Opinion

Jack Shafer

Unsolicited advice for New Republic owner Chris Hughes

Jack Shafer
Jan 29, 2013 23:01 UTC

For more than a century, rich guys who think they’re smarter than the rich guys who came before them have been buying money-losing publications under the impression that by spending more money than their deep-pocketed predecessors, they’ll turn the red ink black. This tradition, whose ranks include such modern vanity moguls as Mortimer Zuckerman (Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), Arthur L. Carter (Nation, New York Observer), Philip Anschutz (San Francisco Examiner, Weekly Standard), David Bradley (Atlantic, National Journal), Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg Businessweek), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), and Martin Peretz (New Republic), gained a new adherent about a year ago when Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder whose net worth currently bounces around in the vicinity of the half-billion mark, purchased the New Republic.

Since then, Hughes has followed the century-old script to a T, wheel-barreling a load of cash into the magazine, replacing the top editor with the former top editor, adding staff, opening a New York office, making plans to move his Washington staff to a nicer home, and ordering a makeover of both the magazine and website. This week, those redesigns debuted, with the magazine getting slicker and thicker, and the website receiving a sumptuous transformation that makes the competition look like they’re squatting on GeoCities sites.

Like the rich guys who have come before, Hughes has also set the goal of making the magazine profitable in “a couple years.” Making money is a wonderful ambition for the New Republic, which was losing about $3 million a year several years before Hughes began the current expansion, according to Martin Peretz’s ex-wife, Ann Peretz. Everybody should make money! But the ambition is more loony than it is wonderful. In today’s publishing environment it’s almost impossible for a journal of opinion or national general-interest magazine that’s not part of a larger magazine group that handles ad sales and back-office matters (e.g., Time Warner and Time; Condé Nast and the New Yorker and Vanity Fair) to maintain profitability.

Perhaps the Hughes Republic could turn a quarterly profit now and again if it were to ape the Atlantic and buttress the magazine’s content with tons of topical copy by inexpensive writers, enter the events racket, start a “digital consultancy,” and launch a business site. But as an experienced advice-giver to vanity moguls, I must warn Hughes against trodding this path, even though he’s committed himself to hosting events and already helped chair a New Republic panel.

When folks suggest that he must spend money to make money — that in order to staunch losses one must lose even more — make sure they can cite an analogous case in which the strategy worked. Hughes will be a lot happier running the New Republic as an expensive toy or a cheap millionaire’s hobby, and so will the world of journalism. Let’s say Hughes’ losses crest at $5 million a year. If anybody gives him any lip about it, he can quote from the scene in Citizen Kane, where Charles Foster Kane’s banker frets about the $1 million Kane is losing each year on the New York Inquirer. Replies Kane, “At the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in 60 years.”

Are you reading the best magazine in America?

Jack Shafer
Dec 14, 2011 23:06 UTC

My original commitment to Bloomberg BusinessWeek was so small it was almost negative.

About this time last year, US Airways, Delta, or some other crappy airline notified me that my soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles could be exchanged for magazine subscriptions, which is how I ended up spending something like 600 miles to add a year’s subscription to Bloomberg BusinessWeek to my Towering Reading Pile.

My Towering Reading Pile is governed by neo-Darwinian, survival-of-the-smartest-copy laws. With all the good stuff to read directly on the Web, stored on my RSS reader, and stockpiled by my Instapaper account, a mere book, magazine, or newspaper must be exceptional. Some publications (the New York Times) I read thoroughly because everybody I work with (and many of the people I write for) reads it. Other publications I first fillet for their prime morsels, like National Review for Mark Steyn’s ongoing chronicle of a planet gone retrograde and Vanity Fair for James Wolcott’s recombinant experiments with the American language. On Sundays, I make the weekend editions of the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times play gladiator by tossing them into a 55-gallon drum and letting them fight it out. Upon returning a half-hour later, I collect the articles that were strong enough to defend themselves and consume them.

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