The new New Republic

The amount of thoughtful debate, sharp-shived zingers, and consideration of its broader meaning being fired back and forth over last week’s convulsions at The New Republic is enough to fill a good chunk of an important, idea-driven national magazine. Whatever exactly that is in today’s world. Which is, of course, what the whole to-do is all about.  

The tumult burst into the open last week with the news that Franklin Foer was out as editor and that longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier was following him. A slew of fellow staffers and a set of contributing writers quickly announced they were following suit and were resigning en masse. All of this was in response to a change in direction being imposed by the magazine’s owner, Chris Hughes, a 31-year-old centimillionaire, who cofounded Facebook and used some of his $700 million friend-me booty to buy the venerable magazine two years ago.

 

Today’s New York Times says the showdown, in retrospect, looks like it was nearly inevitable. “The quintessential social media mogul – Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate – buys the ultimate symbol of the old media, a progressive opinion journal that dates back to the Woodrow Wilson administration. What could possibly go wrong?”

Plenty, it seems. Hughes initially sent signals that he was looking to be the steward of a revered institution. “Now,” write Times reporters Jonathan Mahler and Ravi Somaiya, “like the nouveau riche buyer who says he’s only planning to slap a fresh coat of paint on that New England colonial but soon embarks on a tear-down, Mr. Hughes has apparently reconsidered.”

That reconsideration started with bringing Guy Vidra, a former Yahoo official, into the newly-created position of chief executive. Vidra announced, to great staff consternation, that he wants to “break shit,” and envisions TNR as a “vertically integrated digital media company.” That was enough to bring on the vapors in the New Republic offices and among its loyalists embedded elsewhere in the journalism thinkerati.

Hughes and Vidra clearly want to change things. They’ve already announced that the magazine will cut back its print version from 20 to 10 issues per year. Concrete plans beyond that are unclear. But those discomfitted by the goings on at the 100-year-old magazine are convinced it is the end of its role as a place for serious, long-form journalism.

In some respects, Hughes looks like the magazine world counterpart to Jeff Bezos, who also made a bazillion dollars in the online world, and then decided to buy a brand-name publication, in his case, the Washington Post. Bezos’s purchase, like John Henry’s acquisition of the Boston Globe, was heralded as the welcome arrival of a deep-pocketed owner who was prepared to invest in a newspaper during troubled times and give it the room and resources to figure out a way to make the transition, profitably, to the digital world.

The New Republic, on the other hand, has lost money for years, and has long been more of a philanthropic venture for owners committed to its journalism — and to their name appearing atop the masthead of a once-powerful Washington publication.

Hughes now seems determined to try to move out of the model in which the magazine operates as an unwitting nonprofit. But he insists that doesn’t mean throwing overboard everything it has been about.

“I didn’t buy the New Republic to be the conservator of a small print magazine whose long-term influence and survival were at risk,” Hughes wrote in a piece posted last night on the Washington Post website. “I came to protect the future of the New Republic by creating a sustainable business so that our journalism, values, and voice – the things that make us singular – could survive.”

Amidst the parade of requiems for The New Republic of old, it’s worth noting that its good old days were not always that good. Esquire‘s Charlie Pierce — though he thinks Hughes is likely to “make complete hash of the magazine he bought as a chew toy” —has a good rundown of some of its less-than-greatest hits, including the enabling of several of journalism’s most infamous fabulists of recent years, publication of an excerpt from the racially-charged Bell Curve, and cheerleading the US-backed Contras in the 1980s. Dan Kennedy has his own story of a piece he wrote for TNR that had a stridently anti-affirmative action line inserted during editing.

Whatever one thinks of the direction he’s taking it in, it’s hard to blame Hughes for wanting to make a go of bringing the magazine into the black. Hughes writes that nonprofit journalism may be the right model for projects like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. (It’s what CommonWealth is, too.) But at The New Republic, he says, “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.”

MICHAEL JONAS

BEACON HILL

The Associated Press interviews Gov.-elect Charlie Baker. A Globe editorial lays out the big transportation challenge facing Baker.

If his colleagues want Stan Rosenberg to serve as Senate president, then they shouldn’t let a few misguided tweets get in the way, says the MetroWest Daily News.

The federal government is threatening to withhold its contribution to management of the state’s food stamps program if state officials don’t fix problems with family members being able to share use of EBT cards that are used for food purchases.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Many Boston nonprofits are failing to make their in-lieu-of-tax payments, CommonWealth reports.

Lawrence City Council President Modesto Maldonado tangles with Mayor Dan Rivera on whether he followed procedure in firing workers, the Eagle-Tribune reports. Maldonado also hunts for a mole he says has been leaking documents to the press.

Boston Police Commissioner Williams Evans sits down with Keller@Large to talk about the Eric Garner case in New York and the proposal to outfit police with body cameras. Protests over the Garner case and the Ferguson, Missouri, case reach Boston’s well-heeled suburbs, as residents in Lexington and Newton stage demonstrations.

CASINOS

Peter Picknelly, the Peter Pan Bus owner and real estate developer, talks to MGM Springfield (where his brother Paul is a minority owner) about building a downtown boutique hotel, his father’s dream project. CommonWealth profiled Peter last year.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

California protests over police killings boil over, Time reports.

ELECTIONS

The organizers of the Fall River recall say they deem their effort a success, whether or not voters recall Mayor Will Flanagan or he wins the vote among eight candidates to replace himself.

Evan Falchuk explains his bid to launch the United Independent Party in a WBUR article.

National Review to Mitt Romney: Run, Mitt, Run.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Merck is buying Lexington-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals for $8.4 billion.

EDUCATION

Raytheon plans to invest $50 million to help build a campus in Kuwait for UMass Lowell.

The getting is good these days for college presidents. Three dozen of them earned at least $1 million in 2012, including three in the Boston area: MIT’s Susan Hockfield, Joseph Aoun at Northeastern, and BU president Robert Brown.

Some schools and private sector facilities have been unable to offer speech therapy because of a lack of therapists and few candidates to fill open positions.

HEALTH CARE

Paul Levy proposes the next head of Partners HealthCare break up the health behemoth in order for the separate entities to grow and forge their own identities rather than be all things to all people.

Officials say improvements to the Healthcare.gov site make enrolling easier and allow access to cheaper plans but they say those who do are automatically reenrolled without going on the site could face higher premiums.

TRANSPORTATION

Brockton officials say it’s “incomprehensible” that nine pedestrians have been killed in accidents this year in the city, two more than in Boston and more than Quincy, Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River combined, and they’re trying to figure out a solution.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The towns of Braintree, Holbrook, and Randolph want to replace their old water treatment plants with a new one designed to serve all three towns but the state is balking because of a disagreement over how much capacity the water sources have.

The state gives Beverly a $20,000 grant to launch curbside recycling of food waste, the Salem News reports.

Footprint Power, which is building a natural gas plant in Salem, says it needs to delay its opening for a year because of financing delays caused by a lawsuit filed by four residents, the Salem News reports.

The state awards a $1.5 million grant to seven municipalities to restore the coastal habitat. Gloucester receives $310,000, the largest grant, the Gloucester Times reports.

Australian researchers develop a solar array that converts 40 percent of the sunlight hitting it into electricity, the highest percentage ever.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Burlington police use a sting operation to arrest eight on prostitution charges, the Lowell Sun reports.