A post-mortem for The New Republic

Thursday could be called the Day of the Long Knives at The New Republic, where editor Franklin Foer and longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier are out amid a stunning upheaval that includes remaking the entity into what owner Chris Hughes calls a “vertically integrated digital media company.”

TNR also will be based in New York, moving from its longtime digs in Washington, and will cut the number of print issues from 20 a year to 10. The changes were feared, as Hughes and his new CEO, Guy Vidra, have thought to be chasing web clicks to better compete with Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and other successful digital media outlets.

On Friday morning, 28 editors and writers resigned en masse, including nine of the 12 senior editors. The names are some of the most venerable in established opinion writing and cultural criticism: Anne Applebaum, Paul Berman, Robert Kagan, John Judis, Adam Kirsch, Ryan Lizza, Jeffrey Rosen, Noam Schreiber, Judith Shulevitz, Helen Vendler and Sean Wilentz.

Angry, mournful eulogies poured in for the generally liberal magazine, which recently marked its 100th anniversary with a swanky D.C. bash: former senior editor Jon Chait, longtime subscriber Alan Jacobs and former editor Andrew Sullivan, who called the changes “corporate manslaughter:”

“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.”

For some truly incredible reading, here’s Lloyd Grove’s backstory about how Thursday’s bloodletting came to pass:

“For Foer, Wieseltier and others at the magazine, the brutal shakeup by Vidra, 40, who was hired in September, and his 30-year-old patron, Hughes–who purchased TNR two-and-a-half years ago for an undisclosed sum from a consortium that included longtime owner Martin Peretz–didn’t come as a surprise. Tensions have been building since the summer. According to multiple sources, Hughes came to think of his writers and editors as ‘spoiled brats,’ and especially disliked the flamboyant, feud-prone, white-maned Wieseltier, who was more than twice his age. Much of Hughes’s distaste was telegraphed in his body language; he strikes many TNR staffers as passive-aggressive and averse to confrontation.”

Senior editor Julia Ioffre, one of those who stepped down Friday, anticipated the reaction to the staff protests:

“The narrative you’re going to see Chris and Guy put out there is that I and the rest of my colleagues who quit today were dinosaurs, who think that the Internet is scary and that Buzzfeed is a slur. Don’t believe them. The staff at TNR has always been faithful to the magazine’s founding mission to experiment, and nowhere have I been so encouraged to do so. There was no opposition in the editorial ranks to expanding TNR’s web presence, to innovating digitally. Many were even board for going monthly. We’re not afraid of change. We have always embraced it.”

“As for the health of long-form journalism, well, the pieces that often did the best online were the deeply reported, carefully edited and fact-checked, and beautifully written. Those were the pieces that got the most clicks.”

What’s being mourned here is the demise of the old-school, Washington-based magazine of opinion on politics, public policy and cultural affairs. The Atlantic has retooled itself over the last decade, moving from Boston to Washington and pushing a lot of web content (some in clickbaitish fashion) and last year got embroiled in a sponsored content flap involving the Church of Scientology.

At Vox, Ezra Klein explained that the challenges of TNR are no different than that of Washington Monthly and The American Prospect, which also are shells of their former selves. The rise of lively wonky websites (including Vox) and blogs have given readers more plentiful, specialized and immediate choices than what the often staid print stalwarts of the genre have offered:

“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.”

I’ll wrap this up with Sullivan’s follow-up this morning. It’s equal parts scathing and pessimistic about what can be recreated on the web to match what TNR attempted for a century.

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