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.