On managing change: Chris Hughes and The New Republic

managing-change-chris-hughes-and-emthe-new-republicem
Franklin Foer, Leon Wieseltier, Chris Hughes. (Foer: TNR.com; Wieseltier: AP Photo; Hughes: AP Photo.)
Tweet Share on Facebook Print

Ken Doctor

Follow: feed

On Thursday, I had lunch with a veteran colleague in the news trade. He's a top editor, an innovator in digital-only, magazine and newspaper media. Like many, he's between jobs. He'll have plenty of opportunities, but finding the right one sometimes seems near impossible. The old media companies appear mired in legacy, still debating how to move out the workforce that can't or won't adjust to the new realities of digital-infused journalism. The new ones too often brim with arrogance, hell-bent on the new with little patience for the serious task of figuring out how the standards that once created a vibrant American journalism might be applied today.

On Friday, the tragicomic unfolding of events at The New Republic took center stage for a day in the world of media disruption. Immediately, our lunchtime conversation resonated.

What happened at The New Republic—the public resignations of top editor Frank Foer and more than two dozen T.N.R. editors and contributors in protest of the magazine's new management and its plans, which include a halving of printings to 10 per year—may seem like an unusual meltdown. In fact, it holds a mirror to the ungainly culture wars that mark this once-in-a-lifetime (so far) change in news media. Inside every news media company, there's a necessary struggle going on. What to keep, and what to add. What to let go of, and what to insist on. There is no road map to getting it right, and we can argue that there can't be one. Beyond the pressures of tight—and usually declining revenues—the unprecedented arrival of new owners further roils the waters.

T.N.R. owner Chris Hughes is just one of many new owners reshaping these sometimes venerable news companies. The old fraternal bonds in the industry created a network that for years traded magazine and newspaper properties among themselves have come apart. Most sales were quite private transactions, often conducted among people who knew each other deeply, or were brokered by agents with deep industrial knowledge calling the usual suspects.

MORE ON POLITICO

ADVERTISEMENT

Today, try to name a legacy publisher eager to buy more properties, like they used to do in the old days when a title or paper came up for sale.

Without those suspects in the buying game, new money must enter the industry, and with it, those who color outside its historical lines.

In newspapers, we've seen great change in ownership. Billionaires Jeff Bezos, John Henry and Glen Taylor (the Fifty-Fifty Men, I've called them) so far bring a reasoned, long-term investment view to the change—and that's largely a contrarian play, given that too many established publishers believe that cost-cutting is the main strategy for the years ahead. On the other coast, interlopers like Aaron Kushner and Doug Manchester in Southern California, one gone from the scene in the blink of a publishing eye and the other looking to get out, bring their own unorthodox practices to the trade.

The T.N.R. revolt also offers echoes both of past battles and current reductions-in-force. Consider the massive change at another journalistic institution, The Village Voice, after the New Times boys, Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, took over in 2005. Decades-long staffers—columnist Nat Hentoff's 2008 firing is akin to the current departure of 31-year T.N.R. veteran Leon Wieseltier—walked, or were pushed with uneven gentility out of the windows. (Which only brings us deeper into the Wayback Machine, to the 1977 film Between the Lines, which captured the alternative-press turmoil of an earlier era.) Right now, The New York Times finds itself in the midst of a staff reduction of more than a hundred. Is that an effort to simply reduce expenses, by more than $10 million, or is it an effort to move out less-digitally staffers, in favor of shifting the newsroom's future readiness? In a word, yes. At the Times, the most generous severance terms seen in the industry in years have soothed a debate on that question ("New York Times Buyout Watch").

“Change” is the universal mantra, and its need is undeniable. How the change is done is the question, and the magic formula for that so far eludes everyone. There is no one way to get it right—and so many ways to get it wrong.

Vox's Ezra Klein brings some much-needed perspective and context to this story. The world around T.N.R. has greatly changed, and that—as much as a new owner—demands that T.N.R. itself change to survive.

TNR.com might flourish under [new editor Gabriel] Snyder. But it won't be what The New Republic was. And that's because the thing The New Republic was has already died [itals mine]. The eulogy that needs to be written isn't for The New Republic. It's for The New Republic and The American Prospect and The Washington Monthly and their peers. It's for the role once played by Washington's small fleet of ambitious policy magazines ….

The internet is now thick with outlets that pride themselves on covering Washington's vast policymaking apparatus. Vox is one of them, as is The New Republic, but so are Wonkblog, the Upshot, Mother Jones, Storyline, FiveThirtyEight, and Politico, to name just a few .... This sprawling conversation over Washington policymaking used to be centered in a handful of elite-focused policy magazines, of which The New Republic was perhaps the best known and most ambitious .... But they're no longer the center of the policy conversation in Washington. That conversation has spilled online, beyond their pages, outside their borders.

New Yorker editor David Remnick best summed up the suspicions of many about Hughes’ words, and deeds: "If the clichés of new media are being used here to paper over the undermining of an institution of real rigor and intelligence, people should describe it for what it is, which is a terrible loss and an outrage.”

The big “cliché of new media” Remnick refers to is undoubtedly from the words of Guy Vidra, which are quite standard 3,000 miles away, but still laughable in the Beltway and through much of the journalism establishment: That he would make T.N.R. a "vertically integrated digital media company." On the web, we’ve seen query after query about it.

What does Vidra likely mean?

One, that the parts of the T.N.R. business should work better together—think of a funnel—than they do currently. That would include meshing strategies for content creation (editorial), subscription (circulation) and possible T.N.R. forays into native and content marketing (advertising) with a fourth push into events, connecting them all in a new kind of virtuous circle. That’s what everyone from the Times to the Atlantic to the new Time Inc. is trying—and even The New Yorker.

Secondly, Vidra would want the next T.N.R. to stand out in its “vertical.” It’s easier to define other verticals, like Vox’s Verge in tech, or WebMD in health, or ESPN in sports than it is to define T.N.R.’s place in the digital world—which is, precisely, one of Ezra Klein’s points. Whatever that vertical is—historically it was one of a robust group of journals bridging policy and the academy, but it looks likely to become something else— it has to be thought of as among the best of that kind to find audience and advertising in the digital din.

So, in shorthand, “vertically integrated digital media company" may seem like gibberish, but the goals likely behind it form the business models of the day for digital media. The other problem with the spout of strategy, if offered alone without deeper explanation—or better yet, skipping the gibberish and getting to concrete specifics—is that it’s just a giant truism. Just because there is real meaning in the jargon doesn’t make it any more useful. Who doesn't see the necessity of becoming a vertically integrated digital media company? The question is whether Vidra has any strategy for getting there.

Indeed, the clichés of our time are too easy to cite. Print reading is becoming, slowly, secondary to digital, even among Baby Boomers. Print advertising is in freefall, unbelievably dropping year after year at high single-digit rates, even as its base shrinks accordingly. Figuring out how to move with that transition—deftly—demands getting past the clichés.

It also demands a kind of interaction with employees—whether with a Leon Wieseltier, or young, digital-native journalists—that publishers more often than not have gotten wrong. Many push too little, and too slowly—still after a quarter century of Internet interruption.

Others get the religion overnight; here, T.N.R.'s Chris Hughes' conversion (after straddling print/digital, in an interim period well described by The Washington Post's Erik Wemple) feels a lot like Advance Media's feeling-near-its-deathbed move to rapidly shrink print papers, restructure all its companies, divorce the journalism of its newspapers from its city sites, and cut staffing all at about the same time. Then, there's the serial newsroom revolutions of Gannett—correctly acknowledging the landscape, but losing credibility with each successive rev—and Digital First Media, whose improvised digital-first moves have been swallowed in a paroxysm of cost-cutting.

It's tough to know how precisely Hughes worked the change process at T.N.R., but we know its clumsy result. Whatever real mistakes were made have been amplified by what we can call the A.Q., or Asshole Quotient. It's one thing to cite the realities of digital disruption and to prescribe change; it's another to be a punk about it. Recall that's what got Tim Armstrong in trouble as he dispatched Patch—and troublesome staff—simultaneously at the same staff meeting. In this case, Yahoo vet (and these days that term has a very wide compass) and newish T.N.R. C.E.O. Guy Vidra is being painted, fairly or not, as one of those Silicon Valley punks more adept at “breaking shit” (to paraphrase his own words) than building.

It's not the youth of 31-year-old Chris Hughes andthirty-something Vidra that's the culprit here. It's their judgment, their knowledge of how to make meaningful change. I regularly talk to scores of thirty-somethings who are threading the needle with some skill in the digital business.

Shock therapy, no matter how righteously or rightly intended, usually does more harm than good. Why? The hits are at least threefold:

• Journalists' unease won't prompt them to do their best work.

• Readers wonder about the good judgment they've come to expect in their favorite publication. Journalistic esteem demands a steadiness; now The New Republic's legacy is cracked.

• The brand—that intangible value that resides in decades-old news media titles—suffers, immeasurably, but significantly.

Indeed, journalism is journalism, in 2014 or 1964. We know it when it's good and right, and when it's oh-so-sorry, as in Rolling Stone's oops-we-forgot-we-weren't supposed-to-do-one-source-exposés apology, which tarnishes the craft more broadly. Those who approach it without knowing its history or purpose too often lose interest or focus or both. So far at least, First Look Media places itself on that list. So does Say Media, which recently explained that focusing both on technology and content consumed too many brain cells, and, of course, opted for the former ("Platishers, beware: Say Media gives up on publishing").

It's a different era, but T.N.R.'s new peril is to follow in the footsteps of the Voice ("How Management Killed “The Village Voice”), losing the intangible of stature before it can find its mainly digital future. Yes, vertical integration is one necessity, but before it can be achieved, trust-building management is the price of admission to the new age.

Ken Doctor is a media business analyst, covering the legacy-to-digital transformation of the industry, and a contributing writer to Capital. He is the author of the Newsonomics column at Nieman Journalism Lab.