Opinion

Jack Shafer

Chris Hughes friends the New Republic

By Jack Shafer
March 9, 2012

Chris Hughes joins the pantheon of vanity press moguls with the announcement today of his purchase of a majority interest in the New Republic. The 28-year-old Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, commands a net worth that Forbes put “in the $700 million range” last year. Based on this portfolio, Hughes should be able to sustain the magazine’s annual losses — which Anne Peretz, the ex-wife of former owner Martin Peretz put at $3 million a year — for a couple of hundred years after his death.

Of course, vanity press moguls rarely commit to their publications for life, and few sustain the relationship after death. Learning nothing from the vanity moguls who have gone before them, they recycle all of their errors. As their publisher’s promises to cut deficits and turn a small profit go unmet; as the editor he inherited from the previous regime turns out to be a dolt; as the staff gets caught giggling about the stupid things the vanity mogul said in story meetings; as the mag ends up making the vanity mogul enemies instead of the new, powerful friends he wished for, he begins to understand that publishing isn’t the creative paradise he sought.

Despite the heartache of owning marginal publications, millionaire after billionaire has lined up in the last generation to buy in or launch a publication of his own. The vanity moguls’ contemporary ranks include Mortimer Zuckerman (the Atlantic, Fast Company, the Daily News), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Harvey Weinstein (Talk), Martin Peretz (New Republic), Arthur L. Carter (The Nation, New York Observer), Jared Kushner (New York Observer), John Warnock and William Hambrecht (Salon), convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon (Washington Times, Insight, World & I, UPI), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), David Bradley (National Journal, the Atlantic), Warren Hellman (Bay Citizen), and Bill Gates (Slate). But they’ve been with us since the 1890s, when William Randolph Hearst used his family fortune to spread his newspaper ego across the nation.

The rich often buy vanity publications when they learn quickly that having a lot of money doesn’t necessarily make them “players.” They want that sort of influence and are crestfallen by the fact that the only reliable way to get people to do as you say — or even nod in agreement — is to put them on the payroll. Purchasing a publication, even a down-on-its-heels magazine like the New Republic, conveys some of that status, providing entree into certain salons and cabals of influence. (Although it still publishes many worthy articles, I rarely hear it cited as often as its competitors — the Atlantic, Mother Jones, the Weekly Standard — but that’s just anecdotal evidence.)

Martin Peretz came closer to becoming a pariah than a player in the four decades he controlled the magazine. So even though Hughes has an Obama connection, making a name for himself during the 2008 campaign running the candidate’s social-media division, there is little chance the magazine can return to its imagined status as the “inflight magazine of Air Force One”? That’s right, imagined. The phrase, penned early in the first Clinton term by my editor James Ledbetter when he was a Village Voice media columnist, was not a compliment. Even so, the magazine adopted the phrase on blow-in subscription cards and in its promotion literature, and it was recycled by characters in Billy Ray’s 2003 film about Stephen Glass, Shattered Glass, as if the assessment had been real.

Publications aren’t always “rich people things,” to pinch the wonderful Chris Lehmann’s construction. But for every man who spent part of his fortune on publications and got it all back when he sold to the next sucker, there are a dozen department store owners, real estate operators, trust fund kids, tech tycoons and hedge fund whizzes who haven’t. From the outside, owning a publication looks like a lot of fun, but there are only two guaranteed ways to have fun at a publication: writing and editing. Even if you’re lucky enough to make money off your publication, pocketing profits aren’t anywhere near as fun as producing stories.

Ordinarily, the staff discourages the vanity mogul from accessing the fun. They just want him to pay the bills. But I see in today’s New York Times that Hughes has given himself the title of “editor-in-chief” of the New Republic, indicating that he intends to bring his keyboard and his moneybag to the magazine. Perhaps he’ll be a terrific editor-in-chief, hiring talented journalists as he makes good on his promise to enlarge its staff while soaking up the magazine’s deficit. Or maybe he’ll be an editor-in-chief like Martin Peretz was, hiring talented journalists as he enlarges its staff and covered its deficits, but insisting that the editors publish his loopy columns.

Like the vanity moguls before him, Hughes has told the Times that profit “per se is not my motive.” He told the paper he aims for great journalism, previewing his plans to expand the magazine’s staff and predicting a transition from print to electronic in the long term (5 to 10 years). One can assume that he will also slather his new media hocus-pocus on the magazine to boost its fortunes and that it can’t help but rebound, regaining some of its old journalistic primacy.

But vanity moguls who say their primary focus isn’t profits still tend to lose interest in their publications in direct proportion to the amount of money they lose. Pariah Peretz was unique in his perseverance. But then again, it was his wife’s fortune that stoked the magazine’s furnace for so many years. Having been 28 myself once, I wonder how long the junior vanity mogul will stick with the New Republic. Having hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal can be a distraction and can make even a saint into a tyrant. Here’s hoping that in the short term, the New Republic staff finds the crease in the zone — integrating their new patron into the magazine just enough so that he remains its benefactor but not so deeply that he thinks paying the bills makes him the boss. In the long term, let’s hope for the sake of political journalism they scout out the next aspiring vanity mogul.

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PHOTO: Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, speaks at the Charles Schwab IMPACT 2010 conference in Boston, October 28, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger

Comments
One comment so far | RSS Comments RSS

Jack, Jack, Jack…

As if being a publicly traded rag exempts hired-hand columnists and editors from draping their egos less than those “vanity” balance sheets that are funded by their owners? To wit…your own ego is on prominent (and tiresome!) display at Reuters even though your 401K matching doesn’t round up to anything meaningful. Give Hughes credit for at least putting him mouth where his money is.

Maybe Hughes can be a more effective editor at New Republic that those pros at Reuters: Did you really craft this grammatical gem all by your vain little self?
“….pocketing profits aren’t anywhere near as fun as producing stories….”

Wow, Jack…check your dosage.

And by the way…are you complaining that Slate is one of those Vain rags? When on earth did you sleep? – I mean, no doubt ghost writing all the time for Bill Gates!

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