Monday, December 8, 2014

The Sad Collapse of the New Republic

In 2012 The New Republic, one of America's foremost left-leaning journals, was bought by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Hughes was a literature major at Harvard and reads Balzac in French for fun, plus he grew up reading TNR and said he wanted to keep it the way it always had been. Since Hughes is worth at least $700 million, TNR staffers thought maybe they had caught a lucky break in the bruising world of contemporary journalism.

Sadly no. Hughes got tired of losses that insiders place at around $5 million a year, so he fired longtime editor Franklin Foer and brought in former Yahoo executive Guy Vidra, who
told the staff that he intended to break stuff — though he used a profanity — and to rebuild the magazine as a “vertically integrated digital media company.”
This prompted a mass exodus of TNR staff, including literary editor Leon Wieselthier; so many left that the next issue had to be cancelled.

I find myself puzzling over all of this. Whenever I read about the nineteenth century I am amazed by the proliferation of publications; every intellectual of the time seems to have spent much of his or her energy founding tiny new newspapers and journals as the voice or this or that political faction. It simply cannot be the case that there is less money for such activity now than there was then -- on the contrary we must be spending a hundred times as much on the news business as America did in 1900. So why can't magazines make money?

For one thing, these days top journalists expect to be paid salaries that place them in the upper middle class, which I imagine was not the case of the people who founded all those obscure political broadsheets. When you no longer look forward to the Revolution, you start wanting a comfortable life in the here and now. If I were founding a left-wing publication today I would base it in some small town in rural Oregon or Arkansas and set it up as a sort of utopian communal thing, since obviously nobody can afford to pay left-wing journalists Manhattan corporate salaries. In fact somebody must actually be doing this, although I don't know who they are. Which I suppose is another problem.

I gather that the crucial factor over the past 25 years has been the collapse of advertising revenue. This reflects the big change of corporate life in America and Britain that affects so much of our lives. In 1960 corporations expected to make money, but once they were profitable their executives focused on other things, especially building their own prestige. Taking out ads in highbrow publications was a way of building prestige; it was done more to raise the tone of the enterprise than to increase sales. These days more and more is about the bottom line; these days prestige and money are pretty much the same thing, and executives would rather make $25 million a year than be thought of as the right sort of guy. Plus we now have much more sophisticated ways of measuring how well advertising works, and the data show that ads in highbrow magazines don't work very well. Ditto for ads in newspapers.

It remains to be seen where this will go. One model is that newspapers and magazines will be bought up by billionaires who will fund them as a way of advancing their own political goals; both newspapers in Washington are being used in that way these days, although nobody is exactly sure what Jeff Bezos' goals are. Another is that foundations might set up news operations, like the Pew Charitable Trusts. Andrew Sullivan is trying to create a web site funded entirely by subscriptions, and so far is managing to keep his head above water. A lot of great stuff is being done by amateurs, although there the problem is finding the great stuff in an ocean of vanity and mediocrity.

The news business will not disappear; our hunger for news is too great. But big changes are afoot, and much that we have relied on for decades will soon disappear.

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