Ad agency spinoff hints at strategic pivot at the New Republic
When Frank Foer was publicly ousted from the New Republic's top editorial job at the end of 2014, industry observers pegged his departure to a larger culture shift at the venerable magazine of politics and culture.
Chris Hughes, the multi-millionaire former Facebook executive, had purchased the magazine and pledged to transform it into a "vertically integrated media company," in the words of CEO Guy Vidra. But judging by an announcement today from the New Republic, the magazine might be distancing itself from that strategy and returning to its roots.
After Foer's departure, the New Republic forged ahead despite the departure of a hefty portion of its masthead. A spate of new hires injected digital acumen and diversity into the editorial ranks of the New Republic, and a series of promising projects began cropping up.
Novel, an advertising agency aimed at a higher strata of clients, gave the magazine an entree to the native advertising business sought by many of its competitors. The New Republic built its own content management system. The magazine and its website were redesigned. To hear New Republic staffers talk — as I did last summer — the magazine was in the midst of a much-needed digital renaissance.
But then Hughes decided to get out of the publishing business. After lavishing more than $20 million on the magazine, the former Facebook spokesperson announced in January that he was selling the New Republic, acknowledging that he was unable to come up with "the silver bullet" that supports digital journalism. The future of the magazine, which has ping-ponged between owners in the century since its founding, was once again uncertain.
The magazine's trajectory became a little clearer this morning when Hamilton Fish, the new editorial director at the New Republic, announced in a staff-wide email that the magazine was distancing itself from two digital moves made in the Hughes era. Fish, who joined the magazine after it was purchased by publisher Winthrop McCormack, announced the New Republic will uncouple itself from Novel. Meanwhile, Eliot Pierce, a New York Times alum brought aboard by Hughes to oversee product development, is also departing. Here's a section of the email published by Fishbowl NY.
As we focus on the core business activities of our evolving publishing model, we have had to make some very hard decisions, resulting in significant staffing changes. I am working with each of the departments that have been affected to ease the transition and reduce as much of the impact as possible.
Some these changes could be routine editorial turnover that accompanies changing ownership. But the decision to disintegrate Novel seems to suggest the new leadership at the New Republic are focused more on the magazine's core editorial product and less on incubating standalone digital ventures within the company. That dovetails with a line of thinking espoused by Hendrik Hertzberg, a former editor of the New Republic, in a February interview with The Daily Beast. In the interview, Hertzberg predicted a McCormack-influenced New Republic might hew closer to the traditional "culture of the liberal literary weekly."
“I expect it will be more like The New Republic and less like what it is now,” predicted former TNR editor Hendrik Hertzberg, a vocal critic of Hughes’s ownership record. “Ham [Fish] is marinated in the whole culture of the liberal literary weekly, having spent many years at The Nation…Politically The New Republic will be occupying or overlapping the same space.”
Meanwhile, a few of the staffers brought aboard under Hughes' ownership have departed the magazine in recent months. Suzy Khimm, Jamil Smith and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig have all left the New Republic for freelance writing, MTV News and The Washington Post, respectively.
Fish will take questions from staffers during an all-hands meeting at 3 p.m., according to Fishbowl NY. But barring further announcements, today's changes would seem to indicate The New Republic is headed back to its origins under McCormack's stewardship after a brief stint as a "vertically integrated media company."
Gabriel Snyder, the editor-in-chief of the New Republic, declined to comment in an email to Poynter. A spokesperson for The New Republic declined to comment.
Correction: A previous version of this story attributed to Fish the characterization that the New Republic was spinning off Novel. That characterization was made by Kayvan Salmanpour in a story from Ad Age.