The New Republic: Sometimes having the staff walk out can be a blessing, but not this time
New owner, having no experience in publishing, fails to communicate with his staff, and now must hire a new one – meanwhile, the next issue has been cancelled
I have a little experience with staffs that walk out the door, both voluntarily, and not voluntarily. It is nerve-racking, energizing, and sometimes a good thing… sometimes.
Last week much of the editorial staff of the New Republic decided it had had enough of its new owner, Chris Hughes, and resigned en mass. Much of the journalism community lashed out at the co-founder of Facebook’s handling of the affair. Hughes on Sunday was given the opportunity to respond via a The Washington Post column.“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,” Hughes 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.”
Post columnist Dana Milbank isn’t buying it.
“Hughes ousted his intellectual partner Foer without even the courtesy of telling him; Foer found out when his replacement, a man who previously had been fired as editor of the gossip website Gawker, began announcing himself as the new editor and offering people jobs. Most of the entire staff quit in protest, and the Hughes management team suspended publication until February,” Milbank wrote a day later.
(The man Milbank is referring to is former Atlantic Wire editor Gabriel Snyder, who let slip via Twitter that he was the new editor of the New Republic. Foer, who up to that point, was the editor had to call to confirm that he had been fired.)
As a newspaper and magazine publisher, believe it or not, I can feel for Hughes – I guess that makes me unusual for media observers, as most come from the journalism side of the business. I do, too. But I have been on the business side of publishing for so long that I have direct experience with difficult transitions from where Hughes sits.
After I experienced a couple of good years at McGraw-Hill, a new division president came on board and immediately began to tout reengineering. At first, the term seemed to mean rethinking the basics of the business – a good thing. But then it became apparent that the new division president meant the term to mean “an excuse to chop heads” – a bad thing.
The result was that one day I was tasked, as publisher, to inform an entire production department that they would be laid off. Production for our daily newspaper and monthly magazine, as well as our custom publishing projects, would no longer be housed in San Francisco, but the work sent to Los Angele and Baton Rouge. That was an awful day, and it only got worse as the days went by as the staff seemed to want to blame me for the decision. I thought it was a stupid, crazy idea, but the staff had no one to take it out on as the decision-maker worked in NYC, and I was close at hand.
I never blamed the staff for feeling betrayed, they had a right to feel that way. But the day they walked out of the building for the last time I almost felt relieved as they had taken it out on me for so long that I had grown tired of it. The next Monday I came to the office knowing that I would no longer have to feel the hatred, but knowing that the decision was still stupid and self-defeating. If I could have, I have hired them back in immediately. Too much talent and capabilities walked out the door that Friday. With six months I decided it was time for me to go, too.
My next job was at a magazine company in the Chicagoland area. Here, the company was not into reengineering, but it go reengineered anyway. Two months after joining the company I left for home (the Bay Area) for the holidays. When I returned I found a bunch of resignation letters on my desk. The sales staff (most of it, anyways) had decided to bolt to the competition.
None of it had anything to do with me, they just hated the company so much that they wanted to hurt it the one way they could, by selling the other magazine.
The owners of the company went into a panic, which was understandable. They had been fighting with the other company for so long, and trading lawsuits, that this seemed like the next battle in a long war. I hadn’t been at the company long enough to know why a staff would feel strong enough to resign and go to the other guys, but I knew it meant we were going to be in trouble in the short term.
I also knew that we would be better off in the long term. The old staff was definitely set in their ways, and a new staff could sell the magazine in the way I imagined. It meant the old staff would take its way of thinking to the competition, while my magazine would have a new start.
Within two years we were doing so well that I had to instruct my staff to no longer sell against the other magazine for fear that we might face a lawsuit. Our magazine was running at 60+ percent advertising and being perfect bound (occasionally) while their magazine was lucky to have a half-dozen pages of ads in an issue.
Sometimes, in other words, it is good to see the staff walk out the door.
Chris Hughes was probably embarrassed as hell by last week’s staff exodus. If he feels that things will be better in the long run, though, he may be kidding himself. The problem with the New Republic is that there is very little assets left – the editorial staff was it.
At 41K circulation, the magazine has little to build on. Its legacy may mean a lot to the journalism community, who can shake their fingers at Hughes all they want, it matters little to the readership as there is little readership there.
“At the heart of the conflict of the past few days is a divergent view on how the New Republic — and journalism more broadly — will survive,” Hughes wrote. “In one view, it is a “public trust” and not a business. It is something greater than a commercial enterprise, ineffable, an ideal that cannot be touched. Financially, it would be a charity.”
He is right. There is a lot of journalists today who seem to pine for a business model devoid of any commercial considerations, where dependence on advertising is avoided, if possible.
“For anyone who loves what makes the New Republic special — the valuable journalism that pours forth on its digital and print pages — and believes there ought to be more outlets committed to quality journalism rather than fewer, the current choice is clear: Either walk away mourning a certain death or set to work building its future. That means we have to embrace some change.”
The problem with this, though, is that change in business approach in order to sustain “quality journalism” means, well, sustaining quality journalism. That will prove difficult when the editorial staff has walked out the door, won’t it?
Hughes said that the former staff didn’t want the New Republic to be a business but a charity, pointing to a letter the staff wrote:
“The New Republic cannot be merely a “brand.” It has never been and cannot be a “media company” that markets “content.” Its essays, criticism, reportage, and poetry are not “product.” It is not, or not primarily, a business. It is a voice, even a cause.”
I think this is a gross misinterpretation of what the staff said. But, at the same time… give me a break. A cause? And, yes, is “essays, criticism, reportage, and poetry” are a product. That is what publishing is about: producing a product the public wants to buy. It can a good one, a noble one, a creative one, an innovative one – but, I sorry to say, it is a product. And in the case of the New Republic, one only 4iK wanted to buy.
Like my own experience at McGraw-Hill, this episode at the New Republic will likely not end well. The next issue has already been cancelled, and the next one will appear with a February date on it. Hughes will now get to hire a new staff and set a new direction. But other than being a digital brand, one really doubts he knows where to go from here.
Ultimately, Hughes is to blame for this miscommunication by firing the magazine’s editor (and not telling him) and not building his new digital brand along side the existing print magazine. He blew up his house before starting construction on the new one.