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The New Republic is up for sale, but what is its next owner buying?

Bill Clinton speaks at The New Republic's 100th Anniversary gala.
Bill Clinton speaks at The New Republic's 100th Anniversary gala.
Teresa Kroeger/Getty

When I entered journalism there were three places I badly wanted to work: The American Prospect, the Washington Monthly, and the New Republic. The decision turned out to be easy: TNR never called me back. The Washington Monthly didn't have entry-level positions. But I got lucky: The Prospect took me on as a writing fellow, and it turned out to be a dream job.

Ten years later, the Prospect, the Monthly, and TNR are all in crisis. The Prospect laid off much of its staff and is retrenching to its roots as a policy journal. The Washington Monthly has downsized to a bimonthly. The New Republic was bought by Facebook-founder Chris Hughes only to become a cautionary tale when Hughes ineptly fired its editor Frank Foer — a move that caused massive staff resignations and a devastating backlash from the TNR-veterans laced throughout the rest of the media.

Now Hughes is putting the magazine back up for sale.

"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," Hughes wrote in an article that, oddly, was published on Medium rather than the New Republic's web site.

TNR's problems have been largely being laid at Hughes's doorstep. And, to some degree, that's fair. Transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company is hard, but it's not as hard as Hughes made it look.

Marty Peretz, who owned the New Republic from 1974 to 2002, fired a slew of editors without causing mass resignations among the staff (though, as my colleague Max Fisher has written, the contrast between the indulgence of Peretz's racism and the backlash to Hughes does not reflect well on TNR, or journalism more broadly.). And plenty of other venerable institutions — the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, National Geographic, etc — have made the leap to digital without TNR-ian tumult.

What happened at the New Republic was a colossal management failure compounded by cultural tensions between the journalism and technology worlds, and it was the job of Hughes, and those he hired, to make sure that didn't happen.

But, to reprise an argument I made amidst TNR's 2014 crisis, there's a deeper story here too. The New Republic was sold to Hughes in the first place because the institution was bleeding so much money that Peretz, its previous owner, couldn't sustain it. And Hughes's alarm over the magazine's future — the alarm that led him to bring in Guy Vidra, an ex-Yahoo executive, to lead the institution, and that convinced him he needed to fire Foer — was based on watching the magazine's influence wane, its traffic lag behind competitors, and its business prospects dim.

Behind the crisis caused by Hughes's management, in other words, was the crisis that led to Hughes's management.

Twilight of the policy magazines

The American Prospect

The American Prospect.

TNR.com might flourish under its next owner. But it won't be what the New Republic was. And that's because the thing the New Republic was has already died. The eulogy that needs to be written isn't for the New Republic. It's for the New Republic and The American Prospect and the Washington Monthly and their peers. It's for the role once played by Washington's small fleet of ambitious policy magazines.

This sprawling conversation over Washington policymaking used to be centered in a handful of elite-focused policy magazines, of which the New Republic was perhaps the best known and most ambitious. There was policy reporting in the newspapers, of course, but it didn't go as deep, and it was crippled by the faux-evenhandedness that is death to any serious conversation over solutions. There were the journals, like The Public Interest, but they came out more rarely, and their tone was often staid and impenetrable.

The policy magazines had a number of unique characteristics, but two were central. The first was what they covered — which was, for the most part, politics through the lens of policy (though the New Republic, in particular, had an amazing culture section).

Policy — wrongly, in my view — was broadly considered a boring topic in journalism, and so if you wanted to keep large masses of readers engaged, you couldn't do too much of it, too often. But these magazines could, because they weren't trying to keep large masses of readers engaged. They were niche products comfortable with small, enthusiastic audiences. They were by people who loved writing about policy and for people who loved reading about policy, and that allowed them to serve their audience in a way mass-market publications couldn't touch.

The second was the angle that animated their coverage. The American Prospect was labor-liberalism. The Washington Monthly was technocratic neoliberalism. The New Republic oscillated from editor to editor, but tended towards a hawkish, contrarian neoliberalism (hence the "Even the liberal New Republic" meme). The Nation, which is based in New York, and Mother Jones, which is based in San Francisco, were a bit less policy-oriented, but a lot more liberal.

On the right, you had (and still have) the National Review, which tended towards conservative fusionism. The Public Interest was the birthplace of neoconservatism, and that mantle was later taken on by the Weekly Standard. (The most interesting policy publication on the right at the moment is Yuval Levin's reformist-inclined journal National Affairs.)

These magazines, in other words, stood for something. That set them apart from newspapers and general-interest magazines, which were carefully neutral in ways that made their coverage both less vibrant and less clear. It's very, very hard to cover policy topics well if you can't, at the end, say which solutions you think most promising.

People often talk about the problems of the transition to digital in broad terms, but for policy magazines, the transition to digital created specific problems: namely, the qualities that once set organizations like the New Republic apart were adopted by their bigger, richer competitors.

The in-flight reading on Air Force One is probably an iPad

obama air force one

Wha'cha reading? (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

To the wonk in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, these magazines were the thrumming center of the policy conversation in Washington. That's why it was believable that the New Republic was the "in-flight reading on Air Force One." President Bill Clinton was a policy wonk. What else was he going to read?

But they're no longer the center of the policy conversation in Washington. That conversation has spilled online, beyond their pages, outside their borders. The in-flight reading on Air Force One is probably saved to President Obama's iPad.

And he has much to choose from. The internet is now thick with outlets that pride themselves on covering Washington's vast policymaking apparatus in much the way the policy magazines once did, and often with staff culled from those same policy magazines.

Vox is one of those outlets, as is the New Republic, but so are the Washington Post's Wonkblog, the New York Times' Upshot, Politico, Bloomberg View, and FiveThirtyEight, to name just a few. Many of these publications are attached to bigger institutions that would never have published so much policy, or allowed such conclusions-driven coverage, in their print products.

And that doesn't even include the individual bloggers who are must-reads if you're following policy: Kevin Drum, and Tyler Cowen, and Brad DeLong, and Paul Krugman, and Ross Douthat, and Ramesh Ponnuru, and Jonathan Chait, and Scott Sumner, and Megan McArdle, and Jonathan Bernstein, and, again, the list goes on. At another time, most of these names would be published inside policy magazines. Now they're either employed by bigger institutions or forging ahead on their own blogs, supported by foundations, advertising, and speaking fees.

The other problem is on the business side. Hughes believed his charge was to make TNR a viable web publication, in a world where viability — and, arguably, influence — requires web traffic. That meant publishing more, publishing faster, and publishing the kinds of quick hits and aggregations that help build audience on the cheap.

In a strange sentence on his Medium post, Hughes writes, "Even though our search for a workable business model has come up short, we have shown that digital journalism isn't at odds with quality and depth." But if digital journalism of quality and depth is at odds with a workable business model, then digital journalism of quality and depth won't survive.

This was, according to many accounts, the central tension between Hughes and Foer: Hughes wanted to solve TNR's business problems in part by increasing the size of its audience, which meant it had to to become more like its audience-hungry competitors. But many at TNR felt Hughes had promised to preserve the TNR of yore, even if it lost money indefinitely — as it had in the past. To them, forcing TNR into a fight for audience was forcing it into a fight that would destroy what made it unique even as it failed to create a model on which TNR could thrive.

The New Republic is up for sale, but what is its next owner buying?

The New Republic, for better and for worse, has stood for less in recent years. So too do its competitors, who sound a bit more like everyone else and a bit less like themselves.

This isn't a criticism of Foer, who led TNR to publish great journalism. And nor is it a criticism of Snyder, who pushed the magazine in new and interesting directions. But the TNR that stood for so much routinely saw subscriber numbers of 100,000 or less. It would never fulfill its publisher's hopes of acquiring tens of millions of monthly digital readers.

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 because they were slower and more distant from the news cycle, but they were 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. That gave them a freedom to truly be themselves that more mass-market publications don't have.

As someone who really loathed a number of TNR's previous eras (see the Bell Curve, or No Exit, or A Fighting Faith, or much of what Hughes's predecessor Marty Peretz wrote, for examples), I'm probably a bit less nostalgic for its past. But something is being lost in the transition from policy magazines to policy web sites, and it's still an open question how much of it can be regained.

For TNR, however, the problem is more specific. There's so much expectation and history attached to the publication that its room for strategic movement is limited — as Chris Hughes found out. But an owner who wants to buy and support the TNR of yesteryear is buying into a market that makes it much harder for the TNR of yesteryear to thrive.

Related: How the American Prospect changed policy journalism.

Correction: This article initially said Marty Peretz was Hughes's predecessor as owner of the New Republic. Peretz owned the magazine from 1974 to 2002, when he sold majority control to Michael Steinhardt and Roger Hertog. Peretz bought back the magazine later in the decade, and stepped down as editor-in-chief in 2011.