TNR RIP

Well, one thing you could always say about TNR. It has always done drama really well – and this morning’s editorial meeting could probably have been written by Aaron Sorkin. The mass resignations – nine of the twelve editors are out – are effectively the end of TNR. What will emerge in the future will be another new media start-up with close to no continuity with its recent or distant past. It’s as if the owner wanted to kill it, and the staff decided to commit pre-emptive suicide instead. Lloyd Grove provides lots of inside quotes, while portraying Chris Hughes as King Joffrey:

The New Republic was always a small political magazine that was trying to change the world,” said senior editor John Judis, who was trying to figure out late Thursday night if he could continue to work for the magazine. “My impression of what happened is Hughes and Vidra have decided to transform the magazine into a profit-making media center that is entirely different from what the magazine historically has been and what it has represented and entirely different from what The New Republic has been at its core–and this has led to this cataclysm where Frank and Leon have both left. I liked the old New Republic. I thought it had a really important role to play in America and I’m sorry if it’s no longer going to play that role.”

According to Lizza’s above tweet, Judis is among the second wave of resignations. Ezra puts TNR’s troubles in context:

Behind this fight is a deeper tension in digital journalism: the pressure for convergence is strong. We feel it at Vox, and sometimes give into it. It’s easy to see which stories are resonating with readers. It’s obvious that John Oliver videos do big numbers. And that’s fine. Right now, almost all successful digital publications are partially built on internet best practices and partially built on that publication’s particular obsessions, ideas, and attitude. Digital publications need to be smart about their mix of what everyone else does and what no one else does.

But what made the New Republic and its peer policy magazines so great was how restlessly, relentlessly idiosyncratic they were — that’s how they drove new ideologies and new ideas to the fore. They were worse at covering policy than their digital successors, but probably better at thinking. Part of this was because they simply cared less what the audience thought — they saw their role as telling their audience what to think, and they expected a readership in the low six or high five figures, not the mid-eight figures.

And isn’t there a place for just that – for a group of writers and thinkers to put out a publication that doesn’t seek to maximize pageviews or generate profits, but which dares to believe it has something to say, a point of view to fight over, and just gets on with it and hopes for the best? That was the formula we followed in the decade I worked there as editor and before. If you build it, they will come … and when I left it, we had over 100,000 subscribers. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a million, or even 105,000. They were the right 100,000 – and built a shared community of ideas and a heritage to fight over. That’s what’s missing in this era of pageviews and clickbait and sponsored content: a self-confident team that, at some level, doesn’t give a shit what others or even readers believe, as long as the debate itself is rigorous, fair, open and reasoned. I remember Michael Lewis throwing back his head and giving that barking laugh of his as he marveled: ‘The is the first magazine I’ve ever been a part of that never asks what its readers want.” Where is that kind of publication now?

Yes, the era in which a handful of magazines were the effective gate-keepers for an entire national conversation is gone – and that is a good thing for the discourse and for the democracy. But only if what TNR did can be replicated in the new era. Josh Marshall notes that the “key is that 30 years ago, if you wanted to read meaty, smart and incisive writing about politics, policy and the political culture of the United States – written for people who were really into those things – there just were not many places to find it”:

TNR was also really good. Sometimes better than others, sometimes fantastic, other times pretty terrible. With the digital revolution, though, even if TNR were just as good as it had ever been there was just an avalanche of stuff out there that was a lot like it. And that made a huge, perhaps finally fatal, difference.

I’m not here to bewail what happened today. Maybe it’s a travesty; maybe it’s bowing to the inevitable; or maybe it’s a great thing. I’ve met Chris Hughes a couple times and enjoyed talking with him immensely. I’ve known Frank Foer quite well for at least 15 years. I may say more about these things and these guys later. But for now it’s simply worth saying that the changes Guy Vidra plans to make – with Hughes’ full backing – almost certainly mean the end of The New Republic as we’ve known it, as anything like how we’ve known it, for 100 years.

And what will replace it? Think of Vox, a young media start-up for the policy left and beyond. It has many skilled writers, has swift and shrewd pieces, and does indeed “explain” and add context to many news stories. For all those reasons, it’s a great addition to the discourse. But it is also, like most other new media outfits,  an ad agency, in which sponsored content revenues are now the alternative to a rich benefactor. Is that really much better? Does a magazine full of bloviating corporate p.r. campaigns made to look as indistinguishable from editorial as possible have a better chance at changing people’s minds and changing the broader culture than the earlier model? Do you get any sense from Vox that its editors are actually struggling to figure out the world, that there are battle-lines over policy and politics, that high culture and low culture are critical complements to a nothing-but-politics-and-policy view of the world? Say what you like about Marty Peretz – but there was more diversity of thought in one issue of TNR than there has been in one year of Vox. That’s what I’ll miss. Along with the contrarian refusal to go along with the latest left-liberal fad, or to cover for Democrats in office, for fear of giving “the other side” ammunition.

Ben Domenech sees the news as illustrating the danger “of being at a publication which is little more than a rich person’s hood ornament”:

Within the media experience, it’s always nice to have money. Being lean and frisky is all well and good, but who doesn’t want some rich backer to make everything easier, to fund the acquisition of big name talents, and eliminate the need to chase investors or respond to the whims of the marketplace? (Finally, we can get into video!) But inevitably they get the idea that they’re not a philanthropist backing an endeavor out of interest in the impact it will make on the country or the world, but that they’re someone with ideas too, good ideas, not dumb like people say. They take a few meetings and decide that they want to do something completely different with their toy, and before you know it you’re telling Leon Wieseltier that if he’s going to write about Walt Whitman again, he needs to use more cat gifs. And that’s no way to publish.

Jack Goldsmith simply sighs:

I am sad because book reviews are a dying art, Leon’s were the best, and now the back-of-the-book is certainly dead forever – probably along with the magazine as we knew it, which Hughes is moving to New York, cutting to ten issues per year, and turning in to a “vertically integrated digital media company.”

TNC tweeted his thoughts about TNR’s reputation among African Americans. Here’s a collection of his tweets strung together:

Sorry whenever [journalists] lose jobs, but some of us colored folk will always remember TNR with mixed feelings. In all seriousness, I understand people who worked at TNR feeling sad, it’s human and understandable. Some of us had a very different relationship, we also have our feelings. We will be as considerate of TNR as TNR was of us. When TNR wrote about felt like someone talking about you as though you weren’t in the room–because you literally weren’t. … When you hire fabulists to conjure stories about lazy black people who won’t work as cab drivers…it has effects. When you call tell people that the lives of their families and nation are cheap, it has effects. When you run cover stories questioning the intelligence of 40 million people, because of their skin color, some among them tend to remember.

Or misremember. That issue of the magazine had 20 separate pieces in it, and only one of them was a re-crafted excerpt from Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s “The Bell Curve.” The rest were biting critiques. What TNR always did was debate questions others on the left would regard as taboo – because the debate was the thing, airing the questions was essential, and because a liberal sensibility is not the same as a progressive or leftist one. Noah Millman refuses to be a nostalgist:

Chris Hughes sounds like he’s trying to make TNR into something without much of a distinctive sensibility at all. I would have liked to see what TNR would have become with a fierce but critical young radical at the helm, someone who would recall the magazine’s younger years. That’s not what it has been for a very long time, and it’s not what it sounds like it’s going to be in its next incarnation.

But if it’s not going to be that, I still don’t want it to be what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. That time is gone. Chris Hughes seems determined to follow the extant media trends into the future. I’d prefer to see TNR lead than follow, but the future is where it has to go, one way or another.

And maybe that fierce but critical young radical deserves a magazine of her own to found.

The Best Of The Dish Today

The New Republic Centennial Gala

I’m heart-broken today about what can only be called the corporate manslaughter of my alma mater, The New Republic. And yes, many of us regard that place – for all its and our flaws – as an alma mater, the equivalent of a college, and our time there as formative and life-changing. It was a cauldron of first-class minds and third-class temperaments, engaged in something roughly called journalism not for money or pageviews, but because they believed in something, and were prepared to engage every ounce of their brainpower to fight over it. Editorial meetings were tempestuous, ribald, hilarious, and unmissable – and the island of misfit toys that Marty assembled over the years taught me more than anyone at college or grad school ever could.

We experimented every week – and took risks others balked at. The editors I was immensely privileged to work with – Mike Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, Leon Wieseltier, Charles Krauthammer, Dorothy Wickenden, Ann Hulbert, Mickey Kaus, Bob Wright, John Judis, Peter Beinart, Jon Chait, Frank Foer, Jake Weisberg, and many others – still today count as some of the finest journalists in the country. There is no dream team out there in opinion journalism today that comes close. Which was why, in its heyday, the magazine truly mattered – to its readers and beyond – in ways almost no journalistic institution does any more.

I know that era is over. I figured that out a very long time ago. But Frank seemed to me to be trying to revive it in ways that were often successful in both old media depth and new media buzziness. And that the magazine (now to be published only ten times annually, when I used to put out 48 issues a year) could be swiftly despatched in favor of a “vertically integrated” (sic) “digital media company” – that the very idea of a place where people would assemble, and fight over ideas, under the sternest strictures of reason and reporting and wit could be thrown out with the trash – was not inevitable. Hard to re-imagine, sure. Terribly hard to monetize. But still worth trying to grow into something that could change out of all recognition and yet also stay the same.

But the economic forces of new media are very powerful, and few multi-millionaires seem willing any more to lose their shirts in order to keep them at bay. That noblesse oblige in defense of the highbrow and traditional is now no more. And when I witness the death of these magazines and their culture – one of the great achievements of post-war American life – and I witness the new, fissiparous models emerging, it is hard not to feel a little despair. The new business models are anti-magazines, in a way. What matters online is not the fellowship of writers in a joint enterprise, but the shareability of links, the success of single posts in social media, and the merging of advertising with editorial that blends all forms of journalism into the same corporate, indistinguishable, marketing mush.

I wonder if we can still manage – as we navigate this new forbidding media economy – to recreate what we once had in some form. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that TNR could not be a vehicle in that experiment, even as many TNR alums are engaged in it; that it could instantly lose two figures, Frank Foer and Leon Wieseltier, with uniquely strong institutional memory, and thereby make its digital future utterly unconnected with its storied past. Chait pens a eulogy today. It is not, I’m afraid, an inapposite word.

Five posts worth revisiting from this sad day in journalism: Pauline Kael’s TNR review-essay on Godard; a truly hathetic Stand With Hillary ad; the new masculinity of dieting; pushback against the pushback on the UVA rape story; and readers tackle me (once again) on the thorny question of affirmative action.

The most popular post of the day was The Right’s Response To Eric Garner; followed by A Question of Human Dignity.

Many of today’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here.  You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 21 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here. Dish t-shirts are for sale here and our new mugs here. A final email for the day:

I finally subscribed after reading for years, and now that I have, I thought I’d just take a second to say thanks for all that you do. I love the Dish. I love reading your opinions, which do not always match my own but are always reasoned and thoughtful. I love reading contributions by your readers, whether they’re countering your opinion with their own or sharing a personal story. You’ve really put together something wonderful here and what you do is so important. Thank you for fighting the good fight. Happy holidays to you all!

See you in the morning.

(Photo: Former President Bill Clinton speaks on stage at the New Republic Centennial Gala at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on November 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. By Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images.)