The (new) New Republic: How the magazine’s bosses are building a company around ‘novel solutions’
It's been more than eight months since Gabriel Snyder penned a note to readers upon ascending to the editorship of the New Republic amid one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the century-old magazine.
His predecessor, Franklin Foer, resigned upon learning that owner Chris Hughes had already selected a replacement editor to work with CEO Guy Vidra to refashion the magazine into a digital media company. The bulk of the staff, including most of the masthead, followed Foer out the door. Each headline about the drama was more apocalyptic than the last ("The incredible imploding New Republic," read one), and they became so plentiful that the Awl devoted a listicle to ranking 40 of them.
But in his note, Snyder sought to put the sudden and tempestuous changes into context by invoking the magazine's long history of reinvention. By upending the status quo, Snyder explained, the magazine was really hearkening back to its best traditions.
"The New Republic has always been both in love and at war with its prior self," Snyder wrote. "The magazine’s early decades were marked by abrupt ownership changes, unceremonious dismissals of editors, shifting policy positions, and uprooted headquarters, all accompanied by masthead upheavals."
More than half a year later, Snyder is still bullish on the experiment. Buoyed by investment from Hughes, Snyder and Vidra have embarked upon what could fairly be described as a dramatic overhaul of the New Republic, leaving very few of the magazine's major features untouched as they build out a new media company.
Snyder has gone about replacing the decimated editorial staff, replenishing the magazine's ranks with hires from the realms of cable television, digital media and magazines. The New Republic's center of gravity has shifted from its Washington, D.C. offices to New York City, where the magazine's senior leadership now resides. Vidra brought aboard a chief product officer who is hiring a team of developers and software engineers tasked with rebuilding the company's technological infrastructure. Late last month, the New Republic announced the creation of an in-house content marketing studio called Novel that will initially have about a dozen employees who will work with various brands. The magazine's print schedule has decreased from 20 issues per year to 10.
And today, the the New Republic is rolling out a redesign of its print edition, the first since January 2013. The new look includes some major alterations: a new title ("The" has been removed from the nameplate, and the revised style guide refers to "the New Republic"), cover design, typefaces, color palette and several tweaks that add white space and give the stories more room to breathe.
"Overall, we wanted a less cluttered look that put our stories up front," Snyder said. "The new visual hierarchy applied to the editorial framework and easier-to-read typefaces were developed to maximize approachability without sacrificing the depth of content."
Snyder says that the magazine's focus on new revenue streams, products and Web journalism doesn't come at the expense of its history of deeply-reported features and ruminative essays. Rather, he says, the emphasis on becoming a media company — a goal some former staffers have chafed at — is aligned with mission-driven journalism.
"I think that's a big question that everyone who is now confronting this new generation of communication technologies is constantly asking," he said. "Is the future of digital media only super-poppy easily imitated listicles, or is there a way for serious thought to thrive? I'm firmly in that latter camp."
He's articulated a new editorial vision to match. After Snyder took the reins, staffers at the New Republic began casting around for a new mission statement that sought to concisely capture the company's editorial and business ethos. They eventually settled on the following credo that eschews mention of the magazine entirely and omits references to politics, typically considered the magazine's bread and butter: "The New Republic is a mission-driven media organization. We promote novel solutions for today's most critical issues."
Snyder says the new mission statement isn't a retreat from political or cultural reporting and commentary, which will remain mainstays of the New Republic's coverage. He describes it as consistent with the original editorial philosophy of the magazine, which was meant to be a vehicle for the spread and discussion of progressive ideas.
The new mission statement, Snyder says, is the lynchpin for every new initiative from the company. Vidra calls the statement "a crystallizing force."
The new doctrine also underpins the company's tech efforts, which are being captioned by Chief Product Officer Eliot Pierce. Pierce, a former consultant and executive at The New York Times, has been hiring developers since he arrived at the New Republic earlier this year. The product team, which comprised three members when Pierce joined in March, is budgeted to grow to nine members.
Although the team hasn't reached capacity yet, it's already tackling two big projects: The creation of a new content management system and a redesign of the New Republic's website. A version of the content management system will be launched later this year, as will the new website. Together, the two new products should work together to make publishing and consuming the New Republic's journalism easier.
"It will be much faster, simpler, quicker to load on the front-end and there's less bloat with it, in terms of the features and functionality for editors, producers and writers," Pierce said.
The company recently underscored its commitment to using metrics when its investment arm, the New Republic Fund, purchased a piece of analytics startup Parse.ly.
Also underway is a rethinking of the magazine's editorial structure. Snyder has reorganized the magazine's staff to eliminate distinctions between what previously might have been called the Web and print teams, allowing writers and editors to contribute in whichever format suits their stories best. New editors for politics and national news will serve as "high-metabolism" shepherds for online and print journalism; the magazine is also hiring a senior editor and a staff writer.
"I think that blurring of formats and of functions is going to be key to everything we do," Snyder said. "Rather than having these two different independent editorial processes, we'll just have one editorial team in action and where their work appears will be a secondary consideration."
The reorientation of the magazine under a unified mission statement was one of the factors that lured Senior Editor Jamil Smith to the New Republic from MSNBC, where he was a producer for Melissa Harris-Perry. The company's unified vision on both the business and editorial side and the opportunity to help remake the New Republic during a tumultuous time were both attractive to Smith.
"I was convinced to join the magazine because I felt like to a large degree I was joining a 100-year-old startup," Smith said. "You have a valuable brand in journalism that is going off in a new direction, and I felt that I was going to have an opportunity to really have a voice within that rebuilding process."
Since joining, Smith has anchored the New Republic's coverage on identity and race, which some observers have noted was a historically troubled topic for the magazine. He has launched a podcast, Intersection, devoted to "race, gender, and all the ways we identify ourselves and one another."
When asked about the new regime's record on diversity, Smith doesn't equivocate: "I've been at other places where diversity has been discussed at great length, but nothing was ever done about it. Here, I feel like people don't talk about it so much as do stuff about it. It is very important, and it's an obvious priority for the company to hire folks of color and to hire women."
The new hires have also helped lift morale at the New Republic, which was at rock bottom over the holidays after Foer and much of the magazine's senior ranks departed, said Executive Web Editor Ryan Kearney. He had purchased property in the area within months of the staff exodus and knew Snyder, so he decided to see how the new management would turn out. Kearney says staffers are juggling a lot of responsibilities until the rest of the positions are filled on the editorial side. He also underscored that the newsroom hasn't seen dramatic cultural changes since Snyder was appointed editor: the New Republic still holds daily and weekly story meetings, the quality of the stories has held up, and their focuses remain similar.
He did note one difference, though: Slack, the intraoffice messaging application, has seen much wider use among staffers.
"It's gone from a very quiet place to...perhaps a place that has become very loud," he said wryly.
The investments in added staff and new technology at the New Republic presumably raise the stakes for Hughes, whom Vidra says has helped formulate and fund the magazine's new direction. Although the New Republic did not disclose specific financial information for the story, Vidra says the company's revenue has held steady this year compared to the year before. He's optimistic that the additional investments made to hire developers and create the content marketing studio will begin to pay dividends toward the end of this year and into early 2016.
"The fact that we haven't cratered while making a tremendous shift in strategy is a testament to the fact that there are plenty of buyers out there that see the value of our core audiences as we shift into a very different approach," Vidra said.
It's too early to make a final determination as to the success of the New Republic's revamped approach, but there are a few encouraging indicators, said Vivian Schiller, a former executive at NPR, The New York Times and Twitter who now advises media companies and brands. Schiller says she's spotted an increasing number of the magazine's articles on social media, a sign that the magazine's emphasis on reaching readers on their own turf is bearing fruit. She's notes that the magazine has also honed its editorial focus to emphasize a few key issues, like equal pay for women and gender equality.
"I think they're on the right track," Schiller said. "And I'll be looking at the one-year mark to see how they've done."
Despite all the big changes, Synder says the pivot isn't out-of-step with the best traditions of the New Republic. As he did in December, the editor-in-chief underscored a through-line between the most recent iteration of the New Republic and the magazine's legacy of reinvention.
"If you go back and read the very first words of the New Republic," Snyder said, pulling up the text, "The very first sentence in the very first issue of the magazine was, 'The New Republic is frankly an experiment. It is an attempt to find national audience for a journal of interpretation and opinion.'"