Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of a Liberal opinion magazine
The New Republic, the first mass audience opinion magazine, blew itself up yesterday and it's hard to see how ownership and the editors are going to put the pieces back together.
First published as a weekly back in 1914, there have been many iterations of the magazine as it has constantly reinvented itself over the years. But the one constant has been quality writing far superior to any other magazine of its type. The names on its masthead over the years reads like a who's who of the best writers of the 20th century. Even Buckley's National Review called TNR "one of the most interesting magazines in the United States."
During the 1980's TNR was a must read for political junkies from across the spectrum. In addition to featuring writers like Jean Kirkpatrick and Charles Krauthammer, conservative intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Edward Luttwak were frequently featured. The point wasn't that TNR was a "conservative" publication. Far from it. They were just more willing to feature opposing views - and even issues they agreed with conservatives on like Israel and anti-Communism.
Alas, by the time the new century rolled around, TNR had lost its way. It became stridently liberal - boringly and predictably so. And the writing became a shadow of what it once was.
In 2012, the 28 year old billionaire Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, took control. He immediately set out to raise TNR's profile online and made other changes more conducive to the short attention span, less knowledgable internet consumer.
On Thursday, Hughes admitted defeat. He announced that the magazine would cut the number of issues it published in half, move the headquarters to New York, and fire the ediitor in chief Franklin Foer and long time literary editor Leon Wieseltier, as well as make other changes that will rebrand the venerable institution as a "digital media company."
This led to a shocking mass resignation of some of the biggest names on the pundit left.
Late Thursday night, several of the top editors gathered at Foer's house in Washington to hold what was described by one source as a funeral for the magazine. Wieseltier, who served for 31 years as the magazine's literary editor, entered the room and introduced himself as "the former" literary editor of The New Republic.
Those who resigned are senior editors Jonathan Cohn, Isaac Chotiner, Julia Ioffe, John Judis, Adam Kirsch, Alec MacGillis, Noam Scheiber, Judith Shulevitz and Jason Zengerle; executive editors Rachel Morris and Greg Veis; digital media editor Hillary Kelly (who resigned from her honeymoon in Africa); legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen; and poetry editor Henri Cole and dance editor Jennifer Homans. Contributing editors Anne Applebaum, Paul Berman, Christopher Benfey, Jonathan Chait, William Deresiewicz, Justin Driver, TA Frank, Ruth Franklin, Jack Goldsmith, Anthony Grafton, David Grann, David Greenberg, Robert Kagan, Enrique Krauze, Damon Linker, Ryan Lizza, John McWhorter, Sacha Z. Scoblic, Cass Sunstein, Alan Taylor, Helen Vendler and Sean Wilentz.
Many of those who resigned on Friday believe that Hughes and Vidra now intend to turn TNR into a click-focused digital media company, at the expense of the magazine's strong editorial traditions and venerable brand, according to sources who attended the gathering at Foer's house.
"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," Julia Ioffe, one of the resigning senior editors, wrote in a Facebook post. "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," Ioffe wrote. "Those were the pieces that got the most clicks."
In an address to what remained of the New Republic staff on Friday, Vidra sought to quell the fears and provide encouragement, sources there said. Hughes, who was not in Washington for the meeting, assured the remaining staff, "I care about tradition." They did not take questions.
You can be forgiven if all you know of TNR is what it became earlier this century - a reliable far left mouthpiece and adjunct to the Democratic party. If you get the chance, you should peruse its archives. Ten thousand word book reviews, articles on dance, the symphony - all the cultural pursuits. It was deep, it was rich, it had nuance and achingly beautiful writing.
But I could care less about this current incarnation of the magazine. A few lefty writers - Chait, Wilenz, Schieber - are worth reading but they all resigned, so it's doubtful I'll read much of TNR in the future.
I would say that all the political opinion magazines will probably suffer a similar fate eventually. Mass audience magazine such as Time, Life, Look, and Colliers, are all gone because the market has disappeared. There's no sense mourning the demise of these magazines. Change is inevitable and usually good. A niche will be created and others will rush in to fill it. "Creative destruction" will work its magic and it is likely that from the ashes will arise new and interesting forms of opinion publications.