January 11, 2016

A former publisher of the New Republic told me once that his charge was not necessarily to turn a profit but to keep the losses to a low roar.

For Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes, losses were more like a loud roar — $20 million during the three-and-a-half years of his ownership. Also credit the 32-year-old Hughes with maturity, realizing that the time has come for recapitalization and a fresh eye on transformation strategy.

So the New Republic is for sale again, and yet another reinvention will doubtless follow.

I also recall my first boss, New York Times columnist Scotty Reston, returning from a lunch with the New Republic’s then-owner and editor, Gilbert Harrison, saying they had discussed alternatives to give the publication a major makeover — to a youth-targeted editorial agenda, as I recall. That was in 1970.

Hughes’s answer was a variant — a vertically integrated digital organization. But doing digital doesn’t necessarily translate to succeeding with digital. The Hughes version never was sharply focused, and his lack of publishing experience came with high cost as he lost his editor and much of the rest of the staff in a blowup in late 2014.

Which is not to say that the New Republic is doomed. I and others have celebrated The Atlantic’s deft touch with digital publishing and its thriving events business. Before the holidays, I wrote about how the old Reader’s Digest Association has emerged from a second bankruptcy with a new company name, a new publishing and editorial team and decent prospects for a turnaround.

Other titles have proven past saving, the Atlantic’s print version of National Journal, for example.

Into which category does the New Republic fit?

I think it will be handicapped by that longtime identity issue. In my professional lifetime the New Republic has had mostly liberal leanings but also went through a stage as neo-conservative. Long-time owner Martin Peretz trended left except on Israel, where he was a resolute hawk.

Like The Washington Monthly in its heyday, the New Republic for many years attracted talented young writers working at very modest salaries to break into bigger and better things. But that strategy relied on scarcity — there were only a few such places. In the digital era, there are many, and hot digital-only sites like Vox or BuzzFeed may be the superior platform for writers to show off what they’ve got.

Nor is any of the New Republic’s legacy editorial mix of commentary, in-depth reported pieces and literary essays in short supply.

Despite the odds, I am confident, as Hughes wrote his staff this morning, that the New Republic will find a buyer. Foundations looking for a megaphone (as now support The Washington Monthly) could be a prospect. Also a wealthy enthusiast who remembers the New Republic’s glory days and wants a crack at turning it around could emerge.

That was the scenario last fall for the down-and-out Village Voice. Pennsylvania newspaper owner Peter D. Barbey loved the Voice as a young adult and has taken on reviving it with his personal fortune.  Last  week, Barbey announced he was bringing back drama critic, Michael Feingold, a victim of the old regime’s downsizing.

My take: Despite the long odds, we haven’t seen the last iteration of the New Republic.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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