Here comes news that Chris Hughes is putting the august but now tumble-down New Republic up for sale. I will first say that I met with Hughes for lunch not long after the purchase and later signed off on some partnership discussions well before the epic implosion of a year ago (nothing came of them). And Chris was friendly and generous with me and idealistic in his outlook. But now it’s hard not to see this as a perfect inversion of the classic private equity model: a few years of transformative ownership in which his team managed to radically increase costs while completely destroying the company’s brand equity.
I want to be clear that it’s not that some incredibly talented people aren’t still there. You have expatriated TPMer Brian Beutler and Jeet Heer. And that’s not to discount anyone else on the masthead. Those are just people who were already on my radar before the implosion. And of course you have a whole generation of now ex-TNR staffers, tossed out to countless other publications and probably as we speak ritually burning their Chris Hughes voodoo dolls in some sort of mass pagan bonfire conflagration in downtown DC among the refugee TNR office penates. (Yes, a pretty Jewish crew but not terribly Halachic …)
As someone who has had to run a media operation at at least break-even levels for many years, I don’t buy the idea that The New Republic had to run at a loss forever. But a lot of this is a matter of executive/owner priorities. It’s been owned and run by people who had the luxury of sustaining some annual loss. The key is that The New Republic, as anything like what it’s been for a century, was never going to be a profit-making operation, certainly not a vertically integrated media cineplex or whatever they were trying to make it. Hughes now says the company needs a new business model and someone – a new owner – with the vision to give it one. But the truth is it already had a business model – a break-even operation that got break-even by some level of on-going subsidy from the owner, or orbital friendly richies. That’s not a profitable business model. And in my mind having to make a budget adds a level of discipline to a media operation that is salutary. But it’s a model that published a magazine for a century. So it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t count.
I will say that having decided to upend the entire operation and trigger a radical disruption and disjuncture with its history going back a generation, it seems a bit precipitous and unlovely for Hughes to kick it to the corner now and deprive it of the deep pockets which is now really its only asset.