The knives were out for Chris Hughes from his first weeks as owner of The New Republic. It's hard to remember—and for people who do not live in Washington or work in the media, it's downright obscure—but the co-founder of Facebook was once seen as a savior of a magazine that had been flagging. Years of declining circulation, years of cutbacks that turned in-house talent into freelancers, were stopped by one man's Facebook fortune.
Right now, as most of the magazine's masthead resigns and dishes about Hughes's disastrous leadership decisions, it's startling to read the coverage of his takeover—the triumph-to-hubris arc was being carved right away.
"We’re thinking expansively and we’ve resolved to grow, to add, to enlarge," the magazine's literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, told the New York Times in May 2012. "This is not just about survival anymore, this is about growth." Yet Wieseltier said that in a piece about Hughes's decision to hire Frank Foer, the journalist who led the magazine in its post-Iraq War turn away from neoliberal contrarianism, to lead it again. A certain ugliness had been elided, in that the chair was not empty; Hughes had to get rid of Richard Just, who'd been editor for less than two years. Foer had buzz, Just didn't. Even though Just had recruited Hughes as TNR's avenging angel, he was out.
Hughes was destined to accrue more media coverage than the average owner or editor. He was a young, married, gay tycoon, and there hadn't been many of those. He'd been credited with some of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign web success—a victory that claimed a thousand fathers—so he was an easy target for anyone who wanted to bemoan the magazine's swing away from publishing pieces liberals hated. (Some held up well. Some, like the Iraq War advocacy and Bell Curve excerpt, less well. And then there was the endorsement of Joe Lieberman for president...) The Washington Free Beacon, the most aggressive of the Obama era's new conservative media, ran story after story about Hughes as the ruiner of a once-great magazine, a "poke button pioneer" who had carpetbagged into upstate New York to let his husband try to win a House seat.
In 2013, Hughes himself participated in an interview with Obama, and reporter Michael Calderone quickly discovered that this bumped an ambitious Steven Brill story about health care. Brill dished about how Hughes wanted a splashier cover. "It was something you would do if you were really drunk and ran the college newspaper," he snarled.
Foer and Hughes's new magazine mixed TNR's typical intellectual interests with a certain glossy grandiosity, a sometimes clashing mixture. What exactly the new New Republic was supposed to be, and who it was for in this new era, was often hard to figure. And there were other bumps. Not long after the launch, TNR parted with columnist Tim Noah and ended the cryptically titled TRB column. That offended devotees of the magazine and friends of Noah. (He's a former colleague and mentor, not that any of this piece is his fault.) Noah dished to Politico's Dylan Byers that, after Hughes's objection to a punchy headline, he "quietly worried whether the magazine's new owner (who around that time also told an audience at the Kennedy School that he'd like to co-brand a chain of cafes called the New Republic) might be a young man with more money than sense."
It sounded bad, but the self-exiled staffers—and there are dozens of them—now remember a time of good cheer and great stories. And such there were. The Hughes/Foer era saw the paper break into China coverage via Beijing-based reporter Christopher Beam, whose first cover story was optioned for a movie. Russian-fluent reporter Julia Ioffe published newsy profiles on the right, then reported and corralled some of the web's sharpest coverage of Vladimir Putin's medal-winning, country-invading 2014. Noam Scheiber's 2013 cover story on Elizabeth Warren helped shape the next year's coverage of the invisible Democratic primary. Alec MacGillis wrote deeply-reported political profiles that accidentally broke open new stories. Jason Zengerle, one of the young reporters who left the magazine in the cutback era, was hired back to write big swing stories like a look at how black voters had been rendered irrelevant in the new South.
"It was doing the kind of journalism that fewer and fewer places were doing these days, the kind of pieces you work on for months in order to make a big splash, and Chris was committed to it," says Zengerle. "As far as I was concerned, everything was fine until that moment Guy was hired. That was the first indication that Chris's thinking had changed. Up to that point, Chris and Frank had been inseparable. And then suddenly, Chris's vision was Guy's vision."
"Guy" being Guy Vidra, a former Yahoo executive whom the former staffers largely blame for the ruination of the magazine. They do not let Hughes off the hook, exactly. In 2014, Eldridge ran for Congress at great expense and to much personal embarrassment. (He lost a district narrowly carried by the Obama-Biden ticket by a 2-1 landslide.) Magazine traffic was up, but far below sites of competing magazines like The Atlantic and Slate. In October, the website brought in 3.6 million uniques; in November, typically a slower month after an election ends, it hit 5.4 million uniques.
This was not enough, though. This year, Web editor Michael Schaeffer left TNR for Washingtonian. Vidra joined the magazine as CEO, in an expanding role, and injected a mix of jargon, ideas, and idea-jargon into the discussion. He imagined "pods," channels in which star writers would follow obsessions, the way The Atlantic's stars can be followed as voices. He imagined more data visualization, more products, and this led to the confrontation that blew up the magazine. On Wednesday, Foer called around and learned the truth of a rumor that Gabriel Snyder—whom, in a memo, he called a member of the "straddle generation" that understands print and the Web—would replace him. Snyder was a veteran of products like The Atlantic Wire (and Bloomberg) that moved at the speed Vidra and Hughes were interested in.
The gracelessness of the switcher started the staff's exodus. On Thursday night, D.C. members of the TNR team met at a "wake" that was openly described as such, and discussed online.
On Thursday morning, 15 of the magazine's editors and writers co-signed a letter of resignation. Thirteen contributing editors (an honorary title given to valued former staffers or occasional writers) added their names. Ryan Lizza and Julia Ioffe, a contributing editor and senior editor, respectively, livetweeted and mocked the remarks Hughes and Vidra gave at a staff meeting.
None of that was inevitable. Again, Hughes had his detractors since the word "go," or "buy." What changed, staffers speculate, is that he started to care less about what Washington thought and more about what his native world of influencers thought. I saw a little of this up close in summer, when I joined a few pundits for an installment of the GE-sponsored #Pressing series of media events. My old Slate podcast had been sponsored by #Pressing, and TNR was hosting a catered breakfast for myself, CNN pundits Van Jones and S.E. Cupp, and Politico's Mike Allen to talk to various staffers about important-sounding topics. Hughes and Foer introduced the proceedings, then sat to the side.
Their room wasn't full. Events sort of like that have proven to be extremely profitable for Slate and The Atlantic—audiences would buy tickets, corporations would buy banners, for "branded" talent to gab with each other. But TNR didn't invest much in more events, which reach influential people (or their interns) in Washington. Instead, it went for what Vidra termed, in now widely leaked and mocked comments, "breaking shit up." The ethos of "disrupting" an institution prevailed over the confidence in what was there.
Washington was always skeptical that Chris Hughes could "save" the New Republic. In the end, Washington was right, for the wrong reasons. At some point Hughes just stopped believing that the traditional policy magazine was worth saving.