gates to keep. Anyone with an Internet connection can reach a mass audience, and the power and prestige that once accrued to a publisher are thereby eviscerated. You end up where Hughes ended up: spending millions to fund ornery, if talented, writers, and wondering what’s in it for you. Sure, you get to interview the president once in a while. Maybe you can get Nancy Pelosi to come to your wedding. But, once that thrill is gone, what’s left … but a giant headache and a company that hemorrhages money?

In response to my hankering for the TNR of old, Dreher argues that there is “no way to be that kind of magazine today and make money. Maybe there never was”:

[W]hen people like Freddie de Boer, a true leftist, sneer from a left-wing perspective at the demise of TNR, I understand where he’s coming from and don’t begrudge him his opinion. But I think he shouldn’t be quite so confident, because the same dynamic that’s brought TNR down threatens all small magazines of opinion in this country. I would be surprised if any of us could pay our bills on subscriptions and ad sales alone. We depend on the generosity of donors — many of them wealthy and public-spirited — who believe that the work we do is important, even if it is not money-making.

Somebody said yesterday that TNR doesn’t need a better business model, it needs a better owner. Yes, exactly. I don’t know how many rich people are willing to subsidize a money-losing journalistic operation out of principle and for the common good, but we sure need to find them.

Chait makes related points in response to Ezra:

The odd thing about Klein’s column is that, other than this small disagreement about TNR’s character, I cannot find anything in it with which I disagree. He straightforwardly described the problem of highbrow magazines that serve a public-interest function and have always lost money. He proceeds from that accurate description straight to the conclusion in his headline — TNR must change — without explaining why. One could just as easily conclude that TNR will always lose money, and its value should be assessed in non-market terms and subsidized accordingly by a willing donor.

That unacknowledged leap of logic contains nearly all our disagreement. It seems to be rooted in a deep faith in the power of the free market when it comes to media. Klein has always been very explicit about his view that media functions that earn money are good …

That sort of market fundamentalism is largely associated with the political right. You can find traces of it on the center-left among the winners of the new media economy, like many otherwise-liberal winners of other sectors of the new economy. They implicitly associate success with virtue. They may understand that an institution like The New Republic creates externalities that are not captured through market value, but this factor does not intrude upon their model.

Yet the fact that TNR does not meet a market need does not mean it serves no purpose. The main thing it needed to change was its owner.

There is a middle ground, of course, and it seems to me that TNR’s staff were prepared to find it. A magazine that has no interest in paying its way becomes a sad vanity publication. But a magazine that can pay for the bulk of its operations but still needs some sugar-money to keep it afloat is a perfectly good model for a place whose standards and intellectual heft will never make it a mass publication. And it remains a good model. It’s just that few of the super-rich today really respect that model, or have even a crude interest in sustaining it.

(Image from The Federalist)