In what some knowledgeable observers characterized as the death knell for a nearly 102-year-old American institution, Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes announced on Monday that he’s putting The New Republic up for sale.
The 32-year-old Hughes—who was a Harvard roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a relationship that helped him amass a fortune estimated at $700 million—said he’s throwing in the towel and seeking a buyer for the magazine after being unable to figure out what he called “a sustainable business model.”
The alarming announcement comes 13 months after the forced resignations of longtime top editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier, and the resulting mass exodus of two dozen New Republic writers and editors, over Hughes’s efforts to transform the venerable Washington-based journal of politics, policy, art and culture into a more broadly pitched general interest enterprise—what Hughes and his and his newly installed CEO, former Yahoo News executive Guy Vidra, called a “vertically integrated digital-media company.”
Hughes—who relocated the magazine to Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood—was publicly and repeatedly denounced by the magazine’s departing traditionalists, a searing crucible that is said to have soured him on the rocky adventure of media ownership. (Hughes didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.)
“After investing a great deal of time, energy, and over $20 million, I have come to the conclusion that it is time for new leadership and vision at The New Republic,” he wrote in a memo to the magazine’s staff, which was posted on Medium.com.
“I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate,” he added.
“Over the coming weeks, I’ll pursue conversations with those interested in taking on the mantle and supporting the next era of this institution…Although I do not have the silver bullet, a new owner should have the vision and commitment to carry on the traditions that make this place unique and give it a new mandate for a new century.”
Hughes’s announcement was immediately greeted by harsh responses and withering insults from New Republic loyalists including former owner Martin Peretz, who was a member of the Harvard faculty, and married to a Singer Sewing Machine Co. heiress, when he bought the magazine in 1974.
But he held only a small stake by the time Hughes acquired it in March 2012.
“I was a minority owner by then so I couldn’t stop it, and the others thought he would be all right; none of them thought he would be great,” Peretz told The Daily Beast about the sale to Hughes, which was orchestrated by former Lazard Freres managing director Laurence Grafstein among other investors.
“I don’t mean this physically, but he’s a small person,” Peretz said of Hughes. “In that metaphorical way, I knew that he’s not an imaginative person.”
Referring to Hughes’s status as a co-founder of Facebook because of his college friendship with Zuckerberg, Peretz added: “I think he owes about $700 million to the Harvard housing office.”
Former New Republic editor Hendrik Hertzberg, who ran the magazine for eight years during the 1980s, said Hughes’s quest for a “business model” was woefully misguided.
“The first time I met him [in 2012], I told him basically that there’s only one business model for a place like The New Republic—and that is an eccentric millionaire who pays the difference between income and outgo,” Hertzberg said. “There was never any point in buying The New Republic, and then hollowing it out. The only thing you end up buying is the name and you get rid of everything that made the name consequential.”
After a dozen editors and writers quit in December 2014, according to sources, the magazine—which had boasted an annual editorial budget of $3.5 million—operated with a much-reduced staff and budget.
Hertzberg said Hughes’s decision, shortly after taking control of The New Republic, to cease publishing unsigned editorials on policy issues signaled a disturbing change in the magazine’s mission—and Peretz agreed, saying it essentially communicated that “we are nothing.”
Hertzberg added that Hughes’s hiring in September 2014 of a CEO, a Yahoo veteran who had a short attention span and was a vocal critic of the magazine’s discursive style during internal staff meetings, saying the articles bored him—demonstrated tone-deafness to the cherished culture of the opinion journal.
“Leaving aside Guy Vidra’s personal history and his alleged qualifications, just having a CEO was a sign of suicide,” Hertzberg said.
Another longtime New Republic veteran, who spoke on condition of anonymity, derided Hughes’s memo as a compendium of self-justifying excuses: “I killed this and I’m not responsible, and I couldn’t save it after I killed it.”
John Judis, one of the brand-name writers who quit the magazine amid the implosion of December 2014, wrote Monday on his Facebook page: “What’s a good saying that will allow me not to use clichés like ‘the chickens have come home to roost.’ Hughes, the first generation of Silicon nouveaux riches, didn’t know what he was doing when he bought a political magazine. He didn’t understand what a political magazine was. And now that he has gotten rid of all the original staff, blown away its readership, and tarnished a century of work by people dedicated to make the country better rather than making a profit for the already wealthy, he’s calling it quits.”
Former New Republic staff writer and Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, meanwhile, compared Monday’s news to a long-belated obituary: “It’s the postmortem post-mortem,” he told The Daily Beast.
But ProPublica founder Paul Steiger, a member of The New Republic’s advisory board, defended Hughes’s stewardship of the magazine, saying he was working to make needed changes to increase its relevance and attract a new generation of readers in the digital age.
“I think he was bold in stepping up to what had to be done,” Steiger told The Daily Beast. “There needed to be substantial changes in the old New Republic, much as we all loved it”—including broadening the mag’s appeal beyond “the old mix of politics and culture alone.”
Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, added: “It’s tough to take an old familiar title and transform it. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a year, and in some cases it may be easier to start with a blank sheet of paper.”
While others reacted to the pending sale with surprise, Peretz said he learned of Hughes’s plans to unload the magazine from a friend about three weeks ago—around the same time that a different New Republic loyalist said editor Gabriel Snyder, who was hired to replace Foer, was asked go make substantial staff cuts, presumably to prepare the mag for the marketplace.
Snyder disputed that account—“this is fiction,” he wrote in a terse email to The Daily Beast—and a spokesman for Hughes said the editor and Hughes discussed firing only two staffers for cause, an action unrelated to any sale.
The spokesman also took issue with an informed source’s account of Hughes expressing dissatisfaction with The New Republic—complaining that it lacked impact and influence—three months ago during at a dinner at the West Village restaurant Bobo hosted by the curated news site Upworthy, for which he’s a member of the board. The spokesman said Hughes denied making such comments.
“I think he dug himself a hole that he couldn’t come back from,” said a New Republic veteran about Hughes and his unpleasant experiences of the past year. “It was so bruising for him that he lost interest.”
The future of the magazine is anything but certain, and Peretz, for one, expressed doubts that The New Republic can survive.
“I’m not sure the culture is ready for another new New Republic,” he said. “I get mail and phone calls and emails—less now than a year ago—telling me that this is the last straw.”
Peretz added: “If anybody bought it, they would be buying a 10-year lease on Union Square—I don’t know what that would cost them—and they’d have a lot of salaries to pay or pay down. Maybe someone will buy it, but it’s not going to be the old New Republic, and it shouldn’t be.”
Meanwhile, New Yorker editor David Remnick, a fan of and onetime writer for The New Republic, said Monday’s announcement “dramatizes how fragile institutions can be, and the way a very bad decision, taken at a moment of frustration, can lead to a very bad end.”
He added: “All I can hope is that an owner with deep pockets and patience and a sense of what that magazine is on earth to do will save the day.”
And where can such an owner be found?
“Where was it,” Remnick parried, “that Superman was born?”