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'New Republic' Owner Defends Strategy Shift That Led Many To Quit


Chris Hughes, the owner and publisher of The New Republic is taking a pounding. Dozens of staffers and contributors of the small but admired liberal magazine quit last week, assailing their former boss as they walked out the door. Some critics have even declared The New Republic dead and named Hughes as its killer.

Well, Chris Hughes is ready to explain himself. Today he spoke to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about the shakeup at the magazine.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Here's the pat version of how Chris Hughes sees his job.

CHRIS HUGHES: I bought The New Republic about two-and-a-half years ago and, as its owner, see my role as being its steward. This place has been around for a hundred years and is built on some pretty important values of provocative argumentation and covering politics and culture as deeply as possible.

FOLKENFLIK: Hughes is 31 and has a fortune valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, based on his role in helping to found the social media giant Facebook. He has invested significant new funds and been running annual deficits since taking over The New Republic. But the steward triggered chaos inside his newsroom last week by hiring a new editor before telling the old one he had been fired. My bad, Hughes says.

HUGHES: There's no sugar-coating it. We got scooped and as a result, my conversation had to be over the phone, and I would've much preferred for it to be in person, face-to-face, privately.

FOLKENFLIK: The editor Hughes had hired and has now replaced, Franklin Foer, clashed with his new CEO, Guy Vidra. And Hughes and Foer grew apart as well, largely over Hughes's mounting conclusion that The New Republic needed to change more rapidly. More than half its revenue now comes from the digital side. And, Hughes says...

HUGHES: I do think that we need to appeal to a large and diverse set of readers. The days when you could just appeal to a small, frankly, white, male elite are over. I think that our journalism should be read by young and old, and Washington, and outside of Washington across the country.

FOLKENFLIK: Foer resigned last week after learning journalists were being approached to work at The New Republic by a new editor. A mass exodus by the magazine staff followed, in solidarity with Foer, but also because of anxiety about the publication's future under Hughes and Vidra.

JULIA IOFFE: In that first meeting when Guy was telling us in very generic terms what he was planning to do with the company, he kept talking about breaking stuff. You know - we're going to break stuff, we're going to break stuff. It took me a really long time to understand that he wasn't talking about breaking news.

FOLKENFLIK: Julia Ioffe is - well, was a senior editor at The New Republic until last week. She says she wrote online far more than in print and that the staff was eager to embrace a more digital future. Its web traffic has basically doubled in the past year, she says.

IOFFE: This narrative that's emerged in the last few days from Chris and Guy that we didn't understand their vision, that this was a misunderstanding, that they were trying to communicate some kind of vision to us - first, they weren't. They were barely communicating. I couldn't tell you what their vision is. It was so vague and so full of Silicon Valley buzzwords that I couldn't really tell you.

FOLKENFLIK: Hughes now calls The New Republic a vertically-integrated digital media company. In his telling, its long form reporting on politics and culture will share space online with sophisticated visual storytelling. Hughes argues that a magazine doesn't have to become a monster viral success, like BuzzFeed, to succeed in the digital space. He praised The Atlantic - another esteemed magazine that has reinvented itself - and Vice, which has come out of nowhere to mix the sensibility of a men's magazine with that of a documentary production company.

HUGHES: I did not come to this place to preserve a calcified institution. I came to make sure that the kind of journalism that it's done historically continues to happen not just, you know, today or tomorrow but for - hopefully for decades to come.

FOLKENFLIK: Hughes called himself a steward of The New Republic's traditions on the very morning he announced he was buying the magazine. But if he succeeds, he'll be the steward of a very different outfit with a largely new cast.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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