The Three-Month Countdown For The New Republic Time Bomb

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Updated: December 9, 2014, 11:52 AM EST

Last week was arguably the most tumultuous in The New Republic’s 100-year history. After two top editors stepped down amid plans to institute sweeping editorial changes and move the magazine’s headquarters from Washington, D.C., dozens of staff members resigned in protest.

Some of those staff members are now eulogizing the magazine, while Chris Hughes, the Facebtook co-founder who purchased TNR in 2012, has been forced to defend himself from an onslaught of criticism.

It’s a watershed moment for The New Republic, long considered a standard-bearer of American liberalism, but the upheaval had been anticipated by many staff members inside the newsroom.

In many ways, the landmark shifts for the magazine began months ago.

Sept. 17: Guy Vidra joins The New Republic

In what was an ominous hire for TNR’s old guard, Yahoo News executive Guy Vidra was named as chief executive officer of the magazine. Noting the magazine’s “storied brand ” and “intensely loyal audience,” Vidra said he was “eager to develop new products, push into new categories, and experiment with new approaches that will enhance and broaden our reach and deepen our relationship with readers.”

Hughes signaled that the hire would bring changes.

“One thing I’ve learned over the past two years is that to preserve and strengthen great institutions, you have to change them,” Hughes said. “Guy is a highly respected innovator with deep experience who will build on our recent progress in redefining The New Republic for a new time.”

Vidra’s arrival, as myriad reports have now made clear, sparked immediate tension with some of TNR’s mainstays.

Oct. 7: A night with The New Republic

Hughes and departed editor-in-chief Franklin Foer made a public appearance together around the same time as the unnerving staff meeting. Along with former TNR editor Michael Kinsley, the two presented “Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America,” an anthology commemorating TNR’s centennial, during an event at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington.

Foer’s appearance at the event evidently came as rumors swirled that he was on the hot seat.

“It was cowardly, the way Chris and Guy went about this,” Julia Ioffe said last week before resigning as senior editor at TNR. “Media reporters have been calling for months, asking, ‘Is Frank fired?,’ and they’ve been lying to everybody, including Frank.”

Late-October: The first sign of “disruption”

Vidra reportedly alarmed staff members with his Silicon Valley ethos during a meeting in October. The meeting may have been the clearest sign that editor-in-chief Franklin Foer had no future at Vidra’s TNR. Witnesses told The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove that Vidra “did little to hide his disrespect for TNR’s tradition of long-form storytelling and rigorous, if occasionally dense, intellectual and political analysis” while he led the meeting.

From Grove’s report:

Presiding at the head of a long conference table, Vidra didn’t acknowledge Foer, who was seated beside him; he didn’t look at him; he didn’t mention him. Instead, as he started to speak, Vidra confided that he liked to stand up and move around the room as he communicated his thoughts, as though he were Steve Jobs unveiling the latest technological marvel. Oddly, he stood up, but he didn’t move.

Vidra spoke in what one witness described as “Silicon Valley jargon,” and, using a tech cliché, declared: “We’re going to break shit”—a vow hardly calculated to ingratiate himself with TNR’s veteran belle-lettrists, who feared that he was threatening the magazine’s destruction. Only a few interns dared to ask questions, which Vidra repeatedly dodged. “The senior people were too shocked to speak,” said a witness. “Jaws were dropping to the floor.” Through it all, Chris Hughes nodded approvingly, an unnerving grin on his face.

Although Grove reported that this meeting took place at the beginning of the month, Alec MacGillis, one of several editors to resign from TNR last week, told TPM on Tuesday that it was in fact held at the end of October.

“For whatever it’s worth, the disastrous debut meeting with Vidra where he talked about ‘breaking shit’ and stroked his laptop was in late October, not early — Oct. 24,” MacGillis said in an email.

Early-November: Vidra gets bored

A series of events in November, beginning with another Vidra-led staff meeting, portended the changes that were coming a month later.

It was at that month’s meeting, according to Politico’s Dylan Byers, where Vidra levied a damning criticism of the magazine that Foer had led for several years.

“Sources said that Vidra also showed little regard for Foer or his writers,” Byers reported last week. “In a meeting held in November, he made it clear to staff that he found the magazine boring and had stopped reading longform articles.”

Nov. 9: Foer’s swan song

As part of the magazine’s 100-year anniversary celebration, Foer wrote a piece that chronicled the founding of TNR.

In Foer’s telling, the tumultuous career of Michael Straight, who became the magazine’s editor in 1941, yielded one unequivocally positive change for TNR.

“During his tenure, he moved the magazine to Washington,” Foer wrote.

Relocating its headquarters from Manhattan to Washington “sucked some of the romance from the magazine,” Foer wrote, but “the magazine’s writing about politics became more granular, better informed.”

Foer’s geographic preferences were ultimately ignored, and he never wrote for TNR again.

Nov. 18: No longer a magazine

Ahead of a star-studded gala to mark TNR’s 100th anniversary, the New York Times ran a story that looked at the magazine’s past, present and future.

In the piece by Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler, Hughes offered a certain description of TNR. That description “set off alarm bells with members of the staff,” New York Magazine’s Marin Cogan wrote later.

“Twenty years ago, no question, it was a political magazine, full stop,” Hughes told the Times. “Today, I don’t call it a magazine at all. I think we’re a digital media company.”

Schuessler wrote that Hughes and Vidra “dismissed speculation that they wanted to take the magazine in a more lowbrow, BuzzFeed-like direction,” a preemptive rebuttal to some of the criticism over the changes announced last week.

Nov. 19: A telling gaffe

The glitzy anniversary celebration, which was attended by the likes of former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, put the ongoing tension between Vidra and Foer on a grand stage.

While introducing Foer to the audience, Vidra mispronounced the longtime editor’s name, calling him “foyer.”

The gaffe “provoked gasps and laughter,” according to Grove.

Hughes reportedly “obsessed over the guest list,” which included former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “and personally handled the seating.”

“At the same time, he told several people at the magazine that he was not interested in sentimentally dwelling on its past,” the New York Times reported this week.

Dec. 4: Foer sees the writing on the wall screen

“Something is afoot at The New Republic,” Gawker’s J.K. Trotter wrote on Thursday afternoon.

While an official announcement hadn’t yet been made, Trotter wrote that TNR’s office was “buzzing” with rumors that Foer was about to be replaced by Gabriel Snyder, a former Gawker editor who most recently worked at Bloomberg Media.

That came as news to Foer, who “was placed in the humiliating position of having to phone Hughes to get confirmation” after Gawker’s report was posted, according to Grove.

Dec. 4: The “Red Wedding”

Foer announced his departure in a memo to staff, citing major differences with Hughes and Vidra.

“Chris and Guy have significant plans for this place,” he wrote. “And their plans and my own vision for TNR meaningfully diverge.”

Those plans, prompted by millions of dollars in annual losses, included cutting the magazine’s print schedule in half and moving the Washington institution’s headquarters to New York City. Vidra wrote in his own memo to staff that under Snyder’s stewardship the magazine will be sculpted into “a vertically integrated digital media company.”

It didn’t take long for TNR’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier to follow Foer out the door, and the two eventually received a standing ovation from the tear-filled newsroom.

Ioffe likened the newsroom that day to the “Red Wedding,” a gory scene from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” in which an entire family gets massacred.

Dec. 4: The masthead begins to crack

The news of Foer’s departure was still fresh when protests within the TNR family began to flare up. That afternoon, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, both contributing editors at TNR, took to Twitter to demand their names be removed from the magazine’s masthead.

Dec. 5: Exodus

The next day brought a tidal wave of resignations at TNR. Several other contributing editors joined Lizza and Chait in signing a letter to Hughes.

“We are contributing editors of The New Republic, and our commitment to the venerable principles of the magazine requires us now to resign,” they wrote.

More than a dozen other editors, including Ioffe and MacGillis, soon followed suit. By Friday afternoon, the number of resignations had grown to almost 50.

Ioffe and outgoing senior editor Jason Zengerle each took issue with the notion that their departures were prompted by a BuzzFeed-ification of the magazine. Zengerle told the Huffington Post that the dispute wasn’t a matter of “old media versus new media,” while Ioffe insisted that the departing editors are not “dinosaurs, who think that the Internet is scary and that Buzzfeed is a slur.”

In a statement later that day, Hughes said he was “saddened by the loss of such great talent,” but he reiterated his commitment to restructuring TNR.

“This is a time of transition, but I am excited to work with our team — both new and old alike — as we pave a new way forward,” he said. “The singular importance of The New Republic as an institution can and will be preserved, because it’s bigger than any one of us.”

Dec. 5: “Destruction”

Several former TNR editors and writers, including the blogger Andrew Sullivan, signed a scathing open letter published Friday night that decried the changes at the magazine.

“As former editors and writers for The New Republic, we write to express our dismay and sorrow at its destruction in all but name,” they wrote.

They added, “The New Republic is a kind of public trust. That is something all its previous owners and publishers understood and respected. The legacy has now been trashed, the trust violated. It is a sad irony that at this perilous moment, with a reactionary variant of conservatism in the ascendancy, liberalism’s central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon. The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.”

Dec. 6: Cancelation notice

Following the exodus, Vidra announced on Saturday that the upcoming issue of TNR would be canceled.

“As you know, an issue that was in production by recently departed editors and writers, scheduled to appear on newsstands on December 15th, was left unfinished,” Vidra said in a memo to staff that was reported on by the New York Times. “Despite the incredible work you all are doing, going forward with the issue would run the risk of falling short of this institution’s renowned high standards.”

Vidra said that TNR’s next issue will come on Feb. 2, “as scheduled.”

Dec.7: Hughes strikes back

After drawing criticism from TNR veterans and media critics for days, the embattled Hughes used an editorial in the Washington Post, which was recently purchased by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, to defend his vision for the magazine.

“I didn’t buy the New Republic to be the conservator of a small print magazine whose long-term influence and survival were at risk,” he wrote. “I came to protect the future of the New Republic by creating a sustainable business so that our journalism, values and voice — the things that make us singular — could survive.”

Hughes argued that a failure to experiment with new ideas will guarantee TNR’s irrelevance to future generations, but he pushed back against suggestions that he and Vidra simply want more click-bait.

“If we wanted to chase traffic with listicles and slide shows, we would have,” he wrote. “Instead, I have spent the last two and a half years supporting an institution whose mission I believe in and investing millions of dollars into its singular journalism so that it can continue to be influential and important.”

He also called out the departing staff members, questioning how much they cared about TNR.

“If you really care about an institution and want to make it strong for the ages, you don’t walk out,” Hughes wrote. “You roll up your sleeves, you redouble your commitment to those ideals in a changing world, and you fight. This 100-year-old story is worth fighting for.”

TPM illustration by Nick R. Martin. Image sources: AP and The New Republic.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Kludt is a reporter for Talking Points Memo based in New York City, covering media and national affairs. Originally from South Dakota, Tom joined TPM as an intern in late-2011 and became a staff member during the 2012 election. He can be reached at tom@talkingpointsmemo.com.
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