In response to the news Monday that Chris Hughes, the owner of the New Republic since 2012, no longer wished to own the magazine, the writer Jonathan Chait supplied an entertaining quote to the New York Times:
“A business is something that is trying to make money,” he said. “If you’re in a town and you’re trying to sell hamburgers, and everyone wants pizza, you’d switch to pizza. But The New Republic believes in hamburgers. We think you need hamburgers, and we will continue to make hamburgers and try and persuade you to eat them.”
Some people thought that the most amusing word in that quote was “hamburgers,” but the most amusing word in that quote really was “we.” In 2011, six months before Chris Hughes bought the magazine, Jonathan Chait left the New Republic to become a full-time writer for New York magazine.
Three years later, Hughes dismissed editor Franklin Foer in an unpopular and awkward shakeup, leading much of the magazine’s staff to resign. In solidarity, Chait demanded to be removed from the New Republic’s masthead, where he had been listed as a contributing editor. His contributions over the previous year had amounted to one byline, in the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue, on an essay about how important the New Republic was to him, and how it was “an irreplaceable institution in American intellectual life.”
Joining Chait in that protest was Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, who’d left the New Republic in 2007, and who had written nothing for it for more than a year before he surrendered his contributing editorship. Contributing editors Ruth Franklin and Robert Kagan likewise resigned with zero bylines in the previous 12 months. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, another renunciant, had contributed three pieces to the New Republic in that span.
So much for irreplaceable institutions. If you wanted to make hamburgers, to paraphrase the Wizznutzz, you would make hamburgers, and if you wanted to talk about how you want to make hamburgers, then that’s what you’d do, and you do do that.
Chris Hughes is certainly a fool and a perfect mascot for our current, downy-cheeked accidental plutocracy. Having written a memo confessing his inability to find a “sustainable business model” for the New Republic, he chose to publish that memo for free on Medium. The way he framed his decision to quit—that having sunk, by his account, $20 million of his Facebook fortune into the magazine, he was looking for “a larger digital media company” or “another passionate individual” to take it off his hands—is a vapid fantasy.
But Hughes and his generation have no monopoly on self-parody. Here, in the mix of reactions, is the Twitter opinion of one Tina Brown:
“Dilettante smashes toy,” writes the editor who shut down Newsweek’s print edition (only to see it revived after she was gone).
If the New Republic is the story of a vanity owner who got in over his head and decided he couldn’t keep losing money, that’s not the story of Chris Hughes. It’s the story of Marty Peretz selling the magazine to Chris Hughes in the first place.
The New Republic is a shadow of its former self. It was a shadow of its former self in 2012, too—a weekly cut back to biweekly, fumbling for a digital plan, the writers who identified with it preferring to actually work elsewhere.
Pizza and burgers aside, Chait wasn’t entirely wrong about the magazine being irreplaceable, in the sense that nothing fills the role it used to. At the height of the New Republic’s power, Peretz could force the world of politics and journalism to pay attention to his opinions, no matter how terrible and destructive they were.
It’s not clear that Hughes has any opinions, but even if he did, there’s no comparably effective way to inflict them on the public. Hamburgers aren’t losing out to pizza, in this world; hamburgers are losing out to Soylent and Instagrams of cappuccinos. Facebook can make a fellow rich, but he can’t buy back the world as it was before Facebook.
Even so, influence journalism is not entirely dead. The president still gathers key columnists to him, off the record, when he feels the need to make a case. When President Obama was pushing for the nuclear agreement with Iran, for instance, he reportedly summoned a group of journalists to the White House to discuss it. The New Republic of Chris Hughes was not invited. But Jonathan Chait of New York magazine was.